Are the Chicago Sky on the verge of a repeat, and five more questions that will determine the WNBA champ

The WNBA season always seems to fly by, but none more than the 2022 campaign, when a record 36 regular-season games are being squeezed into 14 weeks to accommodate the upcoming FIBA World Cup, which runs from Sept. 22 to Oct. 1.

So far this season, five teams — the Las Vegas Aces, Chicago Sky, Connecticut Sun, Seattle Storm and Washington Mystics — have separated themselves as championship contenders, while as many as six others are vying for the final three spots in the postseason come August. While the Aces were a red-hot juggernaut to start the season and quickly deemed the team to beat, they have cooled just as the Sky have started to find their rhythm. Both squads are 14-5, but Chicago overtook Las Vegas for first place in the standings Wednesday following the Sky’s win over the Sun and the Aces’ loss to the Storm. Chicago and Las Vegas are set to square off in the Commissioner’s Cup championship game on July 26.

With about six weeks remaining in the regular season, here are six storylines that could dictate what happens the rest of the way, including which team will ultimately take home the 2022 WNBA title in September.

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1. Is Chicago finding its stride on the way to repeating as champion?

The Sky might have underperformed in the regular season last year, when they finished with a 16-16 record prior to storming through the postseason and winning the franchise’s first WNBA championship. But Chicago has largely picked up where it left off, and it has been the best team in the league as of late with wins in 10 of its past 12 games. After Wednesday’s decisive win over the Sun, James Wade’s squad improved to 5-3 this season against teams .500 or better, the best mark of all the top five squads.

At its best, the Sky’s offense is a well-oiled machine — as evidenced by its WNBA-record 83.3% first-half field goal percentage Wednesday — featuring beautiful ball movement and the potency to score in a multitude of ways. It helps to have arguably the deepest bench in the league, with Azura Stevens, Rebekah Gardner, Dana Evans and Julie Allemand coming in as reserves. Candace Parker, who has indicated this could be her final WNBA season, has already recorded two triple-doubles in 2022 and is shooting one of her best clips from 3 in recent years (37.1%) on more attempts than ever before (4.1 per game). Emma Meesseman’s strong start in Chicago earned her an All-Star bid, and she and fellow newbie Allemand, plus late arrival Kahleah Copper, will only get more comfortable in the Sky’s system as the season progresses.

No WNBA team has won back-to-back titles since the 2001-2002 Los Angeles Sparks. But the Sky have positioned themselves to have a good shot at breaking that streak this fall.

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2. How will Tina Charles jell with the rest of the Storm?

Charles, the 2012 WNBA MVP, made waves over the past week when she agreed to a buyout with the Phoenix Mercury, the team she signed with this past offseason and joined the championship-minded Storm three days later. Charles won her first game with Seattle — Wednesday’s 88-78 thriller over the Aces — but had a subdued impact. Coach Noelle Quinn kept her starting lineup, featuring an All-Star caliber center in Ezi Magbegor, intact and brought Charles in off the bench; she chipped in four points and five rebounds in 16 minutes. Notably, Magbegor was in instead of Charles for the final 7:15 of the game, when the Storm outscored the Aces 21-8.

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Tina Charles flips in a hook shot for her first basket since joining the Storm.

Charles barely had any practice time with her new team before being thrown into the fire, so reading into that first game as an indicator of how she meshes with the team long term could be premature. But how will she jell with the rest of the Storm down the stretch? Can she bring the offensive firepower that Seattle is hoping she’ll add to the bench unit and fit its defensive-minded identity? Unlocking her offense — and that of others outside of Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Magbegor — is critical if Seattle wants to send Sue Bird and Briann January into retirement with one last WNBA crown.

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3. Do the Aces have enough defense, depth to win?

After jumping to a 9-1 start — the best 10-game start for a first-year coach in league history — the Aces went 5-4 in June. Coach Becky Hammon was frustrated with her team’s uncharacteristic 20 turnovers against Seattle on Wednesday. But after Hammon harped since the beginning of the season on needing to be a strong defensive team for when its shots inevitably don’t fall, the Aces’ defense has faltered recently. Vegas ranked eighth in the league in defensive rating in June.

Vegas’ depth limitations also remain a concern. The Aces’ starters have scored just shy of 88% of the team’s points this season, with all five starters averaging at least 30 minutes per game. No reserve is averaging more than 16 minutes per contest. Guard Riquna Williams is finally back from a foot injury, which should help the backcourt, and center Iliana Rupert has had some nice flashes in her first three WNBA games, including 3-for-4 shooting against the Storm this week. But will either/both of them bring a much-needed punch from the bench and take some of the scoring responsibility (and tread) off the starters?

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4. Will the Mystics’ plan to peak at the right time — with a healthy Delle Donne in tow — pan out?

Things have mostly gone as planned for the Mystics as they reincorporate Elena Delle Donne into the rotation after she played just three games during the 2020 and 2021 seasons due to back issues. Comfortably above .500, Washington is fifth in the standings with Delle Donne playing 14 of 22 contests, resting some games with the goal of her being able to be at her best come playoff time. Just last week, she participated in back-to-back road games for the first time this season, averaging 19.5 points in 32.5 minutes.

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Ariel Atkins scores a big bucket in overtime, and Alysha Clark adds 20 points in the Mystics’ win over the Aces.

Delle Donne wasn’t named an All-Star after missing so much time, but she’s playing like one, averaging 15.3 points (46.2 FG%, 37.7 3-point FG%), 5.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. Moreover, her value to the Mystics can’t just be encapsulated in those stats: Washington is 10-4 when she plays and 3-5 when she doesn’t. Yes, Delle Donne will need more consistent help around her offensively for Washington to win its second title in four years (after all, 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman is no longer in D.C.). But the starting point for the Mystics’ championship hopes remains that Delle Donne is on the floor, at the level she’s shown herself capable of playing (or better) even after being through so much with her back. Despite Delle Donne being in and out of the lineup in the regular season, the pieces will nonetheless have to hum together fairly seamlessly come August/September for the Mystics to advance deep in the postseason.

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5. Can the Sun get a boost from their guard play?

Life without Jasmine Thomas (out for the season with a ACL tear) has yielded mixed results so far. The Sun’s frontcourt remains one of the most dominant in the league, with Jonquel Jones, Alyssa Thomas and Brionna Jones holding things down and making the All-Star field. But the absence of Jasmine Thomas has been glaring defensively, a blow to the unit that already lost Briann January in the offseason. Also of concern has been its recent offensive struggles: Connecticut is 11th in offensive rating during the past five games). DeWanna Bonner’s hot 3-point shooting to start 2022 has leveled out (she’s currently sitting at 34.1% from deep), and Courtney Williams hasn’t been able to consistently perform as the dynamic offensive backcourt spark Connecticut envisioned her becoming when they brought her back to Uncasville. Bonner and Williams take the most shots on the team (11.5 and 11.1 field goal attempts per game), but are both converting less than 42%.

The Sun don’t want Jasmine Thomas’ injury to entirely derail their hopes for the franchise’s first WNBA title, but for as good as the Joneses and Alyssa Thomas have been, they’ll need more from their guard play — on both ends — if they want to advance to the Finals for the second time in four years. Improved play from Bonner and Williams would help, but an added boost from Natisha Hiedeman and DiJonai Carrington is also needed.

6. Which teams finish strongest to snag a spot in the postseason?

There are five, potentially six, teams in the mix for the Nos. 6, 7 and 8 playoff seeds: The Dallas Wings, New York Liberty, Phoenix, Atlanta Dream, Los Angeles and, yes, even the Minnesota Lynx. All are sub-.500 teams separated by three games in the standings.

The once 1-7 Liberty are 7-4 since, greatly bolstered by the additions of Marine Johannes and Han Xu and expected to return Jocelyn Willoughby and Rebecca Allen soon. The Wings and Dream, meanwhile, seem to be coming back down to earth a little after strong starts, though both have missed starters in recent weeks due to injuries or illness but are expected to return this week. The Sparks are still finding their footing after the midseason firing of Derek Fisher, but the talent on their roster makes it tough to totally write them off. The Mercury’s ceiling without Tina Charles — one that will center around a lot of small-ball play — remains to be seen, and while they are 3-0 since her departure, those wins came against the struggling Wings and two against the last-place Fever.

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Lynx’s Sylvia Fowles is hyped after this block

Maybe including the 6-14 Lynx as a potential playoff team is a stretch — after all, they were practically written off in this column a few weeks ago!) But now-healthy and more connected, Minnesota is clearly much better than its record, having won three of its past four games, and its recent losses were by a combined 10 points to contenders Seattle, Las Vegas and Chicago. The Lynx won’t want this summer to end in vain if they can help it with Sylvia Fowles set to retire at the end of the season.

And don’t sleep on how the final 2022 results impact the 2023 draft for this summer’s potential title contenders. Chicago owns Phoenix’s first-round pick and the Mystics have the right to swap their 2023 first-round pick with the Sparks’.

Stat of the week

Prior to Wednesday, Charles had started all 373 (regular season) games of her 12-year WNBA career. That streak ended in her Storm debut, where she came off the bench for the first time since joining the league. According to Across the Timeline, that’s the most regular-season games anyone has started before coming off the bench in their WNBA career.

May was the month of the Aces and Sun — who led the league in net rating at 14.0 and 13.9, respectively — but June was the month of the Sky and … the Liberty, whose 7.4 and 5.6 net ratings were league bests. The Aces, Sun and Sky are established contenders who have each shown stretches of nearly unstoppable play. But what’ll happen to the Liberty long term? As more players return from injury, can they keep up this current level of success long term to secure a playoff spot and perhaps their first winning season since 2017?

Game of the week: Washington Mystics at Connecticut Sun (1 p.m. ET Sunday, ESPN/ESPN App)

If you’re looking for a matchup between two of the best teams in the league, this is your must-watch game. They split the season series (1-1), with Connecticut beating an Elena Delle Donne-less team at the end of May. When the two teams faced off again a few weeks back, Delle Donne played well (15 points, six rebounds, two assists, two blocks) to help the Mystics jump ahead by as many as 22. The Sun are looking to enter the All-Star break on a better note after having lost three of their past four.

It’s not the most intriguing game on paper, but don’t overlook Aces-Lynx on Friday (8 p.m. ET, NBA TV). This is a must-win for the Aces to remain in consideration to host the Commissioner’s Cup championship game on July 26. The Lynx are 11th in the standings but have unquestionably played their best basketball of the season as of late, and only lost by one to the Aces in Vegas a few weeks ago. Its current six-game homestand is a great opportunity for Minnesota to make up some ground in the standings if it still wants a shot at making the playoffs.

Fantasy women’s basketball picks

Who to start: Maybe we’re being prisoners of the moment, but Tiffany Hayes could be a good pickup after her 21-point outing (8-for-15 shooting, including 4-for-6 on 3-pointers) to help lift the Dream over the Liberty in overtime Thursday. In Phoenix, Skylar Diggins-Smith will likely shoulder even more of the offensive load for the Mercury now that Charles has departed for the Storm, and remains a must-start moving forward.

Seattle plays teams below .500 the rest of the way through the All-Star break, including two games against Indiana. So continue to start any of your Storm players such as Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Ezi Mabegor — and even starting non-stars such as Gabby Williams and Stephanie Talbot is worth considering.

Who to sit: Destanni Henderson has been in a fantasy slump recently and might be worth benching as she goes against the Storm’s staunch defensive unit. The Dream are finally starting to get healthy after a stretch of injuries, so players such as Monique Billings and Naz Hillmon will likely get less time, especially as Atlanta faces the Storm and Mystics prior to the All-Star break.

Connecticut’s DiJonai Carrington has cooled from a fantasy standpoint recently, and previously has struggled against the Mystics, whom the Sun face Sunday.

https://www.espn.com/wnba/story/_/id/34173421/are-chicago-sky-verge-repeat-five-more-questions-determine-wnba-champ Are the Chicago Sky on the verge of a repeat, and five more questions that will determine the WNBA champ

Emma Bowman

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