The East is the beast this year, no doubt, as only league-leading Seattle seems capable of giving even the bottom-dwelling Liberty much of a battle.
That strength means that two pretty good teams are going to miss the playoffs. It also means that playoff dreams can be made or dashed in a matter of a game or two. That makes for an exciting final month to the regular season.
Here's a look at how all six stack up as of July 23.
1. Indiana (14-7, 9-5 in conference): For a team that most thought would win the East, the first half of the season was something of a disappointment. But the Fever have propelled themselves from fourth place to first on the strength of a three-game winning streak since the All-Star break.
Tamika Catchings may be having her finest season (47.3 percent shooting from the field, 38.2 percent from three, 2.8 steals per game, etc.). Katie Douglas has been doing her part as well, chipping in 14.4 points per game on 45.5 percent from the field and 42.7 percent from long range.
But the post combo of Ebony Hoffman and Tammy Sutton-Brown have been a weak spot, shooting just 40 percent, and the Fever need them to perform well to open things up for Catchings and Douglas. And the point guard combination of Tully Bevilaqua and Briann January is shooting just 35.4 percent, which offsets the superb Fever defense. The rebounding could be better too,
There were high hopes that the recent arrival Shavonte Zellous from Tulsa might provide some of the spark Indiana had been lacking, but she has yet to find her groove in the Fever's rotation.
Still, Catchings and Katie Douglas have been playing well enough to put Indiana in first place.
Of course, four upcoming games against weak teams from the West could help just as much Indiana already has Seattle off the schedule -- and Indiana doesnt play any of the Eastern powers more than twice, so the ingredients are in place for a hot streak to the finish line..
2. Washington (13-7, 8-5 in conference): When Monique Currie is playing really well, the Mystics are a really good team. And even though shes cooled off a bit, shes still scoring 13.7 points per game on 42.5 percent field-goal shooting (43.1 percent from beyond the arc), and getting nearly five rebounds and 1.6 steals a game. That big jump in production has made a huge difference for the Mystics, who have won seven of their last 10 games and are just a half-game off the pace.
A big reason is Crystal Langhorne (17.2 points per game, 10.0 rebounds per game, 58.7 percent shooting), who has become one of the top power forwards in the league. Langhornes production means that the center tandem of Nakia Sanford and Chasity Melvin (a combined 11.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per game) is acceptable.
Lindsey Harding has been acceptable at the point as well, but not much more than that shes shooting well off penetration, and gets 1.8 spg, but she turns the ball over too much and is not a three-point threat. Katie Smith? Since an amazing game in which she produced no points, no rebounds, and no assists in 29 minutes, shes gone on a mini-tear to get her scoring average up to 9.4 points per game and her shooting percentage up to 37.0 percent (36.8 percent from three). Those are sad numbers for a player who was once one of the league's finest sharpshooters. Still, if maintains her recent level of production, the Washington backcourt is more than fine, but if her aging legs and back betray her, theres a weakness opponents can attack.
Depth is also an issue, as Matee Ajavon and Marissa Coleman are barely adequate and Jacinta Monroe and Ashley Houts are overmatched rookies.
But the Mystics have made it work so far with this combination, and if Smith and Currie both play well down the stretch, the Mystics are legit contenders for the Eastern Conference title.
3. Atlanta Dream (14-9, 6-7 in conference): See how the mighty have fallen! Atlanta ruled the roost in the East in the early going, but their recent four-game losing streak has been a nightmare for the Dream, dropping them into third. Still, that early spurt has left them only one game out of first, and still very much part of the playoff conversation.
The Dream dont shoot free throws very well, and they dont shoot threes very well. Otherwise, theres not much to carp about with this group, who have been proving the Marynell Meadors detractors wrong at every turn.
Though Angel McCoughtry (21.3 points per game, 1.9 steals per game) understandably gets most of the attention, the key to Atlantas success has been the paint rotation of Sancho Lyttle (13.7 points per game, 10.2 rebounds per game) and Erika de Souza (12.7 points per game, 8.7 rebounds per game) with their back-ups, Alison Bales (4.0 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in just 15.5 minutes per game) and the rapidly improving Yelena Leuchanka (4.3 points, 2.9 rebounds in 11.3 minutes). Several of the Dream's recent losses occurred as Lyttle appeared to be still recovering from the effects of a concussion suffered just before the break.
The Dream out-rebounds their opponents by nearly six a game, and they also shoot 44.0 percent from the field and of the four post players, Bales shooting percentage (42.2 percent) is the only one below 47 percent.
That inside power opens up the wings for McCoughtry and Iziane Castro Marques (16.6 points per game, 42.8 percent shooting), who though still erratic has grown more consistent than years past. Shalee Lehning and Kelly Miller are an adequate tag team at the point, but Lehnings 35.3 percent free-throw percentage means she cant really be on the floor at the end of close games.
Atlanta does have two games left against Indiana, two against Washington and one against Connecticut, plus two each with Chicago and New York, and one against the Seattle juggernaut, so their playoff position is hardly secure but only the most ardent Meadors hater could be anything less than ecstatic with the Dreams start to the season.
4. Connecticut (12-9, 6-8 in conference): Tina Charles has been all that and a set of Air Jordans, which is the main reason the Sun have a solid hold on a playoff berth. Asjha Jones, coming off an injury, has not played all that well, and Anete Jekabsone-Zogota wasnt much above average before getting hurt.
Connecticut also traded for Renee Montgomery to run the point, and the second-year guard has done a reasonable job. Shes definitely a better defender than the departed Lindsay Whalen (though most college point guards are better defenders than Whalen), she has a nice assist to turnover ratio (1.9:1) and is hitting 37.6 percent of her threes.
Otherwise, the Sun lineup isnt overwhelming, but Mike Thibault is mixing and matching Sandrine Gruda, Tan White (her best season, at least so far) and Kara Lawson to keep Connecticut in the playoff mix, just two games out of first place.
But with three games left against Washington and two against New York, the postseason is far from a sure thing. Games against Los Angeles and Minnesota should help; one against Seattle almost certainly will not. It would also help if Jones remembers how to play and Jekabsone-Zogota bounces back healthy, but as long as Charles is a beast inside, Connecticut should have enough to finish in the top four. To advance in the playoffs, though, theyre going to need a little bit more from everyone and find a way to win on the road.
5. New York (10-10, 7-6 in conference): Though the Liberty are tied with the Sky for last place, they are also just a game and a half out of fourth but it still comes down to a consistent stretch of winning basketball.
To win, as coaches will be happy to tell you, you have to defend and New York does not. Opponents shoot 43.9 percent from the field, and that obvious preseason weakness has never been addressed. Theres not really a proven defender on the roster, and though the Liberty are efficient offensively, they havent been able to overcome their undersized defense and substandard rebounding.
That said, Cappie Pondexter (21.2 points per game) has been as good as advertised (the scuffle with Penny Taylor notwithstanding), and Plenette Pierson, Nolan Richardsons gift to Carol Blazejowski, is going to help a lot in the second half of the season.
Otherwise, everyone but Janel McCarville and Nicole Powell is posting pretty much as-expected numbers. If those two manage to get going, the Liberty are poised to make a nice run in late July and August. If they dont, however, the one-dimensional nature of New Yorks attack will make it too easy for opponents.
Oh, and Sidney Spencer, who wound up being traded for Tina Charles? Shes shooting 53.8 percent from the field, but shes only played in 12 games for an average of 8.3 minutes and has barely registered (2.8 points per game) in terms of helping New York win games. Spencer, of course, isnt to blame for the latest Blazejowski blunder, but do you think the Liberty would be in last place if Charles were playing center instead of 86-year-old Taj McWilliams-Franklin*?
6. Chicago Sky (11-11, 6-11 in conference): Had this been written June 21, it would have been a very gloomy story about the Sky. The news is still far from sunny, but since then, Chicago has won seven of its last 10 games, all but two against Eastern Conference competition, and at just a game and a half out of fourth place, has inserted itself back into the postseason conversation.
The reason, of course, is Sylvia Fowles, who healthy at last, has become the best center in the league. Shes averaging 18.0 points and 9.8 rebounds per game and shes shooting a phenomenal 60.1 percent. She also blocks 2.8 shots a game but, most important, she has improved her ballhandling and free-throw shooting (80.6 percent) dramatically.
But even with Fowles playing so well, the Sky is getting outrebounded, and thanks to the erratic play of veteran guards Jia Perkins and Dominique Canty, they turn the ball over more than their opponents as well. Shameka Christon (8.5 points per game) and Cathrine Kraayeveld (6.1 points, 3.1 rebounds per game) are nowhere close to performing at their levels in New York last season. In fact, statistically, its hard to justify the fact that the Sky are outscoring their opponents, but maybe Steven Key does have a clue.
Chicago also may have an edge down the stretch, as the Sky have played only five games against the dismal West, and with seven games against Western conference opponents ahead (only one of them against Seattle), should those teams continue to play as though they had just recently been introduced to the sport, Chicago could be positioned for a late rush to the playoffs.
*Okay, Taj will only be 40 in October, but that's still pretty long in the tooth for this game.