So here’s the plan: Team USA wins Olympic gold, sparking some serious interest in women’s basketball. Then, when the WNBA gets back at it Aug. 16, new fans flock to a thrilling final five weeks of play as teams battle it out for a spot in postseason.
The only ugly little fact lurking around the corner with a set of brass knuckles is that the playoff hunt is already pretty much over. Only New York has the slimmest chance of displacing one of the eight teams already in playoff position, and the other three also-rans – Washington, Phoenix and Tulsa – can safely focus on hexing the ping-pong balls so that Brittney Griner winds up playing for them.
So does it really make any difference if Diana Taurasi suits up for Phoenix after the Olympics? Not in terms of the Mercury making the playoffs, as you’ll see below, though there might be a lot of fans who would feel a little abused if DT just took the rest of the year off to rest up for her European season.
And more unfortunately, the WNBA can’t really expect much stretch run excitement, as home-court advantage and the number of ping-pong balls in the lottery are about all that will be at stake in September.
The gory details …
Assumptions: The top eight teams each will go .500 against each other, and win two out of three against the bottom four. When there’s a fraction, the teams above .500 will be rounded up to the next win; the teams one game below .500 will be rounded down to the next loss.
Naturally, this isn’t how things will play out, but it gives us a very conservative benchmark to measure against. It’s possible one of the top eight will go completely into the tank and lose 13 of its remaining games, but barring something unforeseen, the above assumptions should paint a reasonably accurate overall picture.
Using that formula, Minnesota, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Connecticut and Indiana all finish with 20 or more wins, and Chicago, Atlanta and Seattle all finish at 17-17. (If it seems unlikely that the last three will manage to split their games with the top five, remember that all three will add big-time players after the break.)
Connecticut and Indiana each have six games remaining against the bottom four, and we only credit them with four wins each. They also only get credit for going one game above .500 against everyone else – but still, the Sun wind up with 24 wins and the Fever with 20. Since neither New York nor Washington can reach 24 wins, Connecticut is safe, and even if New York went 14-2 the rest of the way, Indiana would most likely still make the playoffs.
So Washington and New York must hunt down 9-10 Atlanta and 8-9 Chicago to get into postseason, and we’ll start with the hopeless case.
The Mystics have only three games left against the bottomfeeders and six against the teams one game below .500. So first, they must sweep all nine games, which would improve their present 4-14 record to 13-14. Since Chicago and Atlanta both project to finish 17-17, that means Washington would have to win five times in seven games against Connecticut, Indiana, Los Angeles, Minnesota and San Antonio to get to 18 and a postseason berth.
In short, it’s not happening, which of course is hardly a news flash. But the odds are pretty good, then, that the Mystics will add one of the three elite players to a roster that hopefully will be run by a new coach with more of a clue.
New York’s case is a little more interesting, as the Liberty have six games left against the bottom four teams, and if they sweep those, they’re at 12-12. They have four games against the teams one below .500 (Seattle, Chicago and Atlanta), and were they to go 3-1, they’d be 15-13. That means New York would need to split its six games against Connecticut, Indiana, Los Angeles and San Antonio to get to 18 wins, and conveniently, three are at home. In addition, if the Liberty can beat Chicago twice, they will hold the tiebreaker over the Sky.
What makes New York’s task a little tougher, though, is that Atlanta should get back Erika de Souza for the stretch run, and supposedly Chicago will get Epiphanny Prince. The presence of those two will change the equation significantly, so realistically, the Liberty’s chances of moving on to postseason went into cardiac arrest with that 70-53 loss to Washington to close out the pre-Olympic portion of the season.
The top three teams – Minnesota, San Antonio and Los Angeles – conservatively project to 24, 23 and 22 wins, respectively, so there’s no chance for Phoenix or Tulsa to catch any one of that trio.
Seattle is next, at 9-10, and given the Storm’s schedule, 17-17 looks about right. On top of that, Seattle is 2-0 against both Phoenix and Tulsa, and will get Lauren Jackson, presumably, after the Olympics.
So can Phoenix get to 18 wins? Not likely, as the Mercury have only three games left against the bottom four teams, and four against the near-.500 teams. Sweeping all seven moves them from 4-15 to 11-15, but that means Phoenix must beat the five teams that project to 20 or more wins seven out of eight times to get to postseason.
Could the addition of a 100% Diana Taurasi make that happen? What if Candice Dupree’s at full strength as well? Can they spark the Mercury to the 14-1 record they’ll need?
I think “unlikely” is kind. “Stupendously miraculous” is better.
And what about Tulsa? The Shock have played one fewer game, but the problem is that it’s against one of the elite teams. So if Tulsa sweeps its three games against the bottom four, it moves to 6-15, and then sweeps the four against the .500 teams, the record is 10-15. To get to 18 wins, then, means going 8-1 against Minnesota, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Connecticut and Indiana, and finishing the season on a 15-1 burst.
The good news: There will be no talk of tanking, as the lottery teams are already pretty much decided. Only the Liberty have an outside chance of making a move, and they start the second-half with a must-win home game against Connecticut, and then a five-game road trip culminating with a three-game Western swing.
The bad news: Excitement will be at a minimum the last few weeks, as jockeying for postseason seeding generally is less than riveting.
But maybe the playoffs will be great …
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