Chicago rookie Elena Delle Donne drives to the basket on Washington's Crystal Langhorne. (Photo by Teri Priebe)
Chicago rookie Elena Delle Donne drives to the basket on Washington's Crystal Langhorne. (Photo by Teri Priebe)

The Sky rise above the East

September 6, 2013 - 7:23pm

There remain a few questions in the East, but one question has been answered: The Chicago Sky have been the best team in the conference this season and one of the best in the league. They have clearly established themselves as the number one seed and a strong favorite to make an appearance in the WNBA Finals.

But as we all know it just doesn’t quite work that easily. The number one seed means just that and no more -- there are no reservations for the Finals. You have to earn it, and with some contenders getting some key players back and healthy, anything can happen.

1. Chicago Sky (21-8, first, clinched conference title)

At the beginning of the season, I just didn’t have the gall to boldly declare the Sky would make the WNBA Finals, although I felt that they had the talent to absolutely do it. I hinted at it them reaching the Finals but didn’t quite say it. I’m kicking myself now as this team has gelled well and had one heck of a regular season.

In addition, Chicago will be very difficult to beat in the postseason. Sylvia Fowles and star rookie Elena Delle Donne, MVP favorites, have led the Sky to a six-game win streak, with the last five being wins over Eastern Conference opponents. Not only that, but all of the wins have been by double digits except one. Epiphanny Prince has struggled with her shot seemingly the entire second half of the season but has made up for it with hustle and getting steals, assists and more, but Chicago will need more from its bench if any of the other starters start to struggle. The key for this team, new to WNBA success, is to continue to grow because when the Fever and Dream get some of their players back for the playoffs it’s gonna be a war. They’ll quickly see that in the playoffs seeding is ultimately a minor detail to whoever’s hungriest and playing the best.

2. Atlanta Dream (16-13, second, clinched)

It’s been a difficult ride for the Dream with the loss of Sancho Lyttle, and of course Tiffany Hayes has been in and out of the lineup as well. The Dream had a horrid few weeks, losing eight of 11 but Atlanta must be saluted as the Dream have won their last two games and recently clinched a playoff spot. Of course they’re led by Angel McCoughtry, and there just isn’t enough to be said about her effort. Whether you like some of the shot selection and the occasional mood swings, no one can deny that she comes to play every single night. Respect.

But let’s also put the spotlight on one of the underrated star centers in the league in Erika de Souza. She’s certainly one of the least heralded of all of the big-name posts in the league (Brittney Griner, Tina Charles, Liz Cambage, Fowles, etc.) but de Souza has been a force in the Peach State for the Dream all summer. This team is very, very dangerous for any opponent in the playoffs and when Lyttle and Hayes return, they are a serious threat to make yet another trip to the Finals.

3. Washington Mystics (14-15, third)

Every time you question anything about Mike Thibault and the Washington Mystics they step up and surprise you. After a great start to the first half of the season, the Mystics came out of the All-Star break and commenced to lose their first four games. Of course the thought was that their honeymoon was over and the Mystics were coming back to reality.  Well, that’s the farthest thing from the truth as the Mystics have now won five of their last seven games and still could grab the second seed in the East. 

It’s been a total team effort: Ivory Latta is always a leader and has played well but Monique Currie, Crystal Langhorne, Kia Vaughn and Matee Ajavon have all taken turns making big plays. Even more encouraging is that number four overall pick Tayler Hill is coming around and finding her shot.

And though Thibault must be given credit for making Washington play as a unit, the playoffs always seem to be a star-driven affair. That’s when the premier players typically step up and Crystal Langhorne would seem to fit the bill for that title for the Mystics. Her mind should be honing in on focus and determination more than ever in the coming weeks. Yet even before the playoffs, the Mystics need to finish strong because if they can pass the Dream and seize the number two seed that will give them home court advantage.

Regardless, one thing we've learned from this season is that underestimating Washington is not a mistake any team wants to make -- at least if they want to win.

4. Indiana Fever (13-16, fourth)

The defending champions are still in it, and still very formidable. Let’s make that very clear right from the jump. Like virtually every team in the league, but even more so with this team, the Fever have battled injuries. Injuries on top of injuries. Yet Coach Lin Dunn has done another great job and this team has battled nightly, and many of their losses have simply come as a result of weary legs late in the game.

Briann January missed an overtime battle with the Dream recently but she will be back in full force soon. Even better, four-time All-Star Katie Douglas is shooting and moving around a bit and still hoping for a return. If that happens, and everyone else can remain healthy, then the defending champions will be a tough out for anyone. In reality, they’re going to be tough no matter who they put on the court because of the system and focus on defense (No. 1 scoring defense in the league) that Dunn emphasizes.

And they have Dunn, they have Tamika Catchings, they have Shavonte Zellous, they have Erlana Larkins and they have a roster of players who aren’t ready for their championship run to end. If Chicago thinks Indiana will just roll over in the first round, should that matchup occur, the Sky will discover very quickly that defending champions don't go down easy.

5. New York Liberty (11-19, fifth)

I root for Bill Laimbeer -- he’s a favorite of mine, I must admit. But the Liberty simply can’t score. No matter how well you do anything else, you have to eventually put the ball in the hole to win games, and this is a skill that the New York Liberty do not have. Yes, Cappie Pondexter has been hurt, but even when healthy she really needs another perimeter player to step up and help, and there’s no one on the roster this year that seems capable of getting that done. The deficiency is so glaring that it overshadows the fact that Plenette Pierson has had a good year and Kara Braxton has really played well since the All-Star break. But with the worst scoring offense in the league, it’s just not enough.

Strangely, with all that said, they’re still not mathematically eliminated from gaining a playoff spot. It’s asking a lot but anything can happen. They need the three aforementioned players to all have big games the rest of the way, or at least good games, and the defense has to play better. That’s been a headscratcher because Laimbeer’s teams have always played good defense but this year’s team has struggled. They’ll have to turn it around to make the playoffs and have a date with the Chicago Sky.

I can't stop without a quick shout to one of the great perimeter players to ever play the game in Katie Smith, who will be retiring after the season. One of the all-time greats bar none. Thank you, Katie, for a great career.

6. Connecticut Sun (11-22, sixth)

Connecticut Sun fans have to be in shock. After being spoiled with a winning team year in and year out, they now have had to deal with the team’s extremely poor play this season. Well, they’re in shock, but the players probably are even more shocked, don't you think?

It’s been a rough one. Injuries seem to be the theme of the league this year and the Sun has had their share of them. It’s difficult to say whether they’ve been hit any harder than other teams but not having Kara Lawson and Renee Montgomery healthy at the same time and on the court with Tina Charles has made it hard to win. Yes, Kelsey Griffin has finally found her footing in the league but injuries have erased that positive.

Yet it’s hard to just point to the injuries as the Sun are not even competing. They have lost 10 of their last 11 games, last won a game Aug. 14, and the last time that they lost by a single-digit margin was Aug. 6 -- 11 games ago. People get fired for statistics like that.  Anne Donovan has a championship on her resume but the owners of the Sun definitely have to look at the season and consider whether she is a good fit for this team.