The 2021 WNBA season is back after its monthlong Olympic break. And as the season wraps up, it promises to be a thrilling one, as teams step up their game to get into the playoffs.
While the Las Vegas Aces and the Seattle Storm are still at the top, their lead has shortened, with the Aces tied with Connecticut Sun for the best record in the league after a stretch of losses without Jonquel Jones. The Minnesota Lynx, who are playing their best basketball at the best possible time, are working to erase any weaknesses that showed before the break. The Phoenix Mercury, who were struggling to find consistency all season, are now on a streak that puts them within striking distance of a possible fourth-place finish and a first-round playoff bye.
But with only eight of the 12 teams able to qualify for the playoffs, and with less than a month left in the regular season, some are in danger of missing out on a spot entirely. Every game is now a must-win for teams such as the Washington Mystics -- who now have two-time former MVP Elena Delle Donne back on the court -- and the Dallas Wings if they want to play on into October.
1. Las Vegas Aces
Previous ranking: 1
Before the Olympic break, the Aces were on a roll. They're still on one, having won both of their games since the return.
Their offensive (107.0) and defensive ratings (95.7) are still the best and second-best in the league, respectively, and they have been rebounding (39.2 RPG) and moving the ball (20.9 assists per game) just like they were before the break.
The A'ja Wilson-Liz Cambage connection is still on fire, Chelsea Gray continues to make those key assists and Jackie Young can always be counted on to lock down opponents on defense. Gray, Young, Wilson, Kelsey Plum and JiSu Park were all part of Tokyo Games, so it was not surprising that they showed a few signs of fatigue in their two games against the Washington Mystics, having to come back from double-digit deficits in both.
The Aces are on the road for their next three games, which might affect these players' energy -- but two of those games are against the two worst teams in the league. Playing the Connecticut Sun on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN3) will be the biggest challenge.
This week: @CON, @ATL, @IND
2. Seattle Storm
Previous ranking: 2
The Storm are back on track, winning two consecutive games after an uncharacteristic two straight losses out of the Olympic break. All season long, the Storm have been an offensive juggernaut, thanks to reigning MVP Breanna Stewart and fellow Olympic gold-medal winner Jewell Loyd. But Sunday's win against the Washington Mystics shows just how good Seattle is as a whole when its star players are having an off night. Both Loyd and Sue Bird had just eight points each, and even though Stewart scored 20 points, she was only 6-of-19 from the field. Role players like Mercedes Russell (14 points, 8 rebounds) and Katie Lou Samuelson (10 points) led the way, and Ezi Magbegor had 14 points off the bench.
Seattle's defense -- one of its minor weaknesses -- also has improved since the break. It held its last two opponents to 78 and 83 points, respectively.
The coming week is possibly a welcomed pre-playoff challenge: on the road against a strong Minnesota Lynx and then back-to-back games against an always-competitive Chicago Sky, who are just holding on to a playoff berth.
This week: @MIN, CHI, CHI
3. Connecticut Sun
Previous ranking: 3
The Sun are on a five-game winning streak -- the Commissioner's Cup result doesn't impact stats or standings -- punctuated by back-to-back wins over the surging Minnesota Lynx.
Even with Connecticut's Big Three -- Jonquel Jones (20.6 points per game, 11.4 RPG), Brionna Jones (14.4 PPG, 6.8 RPG) and DeWanna Bonner (15.8 PPG, 6.9 RPG) -- scoring big, the Sun's offense averages 79.1 PPG, which is third worst in the league.
If the Sun want to stay at the top and make a run at an WNBA championship this year, they have to put up more points. Playing at home for their next three contests should give them that opportunity to work out some offensive kinks.
This week: LV, LA, LA
4. Minnesota Lynx
Previous ranking: 4
The Lynx turned around after two straight losses with a win against the Chicago Sky that was highlighted by stellar contributions from six players in double figures: Layshia Clarendon (18), Crystal Dangerfield (16), Kayla McBride (16), Sylvia Fowles (15), Napheesa Collier (14) and Aerial Powers (10), who also returned from a three-month hiatus due to thumb surgery.
Minnesota's defensive rating, which was lagging before the break, also has improved, putting it in the middle of the pack (99.6). With that, it now has the fourth-best record in the WNBA, after opening the season with four consecutive losses.
A big test this week will be hosting the defending champion Seattle Storm, to whom they lost back-to-back games early in the season. But after that, the Lynx have a week off, which could interrupt their momentum with less than a month left in the 2021 campaign.
This week: SEA
5. Phoenix Mercury
Previous ranking: 6
The Mercury are on a four-game win streak as they make a push for a playoff spot -- and the first-round bye that comes with finishing fourth in the regular season -- despite only being three games over .500.
It helps that in these post-break games, Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi are finally all healthy -- Taurasi had missed nine games due to a back injury, then played three and went on to miss another three for a hip injury -- and the Mercury appear to be playing like the team everyone thought they would be at the start of the season.
Also promising: an improvement in offense. The Mercury were ranked seventh before the break, but they are now fifth (101.6). If Phoenix can keep moving up on both offense and defense, currently seventh, it could be a viable postseason threat.
This week: @NY, @NY
6. Chicago Sky
Previous ranking: 5
The Sky are once again without Candace Parker (day-to-day) after she aggravated an ankle injury, and they are barely holding onto a playoff spot. They're 5-5 in their past 10 games, with the previous two being losses.
That said, Chicago still moves the ball better than any other team (21.7 APG) thanks to Courtney Vandersloot, who leads the league with 9.2 APG. The Sky also have the third-best defensive rating (96.9) and fourth-best scoring (82.7) in the league.
Their past two losses have been by single digits due to opponents dominating inside and outrebounding them by double digits -- which is what happens when your top rebounder (Parker) is out.
They now go on the road to face an easier Atlanta Dream team but then the Storm in Seattle in back-to-back games. The Storm have only lost three games at home, yet the Sky are 7-4 away from Chicago; being able to at least split that series will keep them afloat in the tight playoff race.
This week: @ATL, @SEA, @SEA
7. Dallas Wings
Previous ranking: 8
The Wings have only won one of their three post-break games -- not ideal in the push for a playoff spot.
Before the break, the Wings needed to find consistency to close out games. It doesn't seem like they have accomplished this. What they do have going for them: Arike Ogunbowale (18.6 PPG, 3.4 APG, 3.2 RPG) is still leading the offense, knocking down shots from just about anywhere. The other young players -- including Marina Mabrey, a leading candidate for this year's Most Improved Player, and 3x3 gold-medal winner Allisha Gray -- are exciting to watch, and it's obvious they're coming into their own.
The Wings must be more consistent in the final eight games if they want to keep their season alive. They have been outscored in the fourth quarter of all three games since returning from the break, even in their one win. Now, they go on the road to face another team hungry to make a playoff push in Washington, and they can't afford to drop one game this week.
This week: @WAS, @WAS
8. New York Liberty
Previous ranking: 7
The Liberty have won only two of their past 10 games. In their most recent loss, to the Los Angeles Sparks, they turned the ball over 25 times, netted zero fast-break points and scored just 20 points in the paint.
Betnijah Laney, 2020's Most Improved Player, looked before the break like she could win the award again. But since coming back, she has struggled in the past two losses, scoring just 9 and 10 points, respectively.
One bright spot is the return of Natasha Howard, who has recovered from an MCL sprain and has been back in an offensive rhythm over the past three tilts. Howard dropped 30 points in the first one back, even though it was a loss. Still, her ability to score should help the Liberty against a hot Phoenix next week and bump them up from having the ninth-ranked offense (79.6 PPG).
This week: PHO, PHO
9. Los Angeles Sparks
Previous ranking: 11
At the break, the Sparks looked like they were out of the playoffs. But after winning four straight, they're eighth in the standings, in no small part due to having Nneka Ogwumike and Chiney Ogwumike back from injuries.
Los Angeles' defense continues to be as good as it was before the Olympic break: In its latest win against the New York Liberty, it forced 22 turnovers; and in the past four triumphs, it has held opponents to just 74.25 PPG.
The offense, however, is still in need of work, averaging a league-low 74.0 PPG. With the Ogwumike sisters back, that will likely change, hopefully sooner rather than later, with three tough games against top teams on the docket this week.
This week: @WAS, @CON, @CON
10. Washington Mystics
Previous ranking: 9
Washington is thrilled to have two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne back after 22 months and a pair of back surgeries. The team, which was plagued with other injuries in the first half of the season, is now fully healthy.
The Mystics have only won two of the past 10 games, which includes a four-game losing streak, and that puts them 10th in the standings. This week, they host the Los Angeles Sparks (eighth place) and the Dallas Wings (ninth place), two teams that also can't afford to lose more games if they want to make the playoffs.
Which means more shots have to fall for them. Delle Donne's ability to score -- and also facilitate for her teammates -- will hopefully pair well with Tina Charles (25.7 PPG, 9.7 RPG) and help turn things around.
This week: LA, DAL, DAL
11. Atlanta Dream
Previous ranking: 10
It's looking more likely that the Dream won't make the playoffs, and they have a lot of questions to answer as the season nears its conclusion. Questions that include the future of Chennedy Carter, the team's top scorer who was suspended indefinitely in July due to conduct detrimental to the team. In her absence, Courtney Williams (16.7 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 4.7 APG) has stepped up to become a bright spot for Atlanta, which also is eagerly awaiting Tiffany Hayes' return from an MCL tear. Under newly promoted assistant coach Darius Taylor, the team has things to look forward to, and build on, as the season carries on.
This week: CHI, LV
12. Indiana Fever
Previous ranking: 12
Even though the Fever won their most recent game and four of their past 10, they still have the worst record in the league, which includes the second-worst offensive rating and the worst defensive rating.
In a chaotic season that included waiving their 2020 lottery pick Lauren Cox in June and seeing their 2021 lottery pick Kysre Gondrezick step away from the team due to personal reasons earlier this month, there are still bright spots. Kelsey Mitchell (16.3 PPG) and Teaira McCowan (11.1 PPG, 8.7 RPG) both put up admirable performances, and they can help Indiana improve its overall play.
This week: LV