The 2021 WNBA season isn't even three weeks old. No one is saying it's time to panic. But with six teams below .500 -- including three franchises that have won WNBA championships since 2016 -- which squads do we have the most faith in to turn around their seasons and make a playoff push? And how will those teams continue to be impacted by late arrivals and injuries?
Our panel -- ESPN's Kelly Cohen, Dana Lee and Kevin Pelton, as well as The Undefeated's Sean Hurd -- examines the teams they expect to bounce back as the season progresses. Plus, we identify the early front-runners for the WNBA's 2021 Most Improved Player award, and take a look at which injuries will have the biggest impact on the rest of the season.
Which team in the bottom half of the WNBA standings has the most potential to turn it around and earn a bye in the playoffs?
Kelly Cohen: The Chicago Sky (2-5) looked fantastic to open the season, winning two straight road games. Then injuries to Candace Parker and Allie Quigley set in, and the team is still without Stefanie Dolson due to 3x3 USA Basketball commitments. Missing those three players has clearly thrown the Sky out of sync; they're on a five-game losing streak. It's hard to build chemistry and close out games when your stars are missing and your bench is depleted. Hopefully Parker and Quigley will return -- they are both still listed as day-to-day -- and Dolson will be back soon too now that Team USA has qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. I had so much faith in the Sky to start the season, so I am going to stick with it and say they will turn it around once they get those players back and rebuild that chemistry.
Dana Lee: We touched on some of the reasons why last week, but the Minnesota Lynx (1-4) and Dallas Wings (2-4) are better than their records indicate. Even so, I feel better about the Washington Mystics' playoff bid once Elena Delle Donne returns. Despite missing the two-time MVP, the Mystics (2-4) defeated the Liberty by 29 on May 21, and competed against a very good Sun team before losing on Friday. Currently sitting in eighth place in the standings -- right on the bubble -- Washington still has time to solidify a playoff spot. Delle Donne's return isn't the solution for all of the Mystics' problems, but it certainly makes me feel better about their playoff chances. In the meantime, Tina Charles is playing the best basketball of her career, leading the league in points per game (26.7).
Kevin Pelton: I'll take the Lynx, my (perhaps regrettable?) preseason title pick. After adjusting for what has been the league's most difficult schedule to date, including two meetings each with the top two teams in the standings (the Connecticut Sun and Seattle Storm), Minnesota has performed better so far than Chicago and Washington. And unlike those teams, the Lynx already have their star back after Napheesa Collier missed the first three games of the season due to her overseas season in France ending late. Collier and new addition Layshia Clarendon came up big in overtime as Minnesota got its first win Sunday over the Sun.
Almost three weeks in, who's the front-runner for the WNBA's 2021 Most Improved Player award?
Cohen: I went back and forth, but Marina Mabrey has been on a tear this season. In six games, she's averaging 19.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. Mabrey is shooting 48.8% from the floor. In all major statistical categories, she has improved drastically from last season with the Dallas Wings (and is also averaging 9.4 more minutes per game in 2021). She averaged 10.6 PPG in 2020! The third-year guard looks very comfortable alongside Arike Ogunbowale. Mabrey -- the No. 19 overall pick by the Los Angeles Sparks in the 2019 draft -- gives a well-rounded performance every game and is an asset for the Wings as they work to possibly make the playoffs this season.
Pelton: I'm also picking Mabrey, who was a shocking second per game in my wins above replacement player metric (behind MVP front-runner Jonquel Jones) before an off shooting night (4-of-14) on Tuesday. If Mabrey can't keep up shooting that has her threatening to join Elena Delle Donne in the WNBA's 50-40-90 club, Crystal Bradford is an interesting candidate. Six years after playing her lone season as a first-round pick by the Sparks, Bradford is back in the league and has jumped several more prominent players to earn reserve minutes with the Atlanta Dream.
Sean Hurd: Definitely can't argue with the selection of Mabrey. I went back and forth between Natisha Hiedeman and Jackie Young. Ultimately, I'm going with Hiedeman at this point in the season. She has been a great spark for the Sun on both sides of the ball in an elevated role. Hiedeman ranks in the top 10 in steals per game, is top 20 in 3-pointers made per game and has scored at least 10 or more points in four games this season -- something she only did twice in 2020. She also has a top-five 3-point celebration. The Sun don't need star-level production from Hiedeman, but her contributions to the team have been crucial to Connecticut's early success. Hiedeman could potentially be competing for this award with teammate Brionna Jones, who has emerged into a pivotal frontcourt piece for the Sun.
What are the biggest challenges the Storm face with Dan Hughes stepping down and Noelle Quinn taking over in her first stint as a head coach?
Pelton: The big question to me is one Hughes would have faced: How to handle playing time in the frontcourt? The Storm signed veteran Candice Dupree to a big one-year deal as a free agent and she opened the season as the starter alongside Breanna Stewart. But Dupree isn't a natural center and 6-foot-6 Mercedes Russell has proven a better fit in the starting five. The team's current starting lineup with Russell (and Stephanie Talbot at small forward in place of Katie Lou Samuelson, who was also part of the USA Basketball 3x3 team for the Olympic Qualifying Tournament) has outscored opponents by 34.7 points per 100 possessions, easily the best of any lineup with at least 50 minutes played according to WNBA Advanced Stats.
If Russell sticks as a starter, Quinn will have to find enough playing time to keep Dupree happy. She expressed to Hughes a willingness to come off the bench, but also has said she wants a consistent role rather than yo-yoing in and out of the starting lineup. And the eight minutes Dupree played against Connecticut last week with Quinn in charge raised eyebrows.
Lee: The Storm's biggest challenge might be as simple as maintaining their current level of play, which is the type of problem afforded to 6-1 teams. On paper, it should be a seamless transition when you consider: 1) Quinn is familiar with the organization on multiple fronts, having played for Hughes and the Storm in 2018. 2) The Storm have been in a similar position before; last season assistant Gary Kloppenburg filled in when Hughes was unable to coach in the bubble due to medical reasons. The team won a championship and now it's experience the Storm can draw on.
Kevin mentioned a factoid here I want to highlight: Quinn is now the third active head coach to have played in the league, joining the Wings' Vickie Johnson and Mercury's Sandy Brondello. All three were former assistants for Hughes. That's a nice coaching tree. I know the roundtable question was about challenges, but there's so many positives about Quinn's hiring, including the potential for other former players to follow her path.
With so many players sidelined right now, which injury will have the biggest impact on her team and the overall league race?
Cohen: She was mentioned earlier, but I can't look past Delle Donne's absence with the Mystics. Washington has won two games, despite Charles' MVP-caliber play. The Mystics rank eighth in points per game (78.3) -- they averaged 80.0 PPG in 2020 and 89.3 during their championship season in 2019 -- and missing the two-time MVP is probably why. Delle Donne has been rehabbing from a pair of back surgeries, has not played basketball since October 2019, and told ESPN on Wednesday that she does not have a timetable for her return. The Mystics have shown flashes of good play, but you have to think that having Delle Donne back would help put the team back in some rhythm and at least get them to the playoffs.
Lee: The good news is the New York Liberty have shown they can win without Natasha Howard. She joined the team just last week after returning from Italy, but then suffered an MCL sprain that will sideline her for 4-6 weeks. That hurts, especially defensively. Howard ranked third in the league in total rebound percentage last season with Seattle and would've provided a welcome boost for a team currently ranked 11th in second-chance points allowed. The best way to gauge what the Liberty look like without Howard will be in the next two weeks, when the Liberty play the Aces, Sun and Phoenix Mercury.
Pelton: The challenge to answering this is we still don't know how long Delle Donne and Parker might be out. Howard should be back in plenty of time for the post-Olympic part of the schedule, giving her the practice time she missed out on during training camp, and New York is still in position to battle for a top-four seed. So I'm inclined to say Delle Donne, who still has yet to play with Charles more than a year after the Mystics dealt for the former MVP as defending champs back in April 2020.