Friday, August 12, 2022

WNBA Power Rankings: Nneka Ogwumike leading Sparks’ turnaround; Sky still No. 1

The WNBA typically takes Monday off, but the Phoenix Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks put on a show this week for the Fourth of July. After a back-and-forth game that was within a few possessions either way for nearly the entire game, the Sparks escaped with a three-point win to run their winning streak to three games. 

They did so thanks to Nneka Ogwumike, who finished with 23 points, nine rebounds, three assists and two steals on 9 of 15 from the field. It was yet another strong performance from the former MVP who has put the Sparks on her back this season. 

Ogwumike had not been at her best the last two seasons. As president of the players union she faced unique challenges and pressure in the bubble in 2020, and was worn down mentally and physically to the point that she missed the playoffs due to vicious migraines. Hopes of a bounce back summer in 2021 were dashed by a knee injury that limited her to just 18 games, and prevented her from ever finding a rhythm. 

She’s fully healthy now, though, and as a result is putting together a season to rival her MVP campaign in 2016. Her 18.8 points per game are tied for the second-best scoring season of her career, and she’s adding 7.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.8 steals, all while shooting a remarkable 57.8 percent from the field. Across the league she’s fifth in scoring, second in field goal percentage, 11th in rebounding and fourth in steals. Those numbers were good enough to earn her the first All-Star Game start of her career. 

This has not been an easy season for the Sparks. After missing the playoffs for the first time in a decade last season, the front office remade the roster with a number of high profile additions, including Liz Cambage and Chennedy Carter. Even so, they struggled out of the gates, and head coach and GM Derek Fisher was fired after a 5-7 start. At 5-9 a few days later, and facing the toughest part of their schedule, the season was in the balance. 

Since then, they’ve gone 5-2, including a current three-game winning streak to improve to 10-11 and climb up into seventh place. Cambage has been playing better, Brittney Sykes (currently sidelined in the health and safety protocols) has grown into an elite defender and Katie Lou Sameulson and Lexie Brown have provided some much-needed shot-making from the perimeter. 

Ogwumike, though, is the primary reason they’ve turned things around. A steadying force both on and off the court through all the upheaval, she never let her standards slip and the team had no choice but to follow her lead. There’s still a lot of work left to do in Los Angeles, but with Ogwumike leading the way there’s still hope for this season. 

1. Chicago Sky (15-5) — Last week No. 1

Two games, two more wins for the Sky this week, who just keep rolling right along. They’ve now won five in a row and 11 of their last 13 to take sole possession of first place for the first time all season. As we approach All-Star weekend, which will be hosted by Chicago for the first time ever, the defending champs are once again looking like the team to beat. They’re one of just two teams in the top-five in both offensive and defensive rating. 

2. Las Vegas Aces (15-6) — Last week No. 2

There were a few surprising results over the weekend, but none more so than the Aces losing by 31 points to the Lynx – their worst defeat since 2018, their first season in Vegas. Coupled with their loss to the Storm earlier in the week, the Aces have now dropped four of their last six games to fall out of first place. During that stretch, the only team with a worse net rating than the Aces’ minus-7.1 is the last-place Fever.  

3. Connecticut Sun (14-7) — Last week No. 3

A 17-point comeback win over the Mystics on Sunday – the second-biggest comeback in the WNBA this season – brought some much needed good vibes to a team that has not been playing its best ball as of late. Even with the big comeback, the Sun are just 2-3 in their last five games, and have dropped to third place in the standings. The defense is still there, but the offense has been woefully inconsistent. Over this five-game stretch, they’re shooting just 40.8 percent from the field. 

4. Seattle Storm (13-8) — Last week No. 4

For a second straight Sunday, the Storm saw their positive momentum come to an abrupt halt. This time, it was due to a stunning 24-point loss to the Dream in which their league-best defense was torched by the league-worst offense. The good news for the Storm is that wins over the Aces and Fever mean the week was still an overall positive. Tina Charles has so far failed to make an impact with her new team; she has 15 points on 21 shots in her first three games. 

5. Washington Mystics (13-10) — Last week No. 5

The Mystics were rolling toward a three-game winning streak when their offense suddenly stopped working against the Sun and they blew a 17-point lead before losing in overtime. Without belaboring the point, this was yet another loss without Elena Delle Donne, who did not make the road trip. The Mystics are now 10-4 with Delle Donne in the lineup – a 0.714 winning percentage that would be tied for second in the league – and 3-6 without her. 

6. Los Angeles Sparks (10-11) — Last week No. 9

After holding off the Mercury on the Fourth of July, the Sparks have now won three in a row and five of their last seven to get back in the playoff picture. This has been quite the turnaround from a team that got off to such a bad start that Derek Fisher was fired as head coach and GM. Nneka Ogwumike, who will be starting in the All-Star Game on Sunday for the first time in her career, has led the way with her typically consistent play. 

7. Atlanta Dream (10-11) — Last week No. 10

The Dream got a few players back from injury this week, but none was more important than Tiffany Hayes, who made her season debut after missing the first 19 games with a knee injury. She often flies under the radar in Atlanta, but is one of the better two-way guards in the league, and the Dream are already looking like a completely different team with her in the mix. With two straight wins to close the week, including a dominant performance against the Storm, the Dream have climbed up to sixth place. 

8. New York Liberty (8-12) — Last week No. 6

The Liberty’s resurgence was stopped in its tracks this week with an overtime defeat to the Dream (in which they used a 17-0 fourth-quarter run to take the lead before collapsing in the extra frame) and a road loss to the red-hot Sparks. Making matters worse, Rebecca Allen, who had missed most of June due to a concussion, played just two minutes in her return before exiting after catching an elbow from Chiney Ogwumike. 

9. Phoenix Mercury (9-14) — Last week No. 8

Whatever little boost of spirit and camaraderie the Mercury got from the Tina Charles situation (and playing the Fever two times in a row) has quickly dissipated. They’ve now lost two straight to fall out of the playoff picture and a new source of drama emerged when Skylar Diggins-Smith called head coach Vanessa Nygaard a clown on Twitter over comments the latter made about Diana Taurasi and the All-Star Game in a press conference. 

10, Minnesota Lynx (7-15) — Last week No. 11

The Lynx’s 31-point win over the Aces on the weekend may have been the most surprising result of the entire season to this point. And it came just a few days after the Lynx crushed the Wings by 28. This team looked finished a few weeks ago when Sylvia Fowles went down with a knee injury, but has completely turned it around. Fowles is now back, the Lynx are 4-2 in their last six games, and are suddenly just 2.5 games out of the playoffs. 

11. Dallas Wings (9-12) — Last week No. 7

While we’ve seen a number of teams start to turn things around over the last few weeks, the Wings have gone the opposite direction. Even Satou Sabally’s return from a knee injury hasn’t solved their problems, as they’ve now lost three in a row and eight of their last 11. We know this team is capable of scoring, but until they start defending with any sort of consistency it’s going to be tough to get back on track. During this three-game losing streak, they’re giving up 111 points per 100 possessions. 

12. Indiana Fever (5-17) — Last week No. 12

Two more double-digit defeats for the Fever this week to run their losing streak to four games. Their competitive start to the season now feels like a long, long time ago. They are all alone in last place, and it’s hard to imagine them climbing out of that hole. Outside of All-Star snub Kelsey Mitchell and No. 2 pick NaLyssa Smith, there are a lot of question marks about this roster. 

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