The WNBA's 26th season begins this weekend with hearts and minds on one player who won't be in uniform: Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, who has been detained in Russia since February. The Mercury and the league will keep her situation in the public eye, but Phoenix also has to figure out how to adjust without one of the franchise's mainstays since 2013. And the Mercury will need to do that under a new coach in Vanessa Nygaard.
Some players, such as Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles and Seattle Storm guard Briann January, have announced this will be their final WNBA season, while that also might be the case for Storm guard Sue Bird. On the other end of the spectrum is a rookie class looking to prove itself, led by No. 1 pick Rhyne Howard of the Atlanta Dream.
Liz Cambage, who joins the Los Angeles Sparks after their rare postseason miss last year, is the biggest name who is in a different place this season. The Washington Mystics, who also missed the 2021 playoffs, hope to have forward/guard Elena Delle Donne for the whole season after she missed 2020 and all but three games last year.
The WNBA will have its All-Star Game for the first time in Chicago, home of the defending champion Chicago Sky, the second version of the Commissioner's Cup competition and a compact schedule due to the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup that begins in September. ESPN's Kevin Pelton, Alexa Philippou and Mechelle Voepel look at some of the key questions heading into the season and make their preseason predictions for the league's biggest awards and honors.
Connecticut and Las Vegas (both +350) have the best championship odds at Caesars Sportsbook. Based on those odds, which team offers the best value as a title pick?
Pelton: Despite the lowest odds, I'm going with the Sun. Connecticut was the league's best team in the 2021 regular season with limited contributions from Alyssa Thomas, who played just three games returning from an Achilles rupture. With Thomas healthy and the return of Courtney Williams, the Sun now have four of the five starters from the team that got within a win of the 2019 title. If anything, Connecticut has upgraded on that 2019 group with the subsequent addition of DeWanna Bonner and development of Brionna Jones. To me, the Sun are clearly the league's best team.
Voepel: The Sun have all the pieces, and they should be very hungry after last season's semifinal exit. At this point, they are a very good pick to win the franchise's first championship and seem more of a favorite than Las Vegas. But it's also interesting that Seattle and 2021 champion Chicago are next in odds at +500. It's oft-repeated that the league hasn't had a repeat champion since Los Angeles in 2001-02. Last year, after going .500 in the regular season, the Sky hit their stride in the playoffs. That, of course, is the key: You don't have to be the best team all season, just at the end.
If Breanna Stewart stays healthy for the Storm, they also might have a strong chance at the franchise's fifth title. I'm also not going to write off Minnesota or Phoenix, because both could make a playoff run. And might Washington also rise to the occasion? We always can predict a little better after much of the season plays out and we see, unfortunately, what injuries take their toll. I wouldn't want to put big money on a specific team to win at this point.
Philippou: Odds aside (sorry, I'm no fun), I'm going with the Storm. First of all, when's the last time Breanna Stewart hasn't won a title when healthy? 2017? Jewell Loyd is only getting better and better as the years go by, and everyone is going to want to send Sue Bird off into the sunset with her fifth WNBA title. I also think the free-agency additions of Gabby Williams and Briann January will get this team back on the right foot defensively, especially if Williams' standout overseas play translates into the W, and this could be a breakout year for Ezi Magbegor.
We're split on the preseason pick for MVP. What does that say about the talent in the league, and whom are you picking?
Pelton: It says the title of best player in the world is up for grabs. We've had six different MVPs in the past six seasons and there's a good chance one of the past four winners -- Elena Delle Donne, Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart and A'ja Wilson -- will claim another one and make a statement in the process. Although Wilson was third on ESPN's preseason ranking of the league's best players, she's my MVP pick because I think she's better positioned to put up big numbers this season with the Aces moving on from Liz Cambage and emphasizing spacing the floor around Wilson.
Voepel: There are some seasons where one player establishes herself as MVP early on -- think Delle Donne in 2019 with Washington -- and then other seasons where several players are in the running, and it might be based on which one's team has the best season. There are multiple candidates this year, but as a preseason pick I don't think you can go wrong with Stewart. All five of her seasons have been MVP-caliber, including her rookie year. If she had not been out with injury for the 2021 playoffs, who knows how far the Storm would have gone.
Philippou: Only once has a WNBA MVP repeated in back-to-back years (Cynthia Cooper in '97 and '98), so maybe picking Jonquel Jones to win again feels like a stretch, but it's hard to imagine the 6-foot-6 multifaceted threat slowing down anytime soon. Jones' 2021 campaign -- and even her performance overseas mid-WNBA season with the Bosnian national team -- helped stake her claim as the best player in the world. With her confidence never higher, old teammate Courtney Williams back into the fold, a bit of a physical and mental break after returning from Russia, and a hunger to win a championship after she and the Sun fell short her last two seasons in the league, Jones might not be ready to give up that mantle anytime soon. Yes, even with a healthy Stewart back in the league. That said, I hope we get a summer (and early fall?) full of Jones-Stewart matchups.
A lot of talented players were released this week as rosters were finalized, with some teams carrying only 11 players because of the hard salary cap. WNBA fans and players tweeted out pleas for the league to find a way to keep rookies as contract players on rosters to develop young talent. What's the solution?
Voepel: If this is really of utmost importance to WNBA players, they probably should have made it a bigger priority in the negotiations for the 2020 collective bargaining agreement. They wanted larger salaries, and they got those by agreeing to prioritization, which might not work out well for either side. With a hard salary cap and the salaries that top players want to get, teams have to make tough decisions. Those now tend to impact mid-tier-level veterans and rookies/young players who have talent but need more time to develop. Spots are difficult enough to get on 12-player rosters -- and harder with teams that go with 11 because of the cap.
The solution is the same thing it always is: more money. Where does that come from? The WNBA did a capital raise this year by selling equity in the league, and it seems that will largely go toward marketing, which is hoped to lead to expansion. It has been 14 years since the league expanded (in Atlanta), with two franchises relocating in that time (to Tulsa/Dallas and Las Vegas). No one would argue that the league needs to have more teams to obtain a better national footprint and to provide more jobs to players who are good enough to be pros. But it has been difficult to find committed new owners.
While we continue to wait for franchise expansion, the idea of roster expansion would require a larger salary cap or maybe something out of the box, such as allowing each team to keep one rookie outside the cap, or perhaps a couple of players with limited experience outside of it. This would have to be agreed to by owners and the union, and it has to be paid for. In terms of other forms of player development, maybe there is a chance of partnering in some way with Athletes Unlimited, the league that began earlier this year playing a five-week season in Las Vegas.
Everyone who is involved in or follows the WNBA knows the league is dealing with a math problem when it comes to bringing in new talent. I doubt players in high school and college are as aware of this as they need to be for their futures. For most, their odds of getting a WNBA roster spot are really low. Even All-Americans can get cut.
Pelton: To some extent, I think this problem will ease as teams get more comfortable with the new salary cap. They spent freely in the 2020 and 2021 offseasons without considering the long-term implications as players moved from smaller salaries dating back to the previous collective bargaining agreement to the higher maximum salaries now possible. As teams adjust, I think more will likely keep 12 players. Still, there's no doubt that expanded rosters will help the league. As Voepel said, it's really about getting owners behind the need for that investment.
Philippou: Whether the current roster crunch lasts in such an acute manner, the WNBA needs to be looking at ways to allow roster flexibility, regardless of when franchise expansion ultimately occurs. I'd be interested in seeing roster sizes increase from 12 to 15 -- yes, I know that would cost more money; I think we all are realistic in knowing that the owners' level of investment is what'll make the difference here -- and also the incorporation of an injured reserve (the current hardship exemption system is rather unideal). I'm intrigued, too, by the idea of a soft cap with a luxury tax, as Stewart and Sun coach Curt Miller have alluded to, while recognizing that might not be the most realistic alternative at this time.
Of the four teams that missed the playoffs last season, which will be the most improved this summer?
Pelton: The Los Angeles Sparks. The Sparks spent the offseason betting on talent, adding Chennedy Carter and Katie Lou Samuelson via trade and Cambage and Jordin Canada in free agency. How those players will fit in with the existing ones in L.A., including 2016 MVP Nneka Ogwumike, remains to be seen. There's little doubt, however, that the Sparks are more talented and deeper than they were last season -- their first in the lottery since they drafted Ogwumike No. 1 overall in 2012.
Voepel: Los Angeles is a great choice, especially if the Sparks get the best version of Cambage. But I will mention the Washington Mystics. If Delle Donne is healthy -- yes, that is the phrase that basically defines the Mystics -- all the players around her become better. And if Alysha Clark comes back strong, too, after missing last season with a foot injury, we're looking at another team that could make a playoff run.
As for Indiana and Atlanta, it doesn't seem like the playoffs are in the cards for either, again, in 2022. But if both can make some tangible progress led by their rookies and other young players, that will be considered a success.
Philippou: I have to go with the Sparks, too. Bringing in Cambage from Vegas should help address their rebounding problems from last year. Their offensive rating was also dead last in 2021, but that shouldn't be as much of a problem this season given their free-agency additions -- and as long as they don't get hit by the injury bug as horribly as they did last year. Derek Fisher told reporters this week that he opted to keep Lexie Brown and Amy Atwell on the team's opening-day roster because of the floor spacing they provide (Atwell went 6-for-6 on 3s in the team's preseason game last week!). With those two and eventually Samuelson aboard, I'll be keeping my eye on whether those shooters succeed in giving Cambage and Ogwumike enough space to operate inside.
Which player is your preseason pick for MVP?
Kevin Pelton: A'ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces
Alexa Philippou: Jonquel Jones, Connecticut Sun
Mechelle Voepel: Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm
Who is your pick for preseason Rookie of the Year?
Pelton: Rhyne Howard, Atlanta Dream
Philippou: Rhyne Howard, Atlanta Dream
Voepel: NaLyssa Smith, Indiana Fever
Who is your preseason Defensive Player of the Year?
Pelton: Jonquel Jones, Connecticut Sun
Philippou: Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut Sun
Voepel: Sylvia Fowles, Minnesota Lynx
Who is your preseason Most Improved Player?
Pelton: Sabrina Ionescu, New York Liberty
Philippou: Chennedy Carter, Los Angeles Sparks
Voepel: Gabby Williams, Seattle Storm
Which five players -- two guards, two forwards, one center -- will make the All-WNBA first team?
Pelton: Skylar Diggins-Smith, Arike Ogunbowale, Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart, A'ja Wilson
Philippou: Courtney Vandersloot, Jewell Loyd, Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart, A'ja Wilson
Voepel: Arike Ogunbowale, Jewell Loyd, Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones, A'ja Wilson
Which teams will meet in the WNBA Finals?
Pelton: Connecticut Sun vs. Chicago Sky
Philippou: Connecticut Sun vs. Seattle Storm
Voepel: Connecticut Sun vs. Seattle Storm
Which team will win the 2022 WNBA title?
Pelton: Connecticut Sun
Philippou: Seattle Storm
Voepel: Connecticut Sun