WNBA Beginner's Guide Part 1: 2019 season and 2020 offseason recap
Hello, it’s me, Matt Ellentuck.
Welcome to Part 1 of a 5-part series for new fans looking to follow the WNBA.
Ok, I’ll stop talking.
Friends, it’s been a miserableass year, but if you’re reading this, you must also be excited that the 2020 WNBA season is *hopefully* coming back on Saturday. There’s plenty of reason for skepticism, as the best athletes in the world are gathered in one of the biggest Covid-19 hotspots in the entire world. I’m worried as hell, and I’ll continue to question the structure of the WNBA “bubble.” But I am also excited to watch basketball again.
Before coronavirus, the WNBA was at its best. Last year, the Mystics won an incredible Finals series that went a full five games behind a record-setting offense and one of the best single-season performances ever by their MVP, Elena Delle Donne. Months later, the league and its player’s union signed a new collective bargaining agreement that isn’t perfect, but is set to pay its best players nearly double what they earned the year prior. And the WNBA also had its most dramatic offseason ever, with six superstars moving teams.
The WNBA wave is in motion, and I’m here to recap everything (ok not everything, but like, most things) you’ve missed in the last 12 months or so of action so you don’t feel left out entirely. My hope is that this will serve as a refresher for those who’ve been following along, and as CliffsNotes for everyone just hopping on board.
Here we go.
First, some context!
Two seasons ago, in 2018, the Seattle Storm swept the Washington Mystics in the Finals. Seattle was led by Sue Bird, 24-year-old MVP Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Natasha Howard. That’s four All-Stars, including one definite Hall of Famer, on the same team. To sum that team up as succinctly as possible: they won with a fast-paced offense by shooting the most three-point shots in league history,,, and also Stewart was a freaking menace.
The Mystics were on the rise, and should’ve played a more competitive series. But a nasty leg injury suffered weeks earlier left Elena Delle Donne (2019’s MVP) at a fraction of her full self. The injury was thought to be season-ending at first, but she recovered enough to play in just five days. Still, she wasn’t up for the battle against Stewart, and the Mystics didn’t have the juice.
All this is to say the Mystics were out for blood in 2019. So let’s talk about that season.
A whole lot of superstars didn’t play in 2019
At first, the 2019 season was defined by who wasn’t playing.
It looked like the league was destined for a Mystics vs. Storm Finals rematch. Washington was rested, and Seattle was set to bring the championship rotation back. But Breanna Stewart suffered a freak season-ending Achilles injury in the Euroleague Finals in April, just weeks before the WNBA season was set to start.
If you’re a newcomer, maybe you don’t already know this, but most WNBA players — even the best of the best like Stewart, coming off an MVP season — play year-round basketball to make money. In her MVP year, Stewart’s base WNBA salary was less than $60,000. In Europe, Asia and Australia, players can make multiple times their WNBA salaries. That’s why Stewart was competing weeks before the 2019 WNBA season, and sadly, that’s where she tore her Achilles, ruling her out for the year.
Stewart was just one of a long list of WNBA stars who were lost before the season even started. Her team’s point guard, Bird, had arthroscopic knee surgery before tip-off, and she didn’t play a game all season. Atlanta Dream star Angel McCoughtry missed the entire year with a knee injury she suffered late in the WNBA season before. Back injuries kept Diana Taurasi, the league’s all-time leading scorer, off the court for all but six games. And a hamstring injury sidelined Candace Parker for the first month of the season.
Maya Moore, the most popular player in the world, also stepped away from the sport in 2019 to fight for criminal justice reform. Earlier this month, she helped free Jonathan Irons, who was serving a 50-year sentence he was falsely convicted of. I suggest you read Katie Barnes’ incredible feature on an incredible person.
Wings guard Skylar Diggins-Smith also missed the entire season because she’d just given birth to her first child.
A *lot* of talent didn’t play in 2019, which is why we’re excited to see a couple of those players return in 2020.
Stars forced their way out via trade before the 2019 season. That rarely ever happens.
There’s historically been very little player movement in the WNBA, and there a number of reasons why that’s the case. The most common reason is because of a franchise tag known in the W as a “core player designation,” which allows teams to hold on to stars for up to four years in free agency. (The newly-signed CBA reduces teams’ power.)
But in 2019, All-Star Liz Cambage and 2014 Rookie of the Year and All-Star Chiney Ogwumike, both forced their way out before the start of the season. Cambage landed with the Aces as a second choice after her Wings team was unable to make a deal with the Sparks, and Ogwumike was sent to the Sparks, where she could play basketball and work as an ESPN analyst near the company’s L.A. headquarters.
The 2019 draft
The 2019 draft class was really hard to evaluate with no clear star. Sabrina Ionescu was draft-eligible, but chose to stay at Oregon for one more season, leaving the Aces (with their third straight No. 1 pick) with a tough choice. They selected Notre Dame guard Jackie Young, who had an up-and-down first year.
To show the class’s unpredictability, by season’s end, the Rookie of the Year award was given to UConn’s Napheesa Collier, who was selected No. 6 by the Minnesota Lynx. Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale (Notre Dame), who was selected No. 5, was her runner-up.
The regular season
The regular season was owned by one person, and her name is Elena Delle Donne. After falling short in 2018, Delle Donne starred for the best team in the league, leading the Mystics to a 26-8 record while also becoming the first WNBA player to break 50/40/90 shooting splits. And she didn’t just break them. She fucking crushed them, shooting 52 percent from the field, 43 percent from range and 97 percent from the free throw line. She scored 20 points per game with eight rebounds, two assists and a block. It’s still a damn shame she wasn’t voted as the unanimous MVP. It was, and forever will be, silly.
Also deserving of shouts for their performance in the 2019 season are Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard, who became a top-5 player in the league with both Bird and Stewart out for the Storm; Collier, who stepped into a lead role with the Lynx seamlessly despite the absence of four of the five players who’d won Minnesota four championship in the decade; Ogunbowale, who scored 20 or more points in 13 of her last 15 games as a rookie, including a streak of 30+ in four straight; Brittney Griner, who led the league with 21 points per game; and Courtney Vandersloot, who led the league in assists with 9.1, three more than the next-best in the league.
The final standings in the regular season went as follows:
Washington Mystics, 26-8
Connecticut Sun, 23-11
Los Angeles Sparks, 22-12
Las Vegas Aces, 22-12
Chicago Sky, 20-14
Seattle Storm, 18-16
Minnesota Lynx, 18-16
Phoenix Mercury, 15-19
Indiana Fever, 13-21
Dallas Wings, 10-24
New York Liberty, 10-24
Atlanta Dream, 8-26
If you’re like me when looking at following new sports, you’re looking for some drama. And the W had a few heapings of beef in 2019.
The biggest was an on-court fight between then-Wings forward Kristine Anigwe and Griner, which saw punches thrown, and even had Taurasi ejected despite being injured on the bench. (Classic Diana lmao.)
There was also a clash between Cambage and the … entire Chicago Sky team that I summed up here.
And if you’re looking for fan beef, look no further than Collier and Ogunbowale stans arguing over who should’ve won Rookie of the Year. (Disclaimer: I voted for Collier.) (Solution: they can both be good, but fans are gonna stan.)
The WNBA’s playoff system is genius in that it takes the league’s best eight teams (out of 12) regardless of conference. That’s something all sports leagues should consider. But it also, more controversially, holds its opening two rounds as single-elimination win-or-go-home games. It’s a bloodbath! The 2019 season was the second year under these rules, and it was fun!
The biggest loser of the playoff structure was undoubtedly the Sky in 2019. They were knocked out before the semifinals because of this inexplicable Aces’ Dearica Hamby halfcourt heave with WAY TOO MUCH TIME on the shot clock. Just nuts.
Overall, the playoffs went pretty chalk, though, with the No. 5 Sky beating the No. 8 Mercury, and the No. 6 Storm beating the No. 7 Lynx in the opening round. Then the No. 4 Aces knocked off the Sky, and the No. 3 Sparks handled the Storm. The semifinals weren’t all that close, either. The Aces made a run at the top-seeded Mystics, but fell, 3-1. The Sparks were swept by the No. 2 Sun in an ugly series that ended with new head coach Derek Fisher benching generational star, Parker.
The Finals were SPICY, though. A Connecticut Sun team that proclaimed itself underdogs all season long (which, yeah, they didn’t have any big household names, but they did have a top-five player in Jonquel Jones, but whatever), took the top-seeded Mystics to five games out of a possible five.
How’d that happen?
For one, the Sun were a damn good team led by Jones, Alyssa Thomas (who played with TWO torn labrums), and Courtney Williams. But also, for the second year in a row, Delle Donne had to play through an injury in the Finals. This time: THREE herniated disks in her back.
The Mystics ended up winning the championship at home, clinching their first-ever title, and Delle Donne’s first-ever, too. Emma Meesseman was the series’ hero, winning Finals MVP.
Because this post is already very long, I’m going to write these as bullet points! Sorry, I’m by myself here. No editor. I tried, but recapping an entire year is, by nature, wordy as hell. This is me trying.
Anyway, the 2020 season saw an unprecedented amount of superstar movement. Here are the biggest moves that I’ll discuss in greater detail throughout this series.
Phoenix Mercury lifer DeWanna Bonner was traded to the Connecticut Sun for three first-round picks
Dallas Wings guard Skylar Diggins-Smith forced a trade to the Phoenix Mercury. Phoenix recieved three first-round picks
After the Washington Mystics and guard Kristi Toliver couldn’t come to an agreement, she signed with the Los Angeles Sparks
Long-time New York Liberty star Tina Charles was traded to the Washington Mystics in a three-team deal that sent Shatori Walker-Kimbrough to the Mercury
Atlanta Dream guard Angel McCoughtry signed with the Las Vegas Aces
Connecticut Sun guard Courtney Williams forced a trade to the Atlanta Dream in a three-team trade that sent Briann January to Connecticut
And now you’re caught up with what happened in the WNBA in the year before Covid-19.
If you enjoyed this post, I hope you’ll subscribe and stick around for the four remaining pieces to catch you up to the 2020 WNBA season:
Part 1: 2019 season and 2020 offseason recap (7/20)
Part 2: How to pick which WNBA team to root for (7/21)
Part 3: How the 2020 WNBA season will (try to) work (7/22)
Part 4: How each team will win the 2020 WNBA championship (7/23)
Part 5: Why the 2020 WNBA opening day schedule is perfect (7/24)
Thank you for reading.
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If you have any leads, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on Twitter: @mellentuck. I miss doing this as a full-time job. All of my previous work can be found at SB Nation, where I worked for the past four years before being laid off due to the pandemic.
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You may have read my work before at SB Nation, where I wrote for four years until I was recently laid off due to the pandemic. I’m looking for work covering the WNBA again! Please email me: email@example.com if you have any leads.