WNBA halfway to its best season ever

Diana Taurasi, 36, remains one of the top players and MVP candidates in the WNBA. David Joles/Star Tribune via AP

There's a compelling argument to be made that no first half in WNBA history has been better than this one. More entertaining, more competitive, more full of surprises.

Who expected the defending champion Lynx to start 3-6, or the runner-up Sparks to lose five of six in the middle of the season with all its stars in the lineup?

We all knew A'ja Wilson would be good, but this dominant? Anybody see Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird turning back the clock the way they have? Or so many teams bunched near the top of the standings?

Consider this: Los Angeles and Minnesota, finalists the past two years, could end up in one-and-done playoff games, perhaps against each other. Anyone see that coming?

Let's take a closer look at a terrific first half, and what might be in store for the second.

Young guns thriving

Rookies aren't supposed to walk into the WNBA and dominate. But Wilson, the 6-foot-4 center from South Carolina and the espnW 2017-18 national college player of the year, is doing just that for Las Vegas. Through Tuesday, Wilson, the first pick in the draft, ranked second in the league in scoring (20.6), third in rebounding (8.5) and sixth in blocks (1.7) while leading rookies in all three categories.

Indiana's Kelsey Mitchell, Chicago's Diamond DeShields, Washington's Ariel Atkins and Seattle's Jordin Canada likewise are making significant impacts in their debut seasons. And UConn product Kia Nurse broke New York's rookie record with 34 points in an overtime win over Indiana in early June.

In a season in which Seattle's Breanna Stewart, in just her third year, leads the league in scoring, youth is clearly on the rise. Four of the six players averaging 20 or more points per game are 27 or younger: Stewart, Wilson, Liz Cambage of Dallas and Brittney Griner of Phoenix. Also falling into the age bracket are Kayla McBride of Las Vegas and Skylar Diggins-Smith of Dallas, who are both just below the 20-point threshold. The league record for most players averaging 20 points is four, set in 2010; a half dozen or more could finish there this time.

Thirtysomethings straight arming Father Time

Taurasi. Bird. Rebekkah Brunson. Three of the league's all-time greats, still effective into their mid-30s.

Taurasi, 36, ranks seventh in scoring (19.6 points) and fifth in assists (4.7). Bird, 37, who is running the floor as well as always, sits second in assists (7.4) while averaging 9.8 points for one of the league's most improved teams. Brunson, 36, broke the league's career record for rebounding and posted back-to-back double-doubles in early July.

With more players limiting or skipping overseas play, and focusing on better nutrition, older doesn't necessarily mean old anymore.

"You think about so many players discovering earlier in their careers how to take care of their bodies," said Indiana Coach Pokey Chatman, who recently signed 35-year-old Cappie Pondexter to tutor her young guards. "Not just eating better during a season, but prior to. Even finding places to go that help their body. People don't think about this, but Cappie went to Australia one year. That's one game a week. That's less wear and tear on your body. Now she's what, 35 going on 30?

"You learn how to use the fuel that's in your tank. I'm not saying on the court that they rest. They learn how to get their bodies ready, their minds ready. They play a game at a higher level mentally, and that helps them physically."

MVP contenders coast to coast

Just when you think you can identify the MVP front-runners, someone shakes up the order. We took a shot at the top six last week. Within a few days, Maya Moore slipped, Taurasi rose (she should have been higher in the first place, right, Mercury fans?), and Washington's Elena Delle Donne muscled her way in. And there's still time for someone else to squeeze into the conversation.

A lot of this, of course, depends on which teams land the top two playoff seeds. It might be hard to vote against Stewart if Seattle secures the No. 1 seed, though Taurasi's overall impact on Phoenix can't be discounted.

Seven teams for two spots

Usually by now, the race for the top two seeds and those precious byes into the semifinals are down two or three teams. Not this year. Just past the halfway point, Seattle (15-6) and Phoenix (14-7) are the leaders. But through Tuesday, five more -- Washington (12-7), Los Angeles (13-8), Minnesota (11-8), Dallas (11-8) and Connecticut (10-9) -- were within three games of the second bye.

More and more, this is shaping up to be the first season since 2015 where the two best teams finish with 10 or more losses. The influx of college and international talent the past four years boosted the talent and level of play league-wide. Only four teams have losing records, and two of those -- Indiana and Chicago -- own victories over defending champion Minnesota.

"What we do know is, every team is capable of beating the other, first through 12th, if the other one doesn't play," Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve said a few days before the 1-16 Fever confirmed her insight by beating the unfocused Lynx at the Target Center.

"I guess it wouldn't be surprising to see all the [top] teams having more losses than in years past because of all the parity," Reeve said. "Where we are as a team, it's harder to keep doing what you do as you see that gap closing. From our perspective, we've seen that happening and that gap closing, closing, closing. Every team has not one or two good players, but three and four good players. If you don't come to play, you're going to get beat, period."