The second half of the WNBA has arrived, and while Minnesota appears to be the front-runner, the list of potential title contenders appears longer -- or at least perhaps less obvious -- than it has in the past few seasons.
Minnesota holds the best record in the league at 12-4. And while the Lynx suddenly have some health issues with injuries to Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen, the team welcomed a big addition Monday: A three-team trade brought center Sylvia Fowles, who sat out the first half of the season after requesting a trade from Chicago, to Minnesota.
The Western Conference is split between teams that are playing strong, if not dominant basketball, in Tulsa and Phoenix, and even those with losing records (San Antonio, Seattle and Los Angeles) who will be battling for the division's last playoff spot. The Sparks are hoping the return of Candace Parker will catapult them into playoff position.
In the East, the standings are bunched like they always are, but this time, there are teams playing well enough to shift the balance of power in the WNBA. New York might be the hottest team in the league, off to the franchise's best start since going 16-5 in 2001. Chicago has the MVP favorite in Elena Delle Donne and Connecticut is looking to regain its momentum after ending a six-game losing streak Wednesday with a big win at Minnesota.
Here we hand out grades for each WNBA team for the first half of the season and look ahead of what's to come the rest of the way:
Listed in order of conference standings.
What has worked: Minnesota is experienced at both winning and playing together, serving the team well to start this tumultuous WNBA season. The Lynx rank third in the league in scoring (77.7 PPG) and Maya Moore is having another MVP-caliber season, scoring at least 20 points in eight straight games (and earning All-Star Game MVP honors with a 30-point performance Saturday).
What needs work: The Lynx are going to have to figure out how to survive in the second half of the season without Augustus on the floor. She is out indefinitely after undergoing arthroscopic right knee surgery in mid-July. Whalen's eye injury also casts some doubt on the depth in the backcourt, though the veteran point guard will likely return within the week. Still, that's why the Lynx went and got Renee Montgomery from Seattle.
Heading into the break, last Tuesday's overtime loss at home to Connecticut could have been a portend of a rougher second half for the title favorites, but things are looking positive with Monday's trade. Fowles is a 6-foot-5 center with career averages of 15.7 PPG and 9.8 RPG. She should fit right in with USA Basketball teammates Moore, Whalen and Augustus, the latter of whom was Fowles' college teammate at LSU.
What has worked: When Brittney Griner is in the lineup, the Mercury are a very good team. After going 3-4 while she missed the first seven games of the season serving a suspension, they are 6-3 with her back in the lineup, including a run of six straight wins between June 30 and July 14. Griner is averaging 17.4 points and 7.9 rebounds through nine games. DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree are picking up the scoring slack from Diana Taurasi's absence in the lineup. The Mercury have fewer turnovers than any team in the WNBA -- just 12.07 per game -- and are on pace to set the league record in that category.
What needs work: Consistency. The Mercury are 3-4 on the road and 0-2 so far against the East. Phoenix needs to start playing at a higher level throughout the second half to look like a team capable of defending its title.
What has worked: The Shock have had a lot of success scoring in their backcourt with Skylar Diggins (when she was healthy) and Riquna Williams rounding into her 2013 form. Tulsa leads the league in 3-pointers made per game (6.8). Odyssey Sims' health and her ability to be a big offensive factor determines how well this team will hold up without Diggins, who suffered a torn ACL in late June. Sims has been back in the lineup the past five games after missing nearly a month with a knee injury. She has scored in double figures in four of those games.
What needs work: The Shock are still trying to figure out how to play without the spark that Diggins provided. They went into the All-Star break with four straight losses and two wins in their last nine games. They need more scoring help inside to support Plenette Pierson.
What has worked: The Stars are at their best when they are balanced offensively. Case in point, in their win over Indiana on Tuesday, four players scored in double figures. Second-year guard Kayla McBride is starting to come on strong, scoring in double figures in each of the last seven games, averaging 15.0 points per game over that stretch.
What needs work: The Stars, who gave up an average of 88 points over a three-game losing stretch last week before winning at home against Indiana, need to play more consistent defense in the second half. They need Jia Perkins and Alex Montgomery back on the floor after missing significant time with injuries, and they need to win on the road. They are one of two teams in the league without a road win this season (Los Angeles is the other).
What has worked: Considering how many young players the Storm are riding at this point, the news isn't all bad, despite a record that looks rough on paper. Rookie guard Jewell Loyd is settling into the starting lineup, averaging 9.7 points per game. Ramu Tokashiki, the center from Japan, is finding her WNBA game and getting valuable minutes. Veteran point guard Sue Bird leads the league in assists (5.5 per game) and Crystal Langhorne leads in field goal percentage (57 percent). Four of Seattle's five wins have come at home.
What needs work: Seattle -- which is 1-8 on the road -- ranks last in the league in scoring (69.7 PPG) and rebounding (29.4 RPG). Not much more needs be said.
What has worked: Not a lot has worked well for a Sparks team struggling without Parker and Alana Beard on the floor. But Parker, who sat out the first half of the season to rest her body, and Beard, who played only the first two games of the season before suffering an injury, are both on the way back. This should do wonders for Brian Agler's team, which is looking for a way to finish off games and climb back into the postseason picture.
What needs work: It's no coincidence that the team with the league's worst record also ranks near the bottom in scoring (70.1 PPG). The Sparks -- who opened the season with seven consecutive losses -- have yet to win a road game. Parker's return will perhaps give Los Angeles enough confidence to go on the road and not merely compete, but win.
What has worked: The Liberty, who are in sole possession of first in the East with a five-game win streak, are the best rebounding team in the league through the All-Star break, averaging 38.8 per game. They are getting big contributions from Tina Charles every night, and the presence of guard Epiphanny Prince gives them more offensive punch. Prince has scored in double figures in all seven games since she joined the lineup after returning from the European championships.
What needs work: New York is not a perimeter team. It is averaging a league-low 3.3 3-pointers per game. If Prince gets hot, that could allow New York to get more separation from the bottom half of a competitive conference. Teams in this league that go a long way can usually bury some 3-pointers when they need to.
What has worked: Offense. Led by Delle Donne, the Sky are the league's highest-scoring team at 85.8 PPG and are shooting 46.5 percent from the floor. Four players, including Delle Donne, Cappie Pondexter, Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, are averaging double-figures scoring. The Sky are very comfortable on their home floor, with the league's best home record at 7-1. All bodes well for another long playoff run.
What needs work: This is not the deepest team out there. A key injury or two could seriously derail the Sky, although Chicago got a big boost Monday with the addition of Erika de Souza via the three-team trade that sent Fowles to Minnesota. De Souza, a 6-5 center who played the last eight seasons in Atlanta, is averaging 8.6 PPG and 7.5 RPG this season. Chicago leads the league in scoring and ranks fourth in rebounds (36.1 per game). de Souza should only help boost those numbers.
What has worked: The Mystics went into the All-Star break with three straight wins -- the team's longest winning streak of the season. The best thing Washington has going is its great play in a young frontcourt with Stefanie Dolson and Emma Meesseman leading the way. Dolson leads the team in scoring and rebounding. Recent arrival LaToya Sanders, who had not played in the league in three years, has averaged close to 10 points a game in the five games since she returned to give the Mystics a big lift.
What needs work: Washington doesn't have the backcourt scoring of most of the teams in the WNBA and most of its offensive numbers are in the bottom half of the league. The Mystics can make the playoffs as a middle-of-the-road offensive team, but a title run is a different matter.
What has worked: The Sun got off to a great start at 6-1 but lost their momentum. They are looking to get it back in the second half. Connecticut is setting a tone defensively, leading the league with 10.1 steals per game. And the Sun are getting a variety of contributions with nine players averaging double figures in minutes and taking turns leading the Sun in scoring. All-Stars Alex Bentley and Kelsey Bone are leading the way.
What needs work: The Sun, who lost six of seven before the break, have been struggling with foul trouble as of late and it's costing them, not only in minutes on the floor but at the free throw line. Connecticut also needs to take better advantage of its home court. Going 3-4 at home isn't how a team gets back into the playoff hunt.
What has worked: Considering an 0-3 start, the Fever are once again right in the postseason picture in the East. Indiana leads the league in 3-point percentage (37.6 percent) and is getting great contributions from the bench, which has outscored its opponents' bench in all eight wins this season. Marissa Coleman's best professional season is proving a great complement to the play of Tamika Catchings, who is closing in on becoming the league's second all-time leading scorer behind Tina Thompson.
What needs work: The Fever need to do the things that made them successful during a five-game winning streak that brought them to .500 after a 3-6 start -- minimize turnovers, play good defense and limit points on the perimeter.
What has worked: Despite their lackluster play in the first half of the season, the Dream are hardly out of the playoff picture and are happy to have Tiffany Hayes back on the floor upon her return from the European championships. Hayes is averaging 11.3 points per game in the six games she has played. Sancho Lyttle's absence from the lineup (foot injury) makes Hayes' scoring all the more necessary to complement Angel McCoughtry, who has put up double-digit points in every game so far this season.
What needs work: This is a team that will live or die by the kind of defense it plays. When the Dream hold an opponent to fewer than 80 points, they are 7-2. When they give up more than 80, they are 0-7. And it's hard to keep a team from scoring when you keep giving them the ball. Atlanta leads the league in turnovers with 17.8 per game. Also, Atlanta ranks fifth in the league with 35.1 RPG, but will that hold up with de Souza gone?