With the 2019 WNBA regular season in the books and the playoffs set to kick off Wednesday night, it’s time to look back on how the year played out, and in time-honoured fashion, hand out some end-of-season awards along the way.
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The 2019 season will largely be remembered for who did not play in it, rather than who did. Not to take anything away from the teams that finished on top of the playoff seedings, but it might have possibly looked a little different had defending champions Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm not missed the entire season. Their team-mates fought with pride, and at times Natasha Howard looked like she was putting together a Most Valuable Player case, but much like the Storm’s hopes for a run to the championship, Howard’s MVP hopes were dashed by a force to be reckoned with in the Washington DC area.
Natasha Howard prepares to attack against the Dallas Wings
The team, however, did see a number of players step up in the absence of their captains. Not only did Howard post a season that could potentially win her a back-to-back Most Improved Player award, the same trophy could go to Alysha Clark, Mercedes Russell, and should possibly be presented to Jordin Canada – all of whom have shown great pride as reigning champions.
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Seattle was not the only city down on talent
Being without Diana Taurasi for much of the season (as well as many other Mercury players) hurt Phoenix’s chance of securing more wins. Angel McCoughtry was out for the season, which meant last year’s playoff semifinalists Atlanta could not build on the dream to become champions, and instead posted the league’s worst record instead. The Minnesota Lynx faced playing without Lindsay Whalen due to retirement, Maya Moore due to sabbatical, Rebekkah Brunson spent the year on parental leave, while Seimone Augustus was out for much of the season. On top of that, the Lynx saw Karima Christmas-Kelly and Jess Shepard also go down mid-season.
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Minnesota’s playoff push was helped by should-be Rookie Of The Year Napheesa Collier, and possible Executive Of The Year Cheryl Reeve did a great job of scrambling pieces together to keep her team competitive.
Numerous other teams faced similar circumstances, but this left the door open for new teams to enter the playoff race.
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The Las Vegas Aces were always going to be fun to watch, but when the team traded for Liz Cambage during training camp, the WNBA’s newest franchise was crowned the champion-elect by many. While there is still a way to go before the new league commissioner Cathy Engelbert hands the trophy to head coach and general manager Bill Laimbeer and his team, the Aces have shown they are no pushover. Even when A’ja Wilson was out for a few weeks, and Cambage missed a few games, the team leaned on Sixth Woman Of The Year Dearica Hamby to keep them afloat. With a full, healthy roster in the playoffs, they could indeed challenge for the title this season.
Liz Cambage celebrates a basket against the Connecticut Sun
A second team to enter the playoff fray after missing out last season are the Chicago Sky. Owner Michael Alter laid out his expectations last season and said the roster as currently comprised should have playoffs in mind. He handed the reins over to James Wade during the offseason and he has turned the team’s fortunes around with a Coach Of The Year performance. At times, Chicago battled for the second and third seed, and while they will be slightly disappointed not to receive a first-round bye in the playoffs, the team is firmly on the middle tier of playoff talent that could beat any other contender on any given day.
The Connecticut Sun worked hard to secure a double bye all season after being knocked out in the first round two years in a row by the Phoenix Mercury. After landing the second seed, the team will advance to the semifinals, where they will have homecourt advantage. The team is scary when they play in Connecticut, tying a league best 15-2 record, while winning just eight of 17 on the road.
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But it is definite progress for this young squad, fully on the back of Jonquel Jones. The center has finally become the go-to player this season after a few years of uncertainty playing behind others. In 2019, it felt like players up and down the roster knew their role, led by Jones, Courtney Williams and Alyssa Thomas.
Sparks coach Derk Fisher lays out the gameplan during a time out
The Los Angeles Sparks are back despite a rocky start, in which the team faced injuries, and missing players for various reasons, but the second half of the season built in some excellent momentum and new coach Derek Fisher has the team clicking at the right time.
LA has plenty of championship-level experience remaining from its 2016 squad, and to go from barely being in the playoffs in the first half of the year, to finishing with the third seed is excellent progress in a new system. The team competitive throughout the year, and the Sparks are one of the teams alongside Connecticut and Las Vegas that could challenge the favourite for this year’s title.
Aerial Powers celebrates a Mystics' victory
The Washington Mystics secured the best regular season record and has the shoe-in for MVP in Elena Delle Donne. This team will advance straight to the semifinals, and should book their place in the finals, barring any crazy upset.
In last year’s championship round, Delle Donne was hobbled and the team desperately needed another rebounder who could score, pass and play defense to a world-leading level. Not every team has a player like this just stashed away in the wings, but head coach and general manager Mike Thibault did in the form of Emma Meesseman.
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The center took the year off playing in the WNBA in 2018, but is back this season and could have won the Sixth Woman Of The Year had she not spent three weeks in Serbia for EuroBasket with Belgium.
The Mystics will need Kristi Toliver to be available, as one of the few Washington players to have won a championship in her career, but the team is deep enough, and the likes of Natasha Cloud and Aerial Atkins have kept the team on the right path since Toliver’s injury.
Now the fun begins
Diamond DeShields attacks the basket for the Chicago
The WNBA has had an incredibly competitive season once again, even if it was played without some potential champions in the mix. The playoffs kick off with the first-round match-ups of Phoenix versus Chicago and Minnesota against Seattle on Wednesday in the single-game elimination stage, so the excitement is not going away for a while yet.
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