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Above The Break: Checking in on some teams in the playoff hunt

This week, Above The Break surveys WNBA teams vying for playoffs: a faltering Liberty unit, Chiney Ogwumike as a Sparks plug, and a surviving Mercury.

As we start to approach the end of this WNBA season, which is just about three
weeks away now, we’re starting to see the playoff picture solidify. New York is now
3.5 games back of eighth, for instance, while the Sky have become the first team to
clinch a playoff spot and are two games up on Vegas in the loss column in the race
for the No. 1 seed.

This week, we’re diving into some storylines from teams that are in the big mess of
teams between 6th and 11h in the standings.

The Liberty have lost five in a row

There’s really no other way to say this: it’s been a weird season for the New York
Liberty.

With Thursday’s 78-69 loss to the Mystics, New York has now lost five straight. After
taking down the Aces116-107 on July 6 in a game where Sabrina Ionescu scored the
first 30-point triple double in league history, things have gone sour in a hurry. An
offense that looked like it had turned a corner has now taken a u-turn.

Take Thursday’s loss, for example. The Liberty shot 41.9 percent from the floor and 30.8 percent from three, plus turned the ball over 15 times. The center duo of Stefanie Dolson and
Han Xu went a combined 3-for-10 from the floor, and the team continued to struggle
to find a backup four, with Jocelyn Willoughby playing just six minutes.

Willoughby, who missed much of this season with a quad injury, hasn’t really found
her place in the two games since returning. Personally, I think her shooting and
defense would make her an ideal stretch four for this team, which would allow
Natasha Howard to rest more and stay fresher.

But Willoughby isn’t going to solve the biggest issue this team has, which is that they
just don’t have the offensive talent to compete night in and night out with the league’s
best teams. New York remains a piece or two away. And if things keep going in this
direction, they might get that piece, as they’ll likely end up with the second-best odds
for the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft, provided the team doesn’t turn things
around and make a late playoff push.

Chiney Ogwumike is playing some of her best basketball

When Chiney Ogwumike initially left the Sun for the Sparks in 2019, I thought it was
the beginning of something big. That Sparks team had both Ogwumike sisters, plus
Chelsea Gray and Candace Parker. But Chiney, who shot over 50 percent from the floor in
all three of her seasons with the Sun, has never shot over 50 percent from the floor as a
Spark. She sat out 2020 and played just seven games last year.

But with Liz Cambage missing some time, Chiney has gotten a shot to play heavier
minutes lately for the Sparks. She’s started the team’s last four games and is averaging
11.8 points and 10.0 rebounds on 47.5 percent shooting over that span. She’s still missing
that efficiency that made her such an important player in Connecticut, but Chiney is at
least finally delivering some of what was expected when she first came to the Sparks.

Los Angeles is 2-2 since Chiney became a starter, and has now won the last two games. At
this point, the team should keep rolling with an all-Ogwumike frontcourt, especially
because of what that frontcourt has done for the defense. The Sparks have the same
offensive rating with Chiney on and off the floor, but the team is better with her on the court vs. off the court with10.5 points allowed per 100 possessions. Meanwhile, the
offense improves when Liz Cambage is on the floor, but the defense gets worse.

Trying to sort out the big rotation is tough. Cambage brings more upside on offense
because her size allows her to bully opposing fives, but you get a lot more versatility,
especially defensively, with Chiney on the floor. Cambage can be a liability in space.
Chiney has a lot more movement to her game.

The Mercury are somehow surviving their lack of depth

Phoenix sits at 11-16 right now and has gone 5-5 in the last 10 games. The team isn’t
setting the world on fire, but it’s surviving, despite the fact that the team ended up
unexpectedly moving on from Tina Charles earlier this season.

The Mercury now have arguably the worst depth in the league. With Diamond
DeShields hurt, the team’s top bench player in minutes last game was Jennie Simms,
who played 13 minutes. Simms is a 28-year-old guard from Old Dominion whose
WNBA career before this season was 14 games in 2017, when she shot 24 percent from the
floor for the Mystics and Fever.

We talk a lot about the Aces relying heavily on their starters, but that’s by design. Riquna Williams can play. There’s depth there that could provide you something in a pinch.

The Mercury are in a different boat.

I don’t think there’s a world where Phoenix would have said, “Sure, we’ll be playing
Sophie Cunningham and Shey Peddy both for 30-plus minutes per night” before this
season began, but that’s where we are.

Over the last four games, three of the WNBA’s top 10 scorers play in Phoenix, with Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Sophie Cunninham each scoring over 20 points per game. No other team has more than one player averaging that many points over that span.

The issue is that only two of the nine players who’ve averaged 20 or more points in
that span have shot under 50 percent from the floor: Taurasi at 37.3 percent and SDS at 32.5 percent.

The wear is starting to show for Phoenix, which begs an important question: can they
keep this up? I mean…when one of your only rotation players is Brianna Turner, a
defensive specialist who rarely takes more than a couple of shots, you’re going to end
up asking your guards to shoot too much. Taurasi’s inefficiency has been a concern
for a few years now. SDS has been involved in trade rumors, and while the deadline is
past now, so she’ll be finishing this year off with the Mercury, you have to wonder
what her future is, and if that will impact her play down the stretch. And Cunningham
is in the midst of the best scoring stretch of her career, but is it sustainable?

Lots of questions. And with just three more games against teams over .500, there’s a
chance that despite all this uncertainty, this team finds itself in a place that it probably
shouldn’t be based on the current roster construction and the inefficiency of its stars:
the playoffs.

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