When coach and retired professional runner Lauren Fleshman attended the Olympic Marathon Trials in February
If there's one thing people will remember from the 2018 WNBA season that was, it might be simply the sheer talent put on display over the summer. While the players and teams had a condensed schedule – due to the FIBA Women's World Cup happening right now – they made up for it in the amount of action on the court this year.
It's fair to say that, despite what the final standings might suggest, every team did well this year. So you might think the players and staff are getting to rest now, right?
Many of those players hopped on planes soon after the end of their team's season to play overseas or as part of the aforementioned FIBA Women’s World Cup. But whether they're playing or getting some well-deserved rest, nothing done in the offseason can take away from what they did this year in the WNBA.
For this recap, I picked one big moment from each team that I hope shows how great this year was for everyone no matter their final outcome.
Because it was a great year for all 12 teams of the WNBA, and every player, coach, and staff member should be proud. And, if these top moments of the season are any indication, the future is bright.
Atlanta: Back in the Habit (with a Vengeance)
Many will remember 2018 for the remarkable turnaround by the Seattle Storm, who went from eighth place a year ago to defending league champions. The Atlanta Dream had a big turnaround of their own, too, and I hope people remember that as well. The Dream got hot at the right time this year. After starting the season 8-9, they went on to win all but two of their games (15 of 17) to end the regular season. One of those wins includes a 109-100 win over Las Vegas (August 7), during which Angel McCoughtry suffered a season-ending knee injury. While Atlanta's squad might have wanted that win back in place of a healthy forward, the game is my pick for the Dream's top moment of the year because of how the team persevered after it.
Atlanta clinched a playoff spot after winning that game. The Dream broke a regular-season franchise record with 23 wins on the year, including 4-1 without McCoughtry. Atlanta also secured a coveted double-bye into the WNBA semifinals, in big part thanks to All-WNBA First-Team pick Tiffany Hayes and WNBA/AP Coach of the Year Nicki Collen. Despite those nods, everyone on the team stepped up in a big way after McCoughtry's injury that could have easily meant the end to the Dream's season. Though their playoff appearance was short, I expect Atlanta to do very big things next year.
Chicago: Got a Problem? Sloot can Help
The Chicago Sky showed a lot of promise this year, even as the rest of the league got better. Their three rookies learned the rules of the WNBA quickly and were able to provide some key moments down the stretch for the Sky. That will be especially important as Chicago looks for a new head coach and general manager.
But the biggest moment of the year came from veteran guard Courtney Vandersloot. She had several big games in her record-breaking season. Vandersloot became the first WNBA player to score at least 15 points and have 15 assists in a game during the Sky's win over Connecticut (August 10). The team also tied the league record for assists in that game with 35.
Four days after that, however, Vandersloot went off. With 10 assists on the night, she broke the record for most assists in a single season to help Chicago get their first win in Minnesota since May 2010. She finished the year with 258 dimes.
The Sky will need veterans like Vandersloot and Allie Quigley to stay in Chicago as the team heads into what could be a rocky off-season. But if the roster stays relatively put and the right people are hired, the team could make it back into the playoffs sooner than later.
Connecticut: The Sun Sets the Sky
After the home-and-home series the two teams had this year, I kind of want to see Chicago and Connecticut become a rivalry (and not just because of their pun-worthy team names either). My pick for the Sun’s big moment of the year explains why.
Chicago picked up the win in the aforementioned game against Connecticut at home on August 10. Both teams then traveled east, where the Sun more than avenged their previous loss. Down three at the half, Connecticut used balanced scoring to go on and beat the Sky 82-75. With the win, the Sun clinched their first back-to-back winning seasons since 2011-2012... and they eliminated the Sky from the playoffs in the process.
Of course, a winning regular season means nothing if a team doesn't have success in the playoffs; Connecticut finished with another one-and-done showing in the postseason this year despite another No. 4 seed. I can't see that happening again, however, especially with Sixth Woman of the Year Jonquel Jones helping out a talented starting lineup.
Dallas: A Monster Game in a Monster Year
It's fair to say that the Dallas Wings would have had a much different 2018 if it weren’t for one Elizabeth Cambage. When she was hot, the team was hot, and vice versa. Dallas had a fairly balanced squad this season, but they let Cambage do her thing in a big way in the Wings' game against New York on July 17. After finishing the first half with a career-high 28 points, Cambage went on to break the league record for most points scored in a single game with 53.
She and All-Star teammate Skylar Diggins-Smith led what became a pretty strong offensive team in Arlington despite their nine-game losing streak. The two were key to the Wings clinching a playoff spot during the last weekend of the regular season. Cambage earned a first-team All-WNBA honor, while Diggins-Smith was on the second-team.
The Wings too will be looking for a new head coach after a tumultuous road stretch near the end of the season. Right now, however, I think their focus should be getting Cambage to stay stateside.
Indiana: Two in a Row
The Indiana Fever finished the 2018 season with a franchise-worst six wins. They got their first win of the year nearly a month in, a 96-64 victory over Atlanta. Despite the record, Indiana's wins and general team effort show that the future is bright.
Indiana started August on a high note with victories against Dallas (84-78) and New York (68-55). The Fever's victory in New York got a monkey off of the team's back to say the least; the wins on August 2 and 4 were their first consecutive victories since May 2017. The Fever's rookies had a lot to do with that, as did veterans Candice Dupree and Cappie Pondexter. But everyone on the team stepped up, and I think we'll see this team only get better as they spend more time together.
Las Vegas: A Memorable First Win in a Memorable First Year
The Las Vegas Aces have become one of the most talked-about teams in the WNBA, especially for the franchise's first year in a new city. The team made news quite a bit this year after forfeiting a game after travel woes, barely missing the playoffs, and still getting the top pick in the draft lottery. Also, A'ja Wilson slayed every chance she got.
But my pick for the Aces' top moment of 2018 is where it all began – the first win for the team formerly known as the San Antonio Stars. Las Vegas had two stretches of days without a game in the opening weeks of its season. After a 27-point loss at Seattle on May 31, the Aces came home to face Washington in a game that might be the answer to a trivia question someday. That’s because Las Vegas got its first win in its new city on June 1, 2018, an 85-73 victory over the Mystics. Wilson led everyone with 26 points in the game, while Monique Currie added 24 off the bench for Washington, who was without Elena Delle Donne, but that's not the point here. The win showed that the Aces – who had five players in double figures – were going to fight with the powerhouses of the league despite being the new kid.
Los Angeles: Early Exclamation Point
Many expected the Los Angeles Sparks to battle the Minnesota Lynx in the WNBA Finals for the third year in a row. In fact, the annual preseason general managers' survey predicted that, and that the Sparks would win it all. Fast forward to the end of the season, which saw the two teams battle it out... in the first round, much to the surprise of many. The Sparks ended up winning that contest.
But before that, the rivals played an exciting game in Minnesota to open the teams' respective seasons on May 20. The teams traded the lead with each other throughout most of the contest before the final seconds of the fourth quarter, when Chelsea Gray sank a buzzer-beater to give the Sparks the win in Minneapolis. The teams are no strangers to that; she did the same in the 2017 WNBA Finals. Much like their rivals, however, the Sparks too will have to learn how to adjust to a league that’s stronger than ever.
Minnesota: A Roller Coaster Week in a Roller Coaster Year
The 2017 WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx had quite the up and down season in 2018. The team started the new year with an uncharacteristic 3-6 record that had some pressing the panic button. And then the Lynx went on a seven-game winning streak.
And then, on July 3, they lost to last-place Indiana – at home. And it wasn't close. Many thought the Lynx had overlooked the Fever squad that got just their well-deserved second win of the year that night – in part because Minnesota would welcome the Los Angeles Sparks back into town just two days later.
The squad that took the court on July 5 looked completely different from the team that played on July 3. Lynx vs. Sparks part 3 was another back-and-forth battle between rivals, as advertised. Despite some calls that the Target Center crowd found questionable at best – including two technical fouls on Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, which got her ejected from the court – Minnesota won the game. The Lynx went on to lose at Chicago two days after that, but their home win over the Sparks was certainly a high point of the 2018 season.
Now, of course, Reeve and company have a big off-season ahead. It may take a lot for the Lynx to continue their pattern of winning the WNBA title in odd-numbered years, but don't count them out just yet.
New York: Silver Lining
Oh, the New York Liberty has been through it this year. The team' tumultuous offseason led them to play in a much smaller arena about 45 minutes away from New York City. The Liberty also went through some roster and staff changes, as first-time head coach Katie Smith took over the helm. New York finished with a 7-27 record, including a 13-game losing streak to end the season. The Liberty lacked a balanced offense during most of the season – but one game where they gelled as a team stood out for me. New York trailed by just one point entering the fourth quarter at Connecticut (July 11); that deficit later grew to five in the final minutes before the Liberty took over. After a late 3-pointer from guard Epiphanny Prince and a missed response from the Sun, New York guard Shavonte Zellous hit a buzzer-beater trey to give the Liberty the win. While Charles once again led her team in scoring that day, Zellous and Prince also finished in double figures.
The biggest task for the Liberty in the offseason is to find a new owner and, hopefully, a new venue. However, the pieces are there for a powerful roster, including the second pick in the upcoming WNBA draft.
Phoenix: So Much Winning
There was the eight-game w(wwwwwww)inning streak during the regular season. Then the Phoenix Mercury went from the first-round of the playoffs to game five of the WNBA semifinals. There were losses in there, sure, but the fact that Phoenix took the eventual champion Seattle Storm to the winner-take-all game five after hosting a first-round game says a lot about the team's strength.
I’m not sure anyone expected the Mercury to finish the year this strong, even with DeWanna Bonner back on the court after giving birth to twins. But they did. Phoenix is one of a few teams that can get away with only a handful of scorers – but when those scorers include Bonner, Diana Taurasi, and Brittney Griner, you're in pretty good shape. I would like to see the Mercury build on their roster in the off-season, which could help them get over the slumps in the season that got them to the No. 5 seed in the playoffs instead of a bye.
Seattle: A Sweep and a Title
The theme for the WNBA Champion Seattle Storm for 2018 is bouncing back.
Example 1: The Storm lost twice in the first two weeks of the 2018 season. They would go on to lose only six times after that en route to a league-best 26-8 record and a double-bye into the WNBA semifinals.
Example 2: Seattle then lost two games in a row for the first time all year during their series with Phoenix.
They bounced back from that too – by winning their third title in franchise history with a sweep over Washington. Even though Sue Bird is the oldest player of the league at 37, and even though it’s been a long time since a WNBA champion has won in back to back years, I wouldn’t be surprised if Seattle fights for the title again in 2019.
Washington: Finals First Timers
I also wouldn't be surprised to see the Washington Mystics back in the title race next season after the team got their first taste of it in 2018. They persevered in a big way as well, especially after star forward Elena Delle Donne got hurt during their semifinals series against Atlanta.
She came back in game 4, which is my pick for the Mystics' top moment of the year. Even though hosting a Finals game (in their third arena of the year) was a big accomplishment for the franchise, as was clinching a Finals berth in game 5, the entire team came to play in game 4 (September 2). Delle Donne joined five other Mystics players in double figures, including Kristi Toliver with a game-high 22 points, to extend her team’s season.
As I wrote in my Finals recap, the Mystics have a lot to be proud of this year. So they'll be back.
But everyone involved in the WNBA has a lot to be proud of as well. What a time to be a women's basketball fan! Thanks for following along this year.
Filed under: wnba; basketball; washington mystics; seattle storm; phoenix mercury; ny liberty; minnesota lynx; los angeles sparks; dallas wings; las vegas aces; indiana fever; connecticut sun; chicago sky; atlanta dream
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