What have we learned about WNBA teams so far during the 2022 season?
Thursday marks the one-third point of the league's expanded regular season, making this an ideal time to take a look at the first 12 games or so for each team and offer takeaways.
Although the 36-game schedule gives teams a bit more time to change their fortunes, typically by this point in the WNBA calendar the contenders have separated themselves from the pretenders. Setting aside the shortened 2020 season, teams have historically finished within two wins either way of their pace through the first 12 games precisely half the time.
That's great news for the Las Vegas Aces (10-2) and Connecticut Sun (10-3), who have separated themselves as the league's top two teams thus far. It also helps explain why the Indiana Fever (3-11) and Los Angeles Sparks (5-7) have been motivated to make midseason coaching changes.
Let's go through all 12 WNBA teams and see the most important things we've learned about them based on the first month of the season.
Atlanta Dream: The pieces are in place
This looked like a building season for the Dream, who have just one player (post Cheyenne Parker) under contract for more than $80,000 for 2023, giving them the ability to be aggressive in free agency. That Atlanta appears headed back to the playoffs at 7-5 is testament to No. 1 overall pick Rhyne Howard and first-year head coach Tanisha Wright, who look like building blocks for the next great Dream team.
Although Howard has predictably cooled off after starting the season 21-of-45 (47%) from 3 -- she's 15-of-44 (34%) since -- her size, shooting ability and disruptive defense have made her the most impactful rookie since Napheesa Collier and Arike Ogunbowale in 2019.
Meanwhile, Wright has Atlanta atop the league in defensive rating. The Dream can expect some regression in terms of opponent shooting (teams are shooting a league-low 31% on attempts outside the paint) but have defended the paint shockingly well given a lack of traditional rim protection after Elizabeth Williams' departure.
Chicago Sky: Lurking as repeat contenders
After going from 16-16 in the regular season to the WNBA title in 2021, Chicago looks headed toward an easier playoff path this time around. The Sky sit third in the standings at 7-4 as well as in point differential (plus-4.7 PPG). After a sluggish start, Chicago has gone 5-1 since Kahleah Copper returned from international play, with the only loss coming to the Aces.
We still haven't seen the Sky at full strength, as newcomer Julie Allemand was one of two WNBA players playing in France, where the playoffs ran long. Chicago coach James Wade told reporters Sunday that Allemand is expected to join the team on a road trip this week. Dana Evans and international veteran Rebekah Gardner have helped the Sky cover for Allemand's absence without missing a beat.
Connecticut Sun: Still in top tier
The Sun suffered the season's most significant injury when veteran point guard Jasmine Thomas suffered a season-ending ACL tear on May 22. After losing the first game Thomas missed, Connecticut is 6-1 since, splitting a pair of matchups in Las Vegas. The Sun remain a close second in the standings and have a better point differential (plus-10.2) than Las Vegas.
Without Thomas, forward Alyssa Thomas has stepped up her playmaking, averaging 6.8 APG since May 24 and a career-high 5.6 for the season. Since DeWanna Bonner returned from overseas, Connecticut has had an embarrassment of depth in the frontcourt, bringing 2021 All-Star Brionna Jones off the bench. And after deferring early in the season, reigning MVP Jonquel Jones returned to form during the team's recent road trip, earning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. She again leads the WNBA in my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric.
Leaderboard entering this week in my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric, where the reigning MVP is making a move. Jonquel Jones is now No. 1 in total WARP, albeit in two more games than the Storm have played thus far. pic.twitter.com/JrH3KUGbZp— Kevin Pelton (@kpeltonWBB) June 7, 2022
Dallas Wings: Finding a lineup that works
After sorting through 13 starting lineups last season, coach Vickie Johnson seems closer to settling on a group early this year. Guards Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale and forwards Allisha Gray and Kayla Thornton are fixtures, while Satou Sabally has stepped in at center after both Isabelle Harrison and Teaira McCowan started early in the season.
Per WNBA Advanced Stats, the Wings have outscored opponents by 10.3 points per 100 possessions in 148 minutes with those guards and forwards on the court this season. Although lineups with reserves Tyasha Harris and Awak Kuier have been less effective, Dallas has a good chance at the team's first winning record since 2015.
Indiana Fever: Building for the future
The 2021 Fever were frustrating in part because they were both ineffective (6-26) and not especially young (average age weighted by minutes of 28 at season's end, fourth-lowest in the league). Under interim GM Lin Dunn, Indiana has corrected course, agreeing to a buyout with veteran center Jantel Lavender and adding five rookies -- four of them first-round picks. The Fever's weighted age of 25.8 as of season's end now makes them the WNBA's youngest team.
It has been a slow start for No. 2 pick NaLyssa Smith, who's making just 42% of her 2-point attempts. Fellow first-round picks Queen Egbo and Emily Engstler have offset their own poor shooting with active defense, while second-rounder Destanni Henderson has been the team's best rookie on offense thanks largely to 50% 3-point shooting. Veteran Kelsey Mitchell, averaging a career-high 18.7 PPG, looks like Indiana's other long-term keeper.
Las Vegas Aces: Title favorites
A 10-2 start has Las Vegas in elite company. Of the 18 teams in WNBA history to win at least 10 of their first 12 games, 15 reached the WNBA Finals and seven won titles. Under new coach Becky Hammon, the Aces have embraced the starting lineup (now including Dearica Hamby and Kelsey Plum, who combined to win the last three Sixth Player of the Year awards) and 3-point shooting (a league-high 9.3 makes per game, up from 5.1 last season) without sacrificing the toughness and defense that made them contenders under former coach Bill Laimbeer.
Depth is the one question mark for Las Vegas, which is getting a league-low 11.4 PPG from reserves. (Only one other team, Phoenix at 15.5, is getting fewer than 17 PPG off the bench.) Even when veteran guard Riquna Williams returns, the Aces will have to stay healthy given how little Hammon seems to trust anyone outside the top eight players. Still, the Las Vegas starting five -- outscoring opponents by 20.5 points per 100 possessions in 214 minutes, nearly twice as many as any other WNBA lineup -- looks historically dominant.
Los Angeles Sparks: Time for a change
After adding Liz Cambage, Jordin Canada and Chennedy Carter this past offseason, expectations were high for the Sparks to return to the playoffs. And while L.A. would be the eighth seed if the season ended today, a disappointing minus-3.3 differential thus far cost Derek Fisher his dual roles of head coach and GM on Tuesday.
As my colleagues Alexa Philippou and Mechelle Voepel wrote after the change, interim head coach Fred Williams must sort through a backcourt rotation that will only grow more crowded with the return of Kristi Toliver, and keep Cambage on the court after she has averaged just 24.5 MPG thus far. Williams could benefit from opponent 3-point shooting regressing to the mean. Teams have hit 39% of their 3s against the Sparks thus far, the league's second-highest mark.
Minnesota Lynx: Fowles send-off won't go as planned
We saw Cheryl Reeve and her coaching staff pull the Lynx together after a slow start last year, when they went from 6-7 to 22-10 and the No. 3 seed in the postseason. However, Minnesota was never in a hole like this season's 3-9 record, which could prove tough to overcome.
The Lynx struggling to score without consistent point guard play after releasing Layshia Clarendon and Crystal Dangerfield in training camp is no surprise. But Minnesota ranking 11th in defensive rating with Sylvia Fowles in the middle is shocking. Again, shooting regression could help. Opponents are making 39% of attempts outside the paint against the Lynx, the league's second-highest mark. However, Minnesota is also below average in defensive rebounding and forcing turnovers -- areas that were strengths last season.
With key offseason addition Angel McCoughtry already waived and star Collier not due back any time soon after giving birth last month, Fowles' farewell season could spell an end to the Lynx's 11-year playoff run.
New York Liberty: Ionescu's best as good as anyone
As I noted after Tuesday's 26-point outing on 10 of 11 shooting, to go along with eight rebounds and eight assists, New York star Sabrina Ionescu now has three of the WNBA's top eight games this season by game score. Ionescu has been a different player since Dangerfield moved into the starting lineup, averaging 26.0 PPG on 35 of 61 shooting as the Liberty have gone 3-1 in those games after a 1-7 start.
Sabrina Ionescu really did all of this in the SAME GAME 😱— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 8, 2022
She went 10-11 FG with this level of shot difficulty. pic.twitter.com/PN5BVgV9Y7
Now that Marine Johannes has re-signed with the team after playing in France, first-year coach Sandy Brondello will have more options on the perimeter with Betnijah Laney expected to miss another seven weeks after knee surgery and veteran Sami Whitcomb slumping as a shooter. As a result, there's optimism in New York despite the league's second-worst point differential thus far at minus-7.5 PPG.
Phoenix Mercury: Offense shapeless without Griner
As star center Brittney Griner remains wrongfully detained in Russia, basketball is secondary right now. Still, the Mercury have games to play, and as Philippou detailed last week, they haven't looked right all season. In particular, a Mercury offense that features two of the league's top six all-time scorers (Diana Taurasi and Tina Charles) plus Skylar Diggins-Smith has been a below-average seventh in offensive rating.
Charles has yet to figure out how she fits in a Phoenix offense that was built around Griner. She's shooting just 44% on post-ups according to Synergy Sports tracking, down from 51% last season, while taking the league's second-most shots in the post behind Fowles. And the Mercury's second unit has put too much responsibility for shot creation on Diamond DeShields, whose usage rate is a career-high 28% despite a .478 true shooting percentage far worse than league average (.532).
Seattle Storm: Dial tilted toward defense
No team has been hit harder by the spread of COVID-19 early this season than the Storm, who have seen five players -- including starters Sue Bird, Ezi Magbegor and Breanna Stewart -- miss a combined 12 games thus far due to the league's health and safety protocols. Seattle's starting five has outscored opponents by 26.2 points per 100 possessions, an encouraging sign if the team can stay healthy.
Lineups featuring reserves have struggled, perhaps an indication the Storm focused too heavily on defense this offseason, trading Katie Lou Samuelson to the Sparks for Gabby Williams and letting Canada walk in free agency to sign veteran Briann January. The newcomers have helped Seattle rank second in defensive rating, but the Storm's 3-point shooting (33%, down from a league-high 38% last season) has suffered. Seattle's offensive rating has dropped from fourth in 2021 to 10th so far this season.
Washington Mystics: Delle Donne is back
Given Elena Delle Donne had played just three games since leading the Mystics to the 2019 title, it was fair to wonder what kind of player she would be in her return this season. The answer so far: an MVP-caliber one. Only Breanna Stewart has surpassed Delle Done in terms of WARP per game as she has made 51% of her 2-point attempts and 39% of her 3s thus far.
Because of Delle Donne's planned rest days (four thus far), Washington might be hard-pressed to get home-court advantage past the opening round. Still, with rookie Shakira Austin fitting quickly into a role as a defensive-minded center and waiver-wire pickup Kennedy Burke supplying needed depth, the Mystics won't be a team anyone will want to face if healthy for the playoffs.