WNBA playoff format may upend idea of ‘just win and get in’

Photo Credit: Lamar Carter

We are only two weeks shy of the conclusion of the 2022 WNBA season – and if this season has told us anything it is that the W is no longer as top heavy as it was a few years ago when it practically served as the Minnesota Lynx-Los Angeles Sparks invitational.

As of today, five teams have clinched playoff berths – the defending champion Chicago Sky in addition to the Las Vegas Aces, Seattle Storm, Connecticut Sun and Washington Mystics.

Only the Indiana Fever have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs which leaves six teams vying for the final three berths. Those teams are the Phoenix Mercury, Dallas Wings, Atlanta Dream and New York Liberty in addition to the Sparks and Lynx.

If those playoffs were to begin today, the final three berths would be clinched by the Wings, Mercury and Sparks leaving the Dream, Lynx and Liberty on the outside looking in.

The interesting thing is only three games separate six through 11 in the WNBA’s current pecking order. And obviously it is much better to be in the playoffs than out of the playoffs and staring lottery ping pong balls in the face (or looking at no ping pong balls if a team happened to trade away a draft pick – looking at you, Merc.)

Interestingly enough, the 2022 season is also the first season of the WNBA’s new playoff format – one that unquestionably favors teams such as Chicago, Las Vegas and Connecticut. Instead of single-elimination in the first two rounds, it now features a first-round best-of-three where the higher seed hosts the first two games and the lower seed hosts a Game 3 if necessary. All top five seeds are top five seeds because they have taken care of business – for the most part – at home.

Under the single-elimination format, the idea used to be more in line with a win-and-get-in scenario that could benefit the lower seeds. An example of this was seen last season when the Liberty barely eked into the postseason and set themselves up with a first-round matchup at the Mercury.

New York nearly pulled out the win, but that was the intrigue of single-elimination – a team like the Liberty could play one of its best games and catch the Mercury on a possible off night (and without Diana Taurasi) to have a chance to advance. In short series, the better team almost always proves to be victorious.

One obviously would want to be a five seed or a six seed under this postseason format rather than a seven or an eight.

For the Wings – its remaining schedule is at the Sky, vs. the Aces, vs. the Fever, a back-to-back on Aug 8 and 10 vs. the Liberty, at the Mercury and at the Sparks.

For the Mercury – its remaining schedule features back-to-back on the roads at the Sun, then vs. the Liberty on Aug. 6 then vs. the Lynx, vs. the Wings and vs. a Sky team that may or may not be resting its starters for the playoffs.

For the Sparks – its remaining schedule features back-to-back on the roads at the Liberty (on back-to-back days) then at the Dream, at the Mystics, then a back-to-back vs. the Sun, then vs. the Wings.

For the Dream – its remaining schedule includes vs. the Fever, vs. the Sparks, at the Lynx, at the Aces, then closing out the season with a home-and-home with the Liberty first at Gateway Center on August 12 then at Barclays Center on August 14.

For the Lynx – its remaining schedule includes at the Storm, vs. the Dream, at the Mercury, vs. the Storm and at the Sun.

For the Liberty – its remaining schedule includes the back-to-backs at Barclays vs. the Sparks then at the Mercury then back-to-back on the roads at the Wings then the home-and-home with the Dream.

On paper, the team with the most favorable schedule is the Liberty. After all – none of New York’s remaining matchups are against teams that have already clinched playoff berths. But Phoenix’s schedule also looks promising from a standpoint of the final matchup with Chicago. But if the Aces are on the Sky’s heels going into that final game of the season, it is likely James Wade will play his starters to secure the No. 1 overall seed.

These playoffs will feel like they are here one moment then gone the next given how the schedule also runs right next to the FIBA World Cup in September. We are setting ourselves up for a sprint to the end of the regular season and another one to a championship.

Buckle up, WNBA family. This ride will get Wild.