WNBA preseason predictions and the biggest storylines to watch in 2022
The WNBA’s 26th season begins this weekend with hearts and minds on one player who won’t be in uniform: Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, who has been detained in Russia since February. The Mercury and the league will keep her situation in the public eye, but Phoenix also has to figure out how to adjust without one of the franchise’s mainstays since 2013. The Mercury will have to do this under a new coach in .Vanessa Nygaard.
Some players such as Minnesota Lynx Sylvia Fowles Seattle Storm guard Briann ,, and Storm guard Sue Bird . have said that this will be their last WNBA season. A rookie class, led by No. 1 pick Rhyne Howard of the Atlanta Dream.
Liz Cambage, who joins the Los Angeles Sparks after their rare postseason miss last year, is the biggest name who is in a different place this season. The Washington Mystics, who also missed the 2021 playoffs, hope to have forward/guard Elena Delle Donne for the whole season after she missed 2020 and all but three games last year.
The WNBA will have its All-Star Game for the first time in Chicago, home of the defending champion Chicago Sky, the second version of the Commissioner’s Cup competition and a compact schedule due to the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup that begins in September. ESPN’s Alexa Philippou, Kevin Pelton and Mechelle Voipel discuss some of the key questions leading up to the season and make their predictions for the league’s most prestigious awards and honors.
Connecticut and Las Vegas (both 350) have the best championship odds at Caesars Sportsbook. Which team is the best value for a title pick based on these odds?
Pelton: Despite the lowest odds, I’m going with the Sun. Connecticut was the league’s best team in the 2021 regular season with limited contributions from Alyssa Thomas, who played just three games returning from an Achilles rupture. With Thomas healthy and the return of Courtney Williams, the Sun now have four of the five starters from the team that got within a win of the 2019 title. If anything, Connecticut has upgraded on that 2019 group with the subsequent addition of DeWanna Bonner and development of Brionna Jones. The Sun are my favorite team in the league.
Voepel: The Sun have all the pieces, and they should be very hungry after last season’s semifinal exit. They are a good choice to win the franchise’s first title and seem more popular than Las Vegas. But it’s also interesting that Seattle and 2021 champion Chicago are next in odds at 500. It’s oft-repeated that the league hasn’t had a repeat champion since Los Angeles in 2001-02. After going. 500 in the regular season, the Sky hit their stride in the playoffs. This is the key: You don’t have to be the best team throughout the season. It doesn’t matter if you are at the end.
If Breanna Stewart stays healthy for the Storm, they also might have a strong chance at the franchise’s fifth title. I don’t think it’s fair to discount Minnesota and Phoenix because they could both make the playoffs. Washington might also rise to the occasion. We can always predict the future better once the season is over and we see what injuries happen. I wouldn’t put a lot of money on one team to win at this stage.
Philippou: Odds aside (sorry, I’m no fun), I’m going with the Storm. First, when was the last time Breanna Stewart won a title while healthy? 2017? Jewell Loyd is only getting better and better as the years go by, and everyone is going to want to send Sue Bird off into the sunset with her fifth WNBA title. I also think the free-agency additions of Gabby Williams and Briann January will get this team back on the right foot defensively, especially if Williams’ standout overseas play translates into the W, and this could be a breakout year for Ezi Magbegor.
We’re split on the preseason pick for MVP. What does this say about the talent and who are you picking for MVP?
Pelton: It says the title of best player in the world is up for grabs. We’ve had six different MVPs in the past six seasons and there’s a good chance one of the past four winners — Elena Delle Donne, Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson — will claim another one and make a statement in the process. Although Wilson was third on ESPN’s preseason ranking of the league’s best players, she’s my MVP pick because I think she’s better positioned to put up big numbers this season with the Aces moving on from Liz Cambage and emphasizing spacing the floor around Wilson.
Voepel: There are some seasons where one player establishes herself as MVP early on — think Delle Donne in 2019 with Washington — and then other seasons where several players are in the running, and it might be based on which one’s team has the best season. Although there are many candidates this year I believe Stewart is the best preseason pick. Her five seasons, including her rookie season, have all been MVP-caliber. If she had not been out with injury for the 2021 playoffs, who knows how far the Storm would have gone.
Philippou: Only once has a WNBA MVP repeated in back-to-back years (Cynthia Cooper in ’97 and ’98), so maybe picking Jonquel Jones to win again feels like a stretch, but it’s hard to imagine the 6-foot-6 multifaceted threat slowing down anytime soon. Jones’ 2021 campaign — and even her performance overseas mid-WNBA season with the Bosnian national team — helped stake her claim as the best player in the world. Jones may not be ready to let go of the title anytime soon, with her confidence never lower, her old teammate Courtney Williams back in the fold, and a bit more physical and mental rest after her two losses in Russia. Yes, even with Stewart healthy back in the league. I do hope we have a good summer (and early fall).
This week was full of Jones-Stewart matchups.
A lot of talented players were released this week as rosters were finalized, with some teams carrying only 11 players because of the hard salary cap. WNBA fans and players tweeted out pleas for the league to find a way to keep rookies as contract players on rosters to develop young talent. What is the solution?
Voepel: If this is really of utmost importance to WNBA players, they probably should have made it a bigger priority in the negotiations for the 2020 collective bargaining agreement. They wanted larger salaries, and they got those by agreeing to prioritization, which might not work out well for either side. Teams must make difficult decisions when faced with a salary cap and the salaries top players want. These decisions can have a significant impact on mid-tier players and young players, as well as veterans and younger players who have the potential to be great but need more time to develop. Spots are difficult enough to get on 12-player rosters — and harder with teams that go with 11 because of the cap. The solution is the same as always: more money. Where does this money come from? The WNBA raised capital by selling equity in the league. This money will mainly go to marketing, which is hoped will lead to expansion. It has been 14 years since the league expanded (in Atlanta), with two franchises relocating in that time (to Tulsa/Dallas and Las Vegas). It is clear that the league needs more teams in order to expand its national reach and provide more jobs for players who are qualified to become pros. It has been difficult to find new owners.
While we wait for franchise expansion to take place, the idea of roster growth would require a higher salary cap or something outside of the box. For example, each team could keep one rookie beyond the cap, or perhaps a few players with limited experience. Owners and unions would have to agree to this, and it must be paid for. A partnership with Athletes Unified, a league that started earlier this year in Las Vegas, might be possible for player development.
Everyone who is involved in or follows the WNBA knows the league is dealing with a math problem when it comes to bringing in new talent. I doubt that players in college and high school are as aware as they should be of this problem. Most players are unlikely to be selected for the WNBA roster. Even All-Americans are susceptible to being cut.
Pelton: To some extent, I think this problem will ease as teams get more comfortable with the new salary cap. They spent freely in the 2020 and 2021 offseasons without considering the long-term implications as players moved from smaller salaries dating back to the previous collective bargaining agreement to the higher maximum salaries now possible. As teams adjust, I think more will likely keep 12 players. However, it’s clear that the league will benefit from an expanded roster. Voepel stated that it is about convincing owners to make the investment.
Philippou: Whether the current roster crunch lasts in such an acute manner, the WNBA needs to be looking at ways to allow roster flexibility, regardless of when franchise expansion ultimately occurs. I’d be interested in seeing roster sizes increase from 12 to 15 — yes, I know that would cost more money; I think we all are realistic in knowing that the owners’ level of investment is what’ll make the difference here — and also the incorporation of an injured reserve (the current hardship exemption system is rather unideal). I am also intrigued by the idea of a soft cap and a luxury tax, as Stewart, Sun coach Curt Miller, have suggested. However, it is possible that this might not be the most realistic option at the moment.
Of the four teams that missed the playoffs last season, which will be the most improved this summer?
Pelton: The Los Angeles Sparks. The Sparks spent the offseason betting on talent, adding Chennedy Carter and Katie Lou Samuelson via trade and Cambage and Jordin Canada in free agency. How those players will fit in with the existing ones in L.A., including 2016 MVP Nneka Ogwumike, remains to be seen. It’s clear that the Sparks are stronger and more talented than last season. This is their first appearance in the lottery since Ogwumike No. 1 overall in 2012.
Voepel: Los Angeles is a great choice, especially if the Sparks get the best version of Cambage. But I will mention Washington Mystics. All the players around Delle Donne will improve if she is healthy — that phrase is what basically defines the Washington Mystics. And if Alysha Clark comes back strong, too, after missing last season with a foot injury, we’re looking at another team that could make a playoff run.
As for Indiana and Atlanta, it doesn’t seem like the playoffs are in the cards for either, again, in 2022. However, if both teams can make tangible progress under the leadership of their rookies and other young players then that will be considered a success.
Philippou: I have to go with the Sparks, too. Their rebounding problems last year can be addressed by bringing in Cambage from Vegas. Their offensive rating was also dead last in 2021, but that shouldn’t be as much of a problem this season given their free-agency additions — and as long as they don’t get hit by the injury bug as horribly as they did last year. Derek Fisher told reporters this week that he opted to keep Lexie Brown and Amy Atwell on the team’s opening-day roster because of the floor spacing they provide (Atwell went 6-for-6 on 3s in the team’s preseason game last week!). I will be watching to see if those shooters give Cambage and Ogwumike enough room inside with those two and then Samuelson.
Which player is your preseason pick for MVP?
Kevin Pelton: A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces
Alexa Philippou: Jonquel Jones, Connecticut Sun
Mechelle Voepel: Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm
Who is your pick for preseason Rookie of the Year?
Pelton: Rhyne Howard, Atlanta Dream
Philippou: Rhyne Howard, Atlanta Dream
Voepel: NaLyssa Smith, Indiana Fever
Who is your preseason Defensive Player of the Year?
Pelton: Jonquel Jones, Connecticut Sun
Philippou: Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut Sun
Voepel: Sylvia Fowles, Minnesota Lynx
Who is your preseason Most Improved Player?
Pelton: Sabrina Ionescu, New York Liberty
Philippou: Chennedy Carter, Los Angeles Sparks
Voepel: Gabby Williams, Seattle Storm
Which five players — two guards, two forwards, one center — will make the All-WNBA first team?
Pelton: Skylar Diggins-Smith, Arike Ogunbowale, Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson
Philippou: Courtney Vandersloot, Jewell Loyd, Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson
Voepel: Arike Ogunbowale, Jewell Loyd, Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones, A’ja Wilson
Which teams will meet in the WNBA Finals?
Pelton: Connecticut Sun vs. Chicago Sky
Philippou: Connecticut Sun vs. Seattle Storm
Voepel: Connecticut Sun vs. Seattle Storm
Which team will win the 2022 WNBA title?
Pelton: Connecticut Sun
Philippou: Seattle Storm
Voepel: Connecticut Sun
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.