Storylines to follow in the 2023 WNBA season
(Sean Carroll illustration)
We’re gearing up for a tremendous 2023 in the dubbyah and if you aren’t already a fan, now’s the time to become one. It feels as though the league is turning a new leaf with the retirements of Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles, more stars moving to bigger markets, the formation of superteams and pushing the season out to 40 games.
If you were waiting for a good time to hop on board then hurry because everyone on this carriage is looking at me funny while I scream at you half in, half out and half naked.
Brittney Griner is back in America
Having been in detention in a Russian prison before being handed a nine and a half year sentence for being in possession of a weed vape, then beginning her sentence which included spending time in a penal colony, all while Russia invaded Ukraine, Brittney Griner is back on her home soil.
There is obviously no precedent for this and it will be interesting to see how Phoenix goes with Griner back with the team. Robert Sarver is also out as owner of the Mercury which would help any workplace, let alone a women’s basketball team.
Although this storyline may not hold the same vigour as everything else we have in store, it feels wrong to move forward without highlighting it.
It’s nice to have her back in the league and seeing how she will perform with the Mercury this season has to be one of the better feel-good stories I’ve ever seen in basketball. Everyone will be cheering BG on, but knowing the competitor she is, she’ll probably be more excited for the boos.
I don’t want to put any more pressure on the situation, but you have to imagine she’ll have a 20 and 12 game with five assists at some point during the season. I just hope I’ll be watching that game live.
The New York Liberty and the Las Vegas Aces are going to be putting on a show every time they face off against each other. A matchup that has Jonquel Jones as the eighth best player on the court? I got two words for you, must-see TV.
The fact that one of these teams isn’t going to win the ring this year is crazy. It’ll be interesting to see if there are going to be growing pains in New York with Breanna Stewart, Courtney Vandersloot and Jonquel Jones all joining in the offseason. How this will compare with the Aces having continuity, as well as adding Candace Parker, will also be something to keep an eye on.
Becky Hammon’s coaching could prove pivotal as she was able to make such a positive impact last season. She was able to empower her players while keeping them accountable and reliable. There was no room for error yet simultaneously no pressure. In fact, they were the one’s applying the pressure in every game, dictating every move.
As happy as you are to see Australian head coach and head coach of Australia Sandy Brondello calling the shots in New York, she isn’t the same calibre of coach that Hammon is. Her overall game plan is solid but her coaching on the fly will be a cause for concern, especially with a pretty telling track record of questionable rotations. When two teams are so closely matched every advantage matters.
Who will fold first? Who will make a mistake and show vulnerability? It obviously won’t be Kelsey Plum, A’ja Wilson or Chelsea Gray. Parker has been and will continue to be a stalwart in the WNBA, showing no signs of weakness and a bulletproof track record, it won’t be her. The Aces are looking pretty good.
It won’t be Stewie, nor will it be Courtney Vandersloot or Sabrina Ionescu (god this is an amazing cast of characters) but it might be Jonquel Jones. JJ has a tendency to take herself out of games, which is crazy to think considering the quality of player she is. Maybe a new setting and a real shot to win could change her assertiveness on the court.
I think if I had to pick a team I’d go with the Aces, not only have I inadvertently built a case that suggests it’s the safer pick but there is also less unknown about them, they won’t have to answer the same questions that the Liberty will have to. Regardless, everyone should be watching every time they face each other, these are sure to be instant classics.
With shades of Jackie Moon and the Flint Tropics’ historic fourth placed finish, clinching third in the WNBA this season is going to be something worth bragging about.
I’m sure taking out third place merely earns you the right to get sent home in the second round by New York or Vegas, but you would be a franchise who separated from the pack and won’t go down without a fight. You’ll give the fans a show and win the respect of all viewers.
There’s so much parity in the WNBA this season, with the Indiana Fever looking like the only purely rebuilding team. In a 40 game season, every game matters (cough cough NBA) and being able to find a rhythm accompanied with consistent production is no easy task.
Will the Washington Mystics prove that their continuity, chemistry, experience and talent is too much for the rest of the league? Being led by Natasha Cloud and Elena Delle Donne is something no other team in the league has and will be a massive advantage in the nation's capital. Could the Phoenix Mercury pop, rallying around Griner along with Sophie Cunningham and her ubiquitous determination, as well as basketball royalty in Diana Taurasi? Can the Los Angeles Sparks and their new crop of signings figure things out, unlocking each other’s strengths? Can the Connecticut Sun continue on their steady play, using the Jonquel sized chip on their shoulder as motivation? Could it be a team I’ve overlooked and counted out? I feel like we’ve seen enough of Kahleah Copper and her play with the Chicago Sky to know she/they don’t need any more motivation.
Only time will tell. If I had to pick I would go with the Mystics, they’re too good in too many ways and they finally look healthy.
Following the success of the FIBA World Cup, it put a lot of Australians on a lot of WNBA teams' radars. It will be hard to go a night without an Aussie checking in to a game and their toughness, grittiness, defence and IQ will be on display, along with their own specialities.
Whether it’s Sami Whitcomb or Rebecca Allen’s shooting, Anneli Maley’s rebounding, Jade Melbourne’s pace and court vision, Ezi Magbegor’s athleticism and shot blocking, Kristy Wallace’s ankle and knee trembling pull up midi and, of course, Cayla George’s post turnaround fadeaway, Aussie talent will be giving you something to tune into every game.
There might not be any Lauren Jackson’s on the list but Whitcomb, Allen, Maley and Wally could fire you up in a Joe Ingles sorta way. Melbourne could be the starting point guard over the next 20 years for the Australian Opals and her play with the Seattle Storm this season will be a very telling sign of that.
Cayla is already beloved by Australian basketball fans and it’s only a matter of time before she’s the star of the locker room in Vegas. Combine her personality with A’ja’s and they’ll be coming at the 2018-19 Nets for the all-time vibes team.
As for Ezi? It could be time. The interrupted MIP and DPOY campaigns stop now. No more Tina Charles signings, no more supporting roles. Magbegor should look to establish herself as the second option to Jewell Loyd and should make it her mission to win DPOY. She’s been teetering on the edge of individual success for the past two seasons but her selflessness and team play has seen her give up her own opportunities for the franchise.
Ezi has the tools, skills and temperament to be a big time performer in the WNBA and she should be a household name for casual’s by season's end.
How will the WNBA perform in leveraging its superteams to generate viewership?
Cathy Engelbert has received quite a lot of criticism during her tenure as commissioner of the WNBA. She has been handed a silver platter with the superteams in NY and LV yet feeling perturbed on how she will maximise viewership given the momentum caused by the formation of superteams is just.
The WNBA has a lot that the NBA could learn from. The run time of a broadcast being a better reflection of how long a basketball game goes for, reduced and shorter time outs, less rewards being handed out to sensitive players (and less sensitive players more generally) through officiating are just a few examples of this. Where the WNBA could learn from the NBA, however, is how to build up a matchup.
Ring night, Christmas Day games, Finals rematches, these are dates we look forward to when the NBA releases its schedule, well before the season starts. The Aces and the Liberty won’t meet in the first month of the season and then have three games in a three and a half week span in August, that doesn’t feel too thoughtful.
Waiting nearly 40 percent of the season for the first matchup between these teams is far from the best decision. Personally, I would have this in week three or four of the season. These teams will also face each other three times between August 6 and 29 which feels as though it could saturate the matchup and I don’t really see the benefit.
Perhaps it’s to hype up the WNBA Playoffs presented by Google Begin which begin on September 13, allowing fans to see how these teams look against each other for a potential Finals matchup, perhaps. Perhaps the WNBA didn’t want to play favourites and treat these teams any differently to the other teams but that’s a hypothetical that I’m suggesting and it’s really really stupid.
Me? I would sprinkle these games throughout the season. I know I’m not breaking any ground with that take but the classics are classics for a reason. Gimme a game on June 10, July 2, July 30 and August 27. We needa see these teams at different parts of the season, through hot streaks and cold streaks, while they’re finding their feet and while they’re humming, if they are in a cold streak, do they have the presence and ability to flip a switch and perform against their counterparts. This way we as fans can build our own narratives and the allure of the matchup isn’t lost on us.
I really don’t feel as though Engelbert et al. (2023) are going to maximise viewership using their superteams as leverage. Hopefully I’m wrong.