The WNBA Playoffs are about to begin, and as usual there’s no shortage of exciting storylines. For one thing, one of the favorites — the Chicago Sky — has a chance to be the first team to repeat as champions since the Los Angeles Sparks did it two decades ago, led by 2001 and 2002 Finals MVP Lisa Leslie.
But for another thing, the WNBA is loaded at the top right now, with five great teams that are head and shoulders above the rest of the competition. That means it’s incredibly likely we’re going to get really excellent matchups in both the Semifinals and, ultimately, the Finals. Those matchups should carry the league to its highest ratings since 2008 — and maybe ever.
How Do the WNBA Playoffs Work?
The WNBA Playoffs happen between eight of the league’s 14 teams over the course of three rounds. The best eight teams are seeded 1–8 by record, and matched up in the traditional way: 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, etc.
The first round series are best of three, meaning the first team to win two games moves on. The Semifinals and Finals are best of five, so the winner has to win three games rather than two. On the whole, the Playoffs last for about a month — if the Finals goes the distance, game five will happen on September 20.
These short series create tons of drama, and lots of room for possible upsets. For example, the New York Liberty are the seventh seed, having posted a regular season record of just 16–20. Nevertheless, they’re finally healthy after Betnijah Laney returned from an injury just a little over a week ago. If they get hot on 3-pointers — especially leading scorer Sabrina Ionescu — they could give their first round matchup, the Chicago Sky, a ton of trouble.
Even so, there are five teams with the best odds of winning the whole thing, so let’s take a look at them here.
Las Vegas Aces (26–10, 1 Seed)
The Vegas Aces have been cruising all season under first-year head coach Becky Hammon, aside from a recent injury to Dearica Hamby — she could miss the next 2-4 weeks with a bone contusion in her right knee. Even without Hamby returning to the court until later in the playoffs, the Aces’ top four is absolutely loaded with talent.
It starts and ends with lead guard Kelsey Plum. Plum was unleashed this season — her fifth in the league — setting career highs in points, assists and, maybe most importantly, minutes played. Plum made 113 3s this season, which led the league by a huge margin over Diana Taurasi’s 92. That outside shooting is a major weapon, and always has opposing defenses on high alert.
Besides Plum, A’ja Wilson is maybe the best player in the league right now, right up there with Seattle’s Breanna Stewart (we’ll get to her a little later). Jackie Young is having the best season of her young career, and Chelsea Gray is as great as she’s ever been.
The Aces’ first round opponent — the Phoenix Mercury — would normally be a tough out, but they have suffered a ton of misfortune. They’ve lost Brittney Griner to the ongoing situation that has her detained in Russia, Diana Taurasi missed the end of the season with a quad strain, and the Mercury have suspended Skylar Diggins-Smith’s contract, so she won’t see another game in 2022. It might end up being a lost season for the Mercury, which is a shame, because at full-strength, they’d give the Aces a real challenge in round one.
Chicago Sky (26–10, 2 Seed)
If Vegas isn’t the outright favorite to win the title this season, it’s because Chicago is giving them a run for their money. As mentioned above, Chicago’s first round opponent, the New York Liberty, are getting back to full strength at the right time, but Chicago has answers across the board.
On the wing, Chicago will rely on the dynamic Kahleah Copper for a heavy dose of their offense, but really the Sky have an incredibly balanced attack. Among the playoff teams, they’re the only squad to have six regular rotation players averaging over 10 points per game. That includes Copper on the wing, Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley in the backcourt, Candace Parker and Emma Meesseman in the front court, and Azurá Stevens backing up the bigs off the bench.
Ultimately, it’s just really hard to find a weakness here. While the Aces combine an elite offense with a kind of average defense, the Sky are elite on both ends — they finished the regular season with the third-best offense and fourth-best defense in the league..
Connecticut Sun (25–11, 3 Seed)
If the Sky put together an impressive combination of offensive and defensive efficiency during the regular season, the Sun actually outdid them, even if it didn’t lead to quite as many wins. The Sun finished second on both sides of the ball, and on both ends they got there by focusing on their two centers: Jonquel Jones and Sixth Player of the Year contender Brionna Jones.
The two don’t share the court very much, but that means the team never has to play without a dominant force in the middle. That should also help against the Sun’s first round opponent: the Dallas Wings. The Wings feature an offense built — due to an injury to leading scorer Arike Ogunbowale — around center Teaira McCowan, who’s averaging nearly 15 points and 10 rebounds per game in those she’s started this season.
The other key for the Sun is forward Alyssa Thomas, the team’s third leading scorer and second leading rebounder. Not to mention, Thomas leads the team in assists and dominates on the defensive end of the floor. Thomas led the team in minutes during the regular season, and that will certainly continue during their playoff run — however long it lasts.
Seattle Storm (22–14, 4 Seed)
The Storm have top-end talent to rival the Aces, with Breanna Stewart right up there alongside A’ja Wilson on the list of the best players in the league right now. Nevertheless, the Storm sputtered a little this season on offense in point guard Sue Bird’s final WNBA season.
Stewart on the front line and Jewell Loyd in the backcourt make for a dynamic duo, which is why those two lead the team in minutes and points per game. On the other hand, Seattle’s ability to sneak into the championship picture will likely hinge on the player they picked up part way through the season: Tina Charles.
There were some growing pains at first, but over the past six games, Charles has found her footing with her teammates. The Storm out-scored their opponents by over 20 points per 100 possessions when Charles was on the floor during those six games, and that’s a number that should strike fear into the heart of any team that ends up having to play Seattle. They’re not the favorites anymore, but it won’t be a huge surprise if they win the whole thing.
Washington Mystics (22–14, 5 Seed)
The Mystics are a longer shot to win the title than any of the teams listed above, to be sure. And the fact that they have to face the Storm in the first round is a reason why — although it’s also a reason why the Storm themselves have a tougher path than any of the three teams above them here.
But in basketball, it often comes down to the best player on the floor, and while Breanna Stewart will have a solid claim to that title in the opening round, so will Mystics star Elena Delle Donne. She’s an offense unto herself and an underrated defender, which will possibly be just as important against a tough matchup like Stewart.
Delle Donne rested a lot this year, playing just 27.8 minutes per contest over just 25 of a possible 36 games. Still, that might mean she’s more ready to go for the playoffs than she’s been in the past. As far as her on-court impact goes, she’s nearly as good as it gets. Among significant rotation players this season, only Jonquel Jones of the Sun and A’ja Wilson and Chelsea Gray of the Aces out-scored their opponents by more points per possession while they were on the floor. If the Mystics can somehow sneak by the Storm, they’re a great longshot bet to win it all.