WNBA Playoffs Roundtable: Liberty Outlook, Aces’ Odds to Repeat and More
The Liberty have their sights set on the postseason after a 32-8 regular season, earning themselves the No. 2 seed. Their first-round series comes against the No. 7-seed Washington Mystics, who are a formidable opponent. The Local W has you covered for the playoffs and got together a playoffs preview roundtable with:
1. The Liberty built on a solid first half and went a league-best 19-3 after the All-Star break. What stood out the most to you about the Liberty after the break?
Kevin Lewis: Two players: Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney. Since the infamous three-point contest, Ionescu has etched her name in the record books this season, toppling the single-season three-point record and has vastly inserted herself in Sandy Brondello’s scheme of down screen three-point shooting queen, averaging close to 17 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists.
The other queen, Betnijah Laney, has found her niche in the system, averaging north of 16 points after the break and making a convincing case to be All-Defense First Team. The Liberty have found their footing going into the playoffs, despite the recent buzzer-beater loss to their first-round opponent, the Washington Mystics.
Migi Contreras: The three-point shooting. Almost everyone on the Liberty can shoot, allowing it to spark comebacks or utterly destroy teams through that alone. Marine Johannes being able to chuck up a shot and splash it with no effort is Stephen Curry-esque. Ionescu also proved that her amazing performance in the three-point contest was not a fluke either. If they’re going to make a deep playoff run, the Liberty raining threes on their opponents will be a big reason why.
Ella Morrissey: What stood out the most was how the team’s chemistry has evolved and strengthened over the season, especially after the All-Star break. After the addition of three new superstars to the starting lineup, it was for sure going to take some time to develop playing with one another. Both Jonquel Jones and Johannes have also stepped up and gained confidence as the season progressed and have had huge impacts. The team is finally comfortable playing with one another and has improved communication, level of play and their ability to keep a lead.
Hamilton Neill: The emergence of Jones as a nightly double-double force. Prior to the All-Star break, she struggled to find her place within the Liberty’s superteam dynamic. While Breanna Stewart, Ionescu, Courtney Vandersloot and Laney shined, Jones came slowly out of the gates. That was partly due to injury and partly due to adjusting to a new system.
Post All-Star break however, Jones was a woman on a mission, averaging 12.2 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks. Her return to MVP form has the Liberty in prime position make a postseason run.
2. Despite the absence of Candace Parker, the Aces continued to stay on top of the standings and are poised to go on another deep playoff run. What’s the most important thing Vegas needs to do if it wants to repeat as WNBA champions?
KL: Trust in the reserves. Cayla George, Kierstan Bell and Sydney Colson are just as important as the core, even with the absence of CP3. Becky Hammon needs to continue to trust them in spot minutes to allow the stars to get a breather and compound on teams early so that adequate rest is given in the fourth quarter.
MC: Stay healthy and have solid bench play. The Aces have been able to figure out ways to adjust and win with Parker out indefinitely as she recovers from left foot surgery. In her stead, Hammon has relied on the ‘Core Four’ of A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray, Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum, the four players who were instrumental in winning the WNBA Finals last year. With Parker out of the lineup, that story has not changed. If the Aces want to secure title No. 2 and cement their place as a dynasty, the Core Four need to be on the court. Also, the team needs some solid bench play when Hammon staggers the lineups throughout the game. Kiah Stokes has filled in solidly as a starter in place of Parker, and Alysha Clark has been a three-point sharpshooter and defensive stalwart. It’s going to be up to Bell, George and Colson to make their minutes count if/when Hammon calls their number.
EM: If the Aces want to repeat as WNBA champions, they are going to need contributions from their bench. While Clark is a Sixth Woman of the Year candidate, Vegas also needs scoring its other players to give starters a rest in making a deep playoff run. While it can be expected that Wilson will continue to play and score at a high level, the Aces are also going to need consistent high-scoring games from players like Plum and Young and will also need Stokes to play productive minutes. Their defensive production has fluctuated over the season, especially with Parker out, and so if shots are not falling, the Aces are going to need to step it up defensively.
HN: The play of Young. As much talk as Wilson, Plum and Gray get, Young’s importance can’t be understated.
This season, the fifth-year guard from Notre Dame averaged a career-high 17.6 points, while also posting 4.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Additionally, she ranked second in the league in three-point percentage, connecting on 44.9% of her shots from behind the arc. She is the X-factor.
3. Now that the regular season is over, make your picks for:
KL: A’ja Wilson. The most complete season of her career, even with Parker out, in which she elevated her game at that time and kept Vegas at the top.
MC: A’ja Wilson. She was the best player on a 34-6 Las Vegas Aces squad that was the best team in the league and averaged 22.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists and a league-leading 2.2 blocks. Fans know what Wilson is capable of on defense, but offensively, she has been spectacular. She has recorded six 30-point games this season and has been the foundation for the Aces offense. Better yet, she’s the third-ever player to have had a 50+ point game in the WNBA. That is MVP level play and why she is deserving of being a back-to-back MVP.
EM: Alyssa Thomas. While Breanna Stewart and Wilson also both deserve the award, what Thomas has done this season is unprecedented. I do not think anyone expected the Connecticut Sun to have a 27-13 record, and much of that is due to Thomas’s play including a record number of triple-doubles, double-doubles and leading the league in rebounds per game. She is also the first player in WNBA history with 600 points, 300 rebounds and 300 assists and has been dominant across the entire stat sheet.
HN: Breanna Stewart. While there is a very strong case to be made for WIlson, Stewart is the MVP of 2023. Moving from Seattle to New York, Stewie achieved career-best statistics, averaging 23 points and 3.8 assists. Additionally, she contributed 9.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.6 blocks.
Stewart ranked second in scoring, third in rebounds and fourth in blocks within the league. Remarkably, she made history by becoming the first player in the league to maintain averages of at least 23 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 assists per game throughout a season. Furthermore, Stewart set a new WNBA record with four 40-point games in a single season, a feat that also tied her with Diana Taurasi for the most such games in WNBA history.
Defensive Player of the Year
KL: A’ja Wilson. Vegas is top two in the league in defensive efficiency/rating, and Wilson is the sole reason for that.
MC: A’ja Wilson again. She led the league in blocks, defensive rating and defensive win shares. She guards every opponent’s best player and plays great help defense. Wilson’s the primary reason the Aces have the best defense in the league. With her as the defensive anchor, someone who’s able to guard anyone but is also versatile enough to play free safety in the paint, her resume screams DPOY.
EM: Betnijah Laney. Laney has been a force on the defensive end this season, often guarding the opposing team’s best player on a nightly basis. While it may not always show up on the stat sheet, she is tenacious and aggressive on defense, forcing bad shots, turnovers and never letting up. She received All-Defensive first team honors in 2020 and has continued to improve defensively since then.
HN: Alyssa Thomas. Led by Thomas, the Sun stifled their opponents, limiting them to 43.5% shooting while causing turnovers on 19.8% of their possessions. This exceptional defensive prowess propelled the team to claim the second-best defensive rating in the league at 98.8.
Thomas’s unmatched versatility, physicality and leadership shone brightly on the defensive end, and on a personal level, she not only led the league in defensive rebounding (7.9) but also ranked third in steals (1.8). Her relentless efforts on the defensive side of the court played a pivotal role in the Sun’s historic achievement of 27 wins, a franchise record, and an impressive third-place finish in the league standings.
Coach of the Year
KL: Steph White. No one expected the Sun to be the No. 3 seed, yet she has an MVP candidate and overcame the loss of Bri Jones to a season-ending injury.
MC: Sandy Brondello of the New York Liberty. What she has done with the talent acquired for the Liberty is nothing short of impressive. Brondello coached a talented team to a 32-8 record led by Stewart, Jones and Ionescu. Even with the star power, she has shown how capable she is of making every role player feel like a key contributor. The team ranks second in offensive rating, third in defensive rating and second in net rating. Brondello has coached this team to new heights, particularly with the Commissioner’s Cup victory this year.
EM: Cheryl Reeve. After starting 0-6, Reeve helped the Lynx to the No. 6 seed. The team has battled injuries all year and had two rookies inserted into the starting lineup for most of the season. Reeve helped to continue to develop her younger players and brought the team back into contention after a rough start. She also recently recorded the 300th win of her coaching career.
HN: Sandy Brondello. In her second season on the job, Brondello has elevated the Liberty from playoff contender to championship contender. Her pace-and-space-style offense, with an emphasis on ball movement, fits the superstar personnel the team boasts. She is a proven winner and has brought a championship mentality and culture to the organization.
4. What was the biggest storyline in the WNBA this season?
KL: Two things: Alyssa Thomas’s historic triple-double season and Sabrina Ionescu’s surge after the three-point contest.
MC: The Aces-Liberty matchups and vying for the No. 1 seed. Overall, the Liberty beat the Aces in the season series 3-2. Each matchup was a spectacle of talent that never disappoints. Las Vegas and New York are the league’s two best teams by a decent margin and it showed throughout the season. Heading into the season, this was supposed to be the potential Finals matchup, and that can become reality with how the bracket has shaken out. This is the superteam era of the WNBA and it has been fun watching the Aces and Liberty show how much they are on another level.
EM: Some of my favorite storylines of the WNBA season have included just the amount of records that have been broken. From Diana Taurasi hitting the 10,000-point mark, Breanna Stewart’s four 40-point games, Sabrina Ionescu’s record in the All-Star game three-point contest and breaking the record of most threes in a season, Jewell Lloyd’s most points in a season and A’ja Wilson’s 53-point game, fans have not yet seen this level of offensive play in the WNBA. Even with more games this season, these milestones are big, and it has been awesome to see the game grow in this way. There have also been some great rivalries and viewership and attendance records broken.
HN: The New York Liberty’s superteam. When this much talent is on one squad, naturally there are a lot of questions. Will they gel? How long will it take? Can success be sustained?
The answer to all of those questions has been a resounding yes. While it did not happen overnight, the Liberty stars have put it together individually and collectively, from Breanna Stewart’s all-around dominance, Sabrina Ionescu’s flamethrowing, Courtney Vandersloot’s passing wizardry, Jonquel Jones’s physicality and Betnijah Laney’s versatility.
5. The Liberty begin the playoffs against the Washington Mystics on Friday night. What do you think will be the biggest key for New York?
KL: Guard play on the defensive end. Ionescu, Vandersloot and Johannes need to be perfect against Cloud, Sykes and Atkins. Also, Stewart has to win the battle head-to-head against Elena Delle Donne. Stewart has historically had trouble against Delle Donne head-to-head, so she has to be aggressive early and force Delle Donne to exert energy defensively.
MC: Stop Delle Donne. This is easier said than done, but the world knows that the Mystics revolve around Delle Donne. The Liberty will probably out-talent the Mystics to win the series, but Delle Donne will keep it interesting. If Delle Donne cannot get anything going offensively, then the Liberty will have fewer worries about dropping a game.
EM: While the Mystics have battled many injuries this year to their stars, including Delle Donne, Ariel Atkins and Shakira Austin, they are a dangerous team when healthy, especially on the defensive end. Brittney Sykes has been on a scoring tear and is one of the best defensive players and Natasha Cloud is one of the better two-way players in the league. The Liberty will have to stick to what they know, get a strong game from their starting five and productive minutes from their bench and also will need to limit their turnovers, one of their biggest struggles in the regular season. Paint play will be important if Stewart and Jonquel Jones can get offensive rebounds and give the Liberty second chances since they are a bigger team than the Mystics.
HN: Continued consistency from Jonquel Jones. New York is a drastically different team when Jones comes to play. Her ability to grab rebounds at both ends, work as a screener and passer, play physical down low and stretch the floor is critical in the Liberty’s quest for their first championship.
6. Which first round do you think is the most intriguing?
KL: New York vs. Washington, because Washington is not the best matchup for New York. This could potentially be an upset if New York starts off sluggish.
MC: Atlanta vs. Dallas, two up-and-coming teams with young, budding stars. This matchup feels like it is going to be a stepping stone into a brighter future for whichever team wins, while the loser has to go back to the drawing board. Rhyne Howard against Arike Ogunbowale will be the biggest draw in this series, but seeing Allisha Gray and Cheyenne Parker face off against Satou Sabally and Natasha Howard will be a big factor in deciding the winner.
EM: I can see the New York and Washington series going to three games if the Mystics stay fully healthy, especially since they are coming into the series with momentum after beating the Liberty in the final regular season game on a Sykes buzzer-beater. I can also see the Dallas and Atlanta matchup being very interesting and high-scoring with players like Arike Ogunbowale and Rhyne Howard for their respective teams.
HN: Dallas vs. Atlanta. This series gives a matchup between arguably the two most electric guards in the league in Ogunbowale and Howard. Both have the ability to pop off for 30 or more on any given night. This will be a fun series with two sound, well-coached teams battling it out.
7. First-round predictions
KL: All top seeds win, but New York vs. Washington and Connecticut vs. Minnesota go three games.
MC: Las Vegas sweeps Chicago, Atlanta wins 2-1 Dallas, New York wins 2-1 Washington and Connecticut sweeps Minnesota.
EM: Las Vegas over Chicago in two games, New York over Washington in three games, Connecticut over Minnesota in two games and Dallas over Atlanta in three games.
HN: Las Vegas over Chicago in two games, New York over Washington in three games, Connecticut over Minnesota in two games and Dallas over Atlanta in three games.