Starting Five: Storylines to look out for as 2021 WNBA season resumes

Photo Credit: Lamar Carter

While the Tokyo 202(1) Olympics were memorable for a number of reasons – one had to admit that the WNBA withdrawals were strong.

When the W said that there would be an Olympic break within the 2021 season, the W meant it. That was more than a break – it was essentially a miniature offseason, but for injured players such as Natasha Howard and Elena Delle Donne, it was a worthwhile opportunity to heal up for the stretch run.

With our WNBA women once again trading the colors of their national teams for their W squads, here are five things to look out for as the season resumes – beginning with the Commissioner’s Cup Final at the Footprint Center (home of the Phoenix Mercury) between the Seattle Storm and Connecticut Sun.

WINdiana Fever

It was not that long ago when it appeared that the Indiana Fever were on a beeline to land the No. 1 overall pick in the lottery by virtue of having the worst record in the league at a not-so-robust 1-16.

Then out of nowhere, the Fever reeled off a few victories – including a huge one over those very Sun.

Indiana closed out the pre-Olympic break portion of the schedule with a three-game winning streak. The break was probably the worst thing that could happen for Indiana as it may have stunted the Fever’s momentum.

Marianne Stanley’s team will take the court next on the road at Los Angeles against the Sparks as LA’s resident WNBA team finally gets out of its “bubbly” court at the Convnetion Center and back to Staples.

On the Wings of Liberty

Out of last season’s four lottery teams, the New York Liberty and Dallas Wings appear the best-positioned to emerge from the lottery and into the playoffs. As of today, the Lib would be the sixth seed in the playoffs and the Wings would be just barely outside the playoff picture looking in.

As expected, Dallas has been led by Arike Ogunbowale who is putting in another MVP-worthy season. Marina Mabrey is also making a strong case for Most Improved Player and coach Vickie Johnson may also be in the Coach of the Year conversation. The same can apply to Liberty coach Walt Hopkins. Betnijah Laney should also earn herself plenty of MVP votes and Michaela Onyenwere looks to be the favorite for Rookie of the Year.

The Wings open the post-Olympic break portion of the 2021 campaign at home vs. Connecticut. New York takes to the road to take on Minnesota.

Sweet Dreams?

For a good portion of the latter part of the pre-Olympic break schedule, the Atlanta Dream became a story for reasons not exactly having to do with basketball. With reported problems in its locker room following a blowout loss at the Las Vegas Aces, the Dream began making headlines for reasons that had to be much to the chagrin of Renee Montgomery.

Over the Olympic break, it was announced that Mike Pedersen would be stepping down as head coach because of health reasons. As a result, Darius Taylor (husband of Georgia women’s basketball coach Joni Taylor) will assume the reins in Atlanta for the remainder of the season. The only burning question that remains is if Taylor will be the permanent coach beginning with the 2022 season.

How the Dream perform down the stretch will likely go a long way in determining that.

ReinvigoratEDD?

If the playoffs were to begin today, the Washington Mystics, champions from two seasons ago, would occupy the eighth seed, spearheaded by a Tina Charles who has firmly entrenched herself into the conversation for MVP in her first season with the ‘Stics.

But….could Washington be on the verge of getting a much-needed boost that may change the WNBA’s landscape down the stretch?

Elena Delle Donne is practicing again … and she and coach Mike Thibault were part of a recent media availability session. Thibault says that a decision on EDD will be made by the end of the week. Washington’s first game back off the Olympic break is on August 15 at Las Vegas.

If Delle Donne is healthy for the Mystics’ stretch run, the Seattle Storms, Las Vegas Aces, Connecticut Suns and Chicago Skys of the WNBA family may want to check their rear view mirrors for a potentially hard-charging red, white and blue Beast.

Late-Season Spark?

To say that the past few months have been a saga for the Los Angeles Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike has been an understatement. From injuring her knee to being snubbed from the Team USA roster for the Tokyo Olympics to a hail-mary effort to attempt to play for Nigeria’s D’Tigress, the elder of the Ogwumike sisters has been through the ringer.

Ogwumike is returning at a time where Derek Fisher’s Sparks desperately need her. As of today, Los Angeles was in the throes of a six-game losing streak and are three games in the loss column behind the Mystics for the eighth and final playoff berth.

In 2016, when ex-Spark Candace Parker was snubbed from that season’s Olympic team, Parker followed it up by getting revenge in the best way – winning a championship. As great a player as Ogwumike is, she did not need any additional “spark” to make the rest of the W recognize who she is.

The last few months may provide just that.

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