WNBA power rankings: Las Vegas Aces take center stage, New York Liberty confound

Death, taxes and WNBA travel issues.

Most recently, the Connecticut Sun canceled a Monday practice and media availability because of travel issues (Joyner Holmes posted a selfie on a flight with a 5:37 a.m. timestamp) and Chicago’s Azurá Stevens posted this video to Instagram:

For the WNBA, it’s not only the travel issues but also the effect on teams’ scheduling. Under the most recent CBA, charter flights aren’t permitted. Though some owners are in favor of allowing these flights (meaning, paying for them), most aren’t. Therefore, teams are left to fly commercially. This season especially, the WNBA is playing its season in a tight window because of the FIBA World Cup in September. And playing 36 regular-season games in a 101-day window doesn’t leave much time for a delayed flight that can affect a travel or conditioning schedule. According to the FAA, flight delays are most likely to occur between April and September, or, as some might call it, the WNBA season. And of the five cities that are most affected by weather delays for inbound and outbound flights, three are WNBA markets: New York, Chicago and Atlanta.

There’s not a lot the league can do about the weather unless Cathy Engelbert has far more power than I realize. But there are changes that can be made (though not this season) to address the issues of charter flights and the length of the season. The league could be played over a longer period, thus not backing up so many games for teams, and the owners could agree that charter flights are a necessary change for the league. Both of those, however, would require more capital and planning, and those things aren’t going to be solved in a power ranking (though, Engelbert does have a bit more power in that arena).

For now, on to a few issues that can be solved in 800 words or fewer … power rankings! Here’s a look at how teams shake out after last week.

(Last week’s ranking in parentheses.)

1. Las Vegas Aces, 7-1 (2)

Jackie Young is on an absolute tear. She’s averaging career bests in numerous statistical categories (points per game, steals, shooting percentage, 3-point shooting percentage and free-throw percentage), and over the past week, as the Aces went 4-0, she averaged 20.8 points, four rebounds and 4.5 assists per game while shooting 57 percent. Sometimes, when a team moves into a new scheme or begins to play at a much faster pace, the result is a higher turnover rate. Despite playing with the fastest pace in the league, the Aces have the league’s lowest turnover percentage (15.8 percent).

2. Washington Mystics, 5-2 (1)

This season will consistently feature two Mystics teams: The one that plays with Elena Delle Donne and the one that does not. If Mike Thibault can work some magic, this could end up being a team strength. Without Delle Donne, other players will have larger loads and will be relied upon to contribute more, notably Elizabeth Williams (who made her return this week) and rookie Shakira Austin, who has averaged 14.7 points and 6.7 rebounds through the Mystics’ past three games. A lack of depth sometimes produces even more depth, and if Thibault is able to develop this group, he’ll be in the running for the Coach of the Year award. However, if the swings of this pendulum prove too difficult to manage, it could be a season when the Mystics sometimes look like the No. 2 team and sometimes like the No. 7 team.

3. Chicago Sky, 3-2 (3)

Kahleah Copper, the WNBA Finals MVP, returned to Chicago last week and finished with 12 points, four rebounds and an assist in the Sky’s win over the Mystics. Her return is huge for the Sky as the reigning champs ramp up to full strength. (Li Yueru arrived in the U.S. on Sunday, but her debut is TBD.) But perhaps the best sign of her return so far is how offensively productive her teammates remained with her addition. Sometimes, when a key player comes back and takes minutes and valuable shot attempts, other players’ productivity suffers. However, even with her playing 27 minutes against Washington and taking 11 shots, Rebekah Gardner (11 points, three rebounds, three steals) and Azurá Stevens (13 points, one rebound) scored in double digits. If James Wade can count on six double-digit scorers when the Sky are fully healthy and available, their two losses will continue to remain distant memories for this writer.

4. Seattle Storm, 3-3 (7)

Try this tongue twister: A Seattle Storm-less Stewie squad seemed simply substandard. But with Breanna Stewart back after her positive COVID-19 test, the Storm are back to looking like a title contender. How big of a difference has Stewart’s presence made in the early parts of this season? Let the numbers tell the story.

Points per game FG % 3PT FG % Assists per game

Without Stewart

70.5

34%

32%

16

With Stewart

82

43%

34%

25.5

5. Connecticut Sun, 4-1 (6)

We didn’t have much to go off for the first week of the power rankings when it came to Connecticut, as the Sun had a light first week with only two games. Since then, DeWanna Bonner returned and Courtney Williams made her reintroduction with this team after sitting for her two-game suspension. The result? This team looks very good. But the Sun sit at the No. 5 spot because even though they went 3-0 last week, the wins came against the teams ranked No. 11 and No. 12 in this week’s power rankings. If they can come away with similarly big wins in games next week against the Wings, Mystics and Aces, the Sun will climb in the rankings.

6. Dallas Wings, 4-2 (5)

Arike Ogunbowale was a rookie the last time she had multiple games in a season without scoring in double digits. In wins over Phoenix and Minnesota, Ogunbowale looked nothing like a rookie. She dropped 37 points on the Mercury — the most any player has scored this season — and though her 3-point shooting struggled against the Lynx, she still finished with 20 points and seven assists. It’s very good for the Wings when Allisha Gray or Marina Mabrey has a big game, but when Ogunbowale has a big game, it just feels like everything shifts for Dallas.

7. Phoenix Mercury, 2-4 (4)

Skylar Diggins-Smith missed the Mercury’s past two games with a non-COVID-19 illness, and her absence is unrelated to the interaction she had on the sideline with teammate Diana Taurasi against the Aces. The Mercury were already devoid of one of their Big Three as Brittney Griner remains wrongfully detained in Russia. As with other teams, having key players out opens up opportunities for other players, and Diamond DeShields has looked particularly productive in the past two games, averaging 21 points. One caveat with the Mercury’s record: Phoenix has already played Las Vegas three times this season. There’s a very good chance that the Aces will go 3-0 against plenty of teams this season, but it’ll never look quite as pronounced in an opponent’s overall record as it does now for the Mercury.

8. Atlanta Dream, 4-2 (8)

Hopefully, we get to see Tiffany Hayes return for the Dream this week, and if so, the big question will be: How does her presence on the floor change Rhyne Howard’s role? Thus far, the rookie has been given all sorts of runway with the Dream, but it’s shortsighted to think Hayes’ return won’t mean some kind of a change for Howard. And change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Hayes — who has averaged at least 15 points per game over her past five seasons — will draw defenses’ attention, and when that happens, opportunities could open up for Howard. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how the veteran and rookie can learn to play off one another.

9. Los Angeles Sparks, 2-5 (9)

The Sparks’ season-opening win over Chicago feels like a distant memory. On a four-game losing skid, Los Angeles is looking for its groove, according to coach Derek Fisher. But with the Sparks nearly one-fifth of the way through the season, they have to find that groove fast or else they’re going to be in the same position as last year — fighting for a playoff spot from behind. Silver lining: The Sparks are forcing 18 turnovers per game (and scoring 21 points a game off them).

10. Minnesota Lynx, 1-6 (11)

In one of the more impressive performances this season, Kayla McBride not only recorded 24 points, three rebounds, three assists and two steals but also somehow evaded jet lag like an absolute travel boss after returning from Turkey and playing in Los Angeles just 32 hours later. (Seriously, can we get some travel tips, Kayla? I go through two time zones and feel like I need a week to recover.) But this is still a team searching for its identity, which was made very clear in the four days that followed the win over the Sparks. First, Minnesota played the Aces closer than any other team this season (with the exception of the Mystics, the Aces’ lone loss this year). But after two very solid performances, the Lynx fell to the Wings after their third-quarter performance harpooned them. With the weeklong trip behind, the Lynx will look to rebound with a week of games against the Liberty, Sparks and Dream.

11. Indiana Fever, 2-6 (10)

The Fever look like a team that’s rebuilding (which is what we thought they’d look like). But with rookie NaLyssa Smith, who suffered an ankle sprain, out the past three games, things have looked a bit rougher. GM Lin Dunn made moves to create a rookie-heavy team so the struggles are mostly worth it when those rookies are working through those struggles on the floor. Smith’s return to play will be big for Indiana.

12. New York Liberty, 1-4 (12)

The Liberty remain as the last-place team in the rankings because — unlike the Fever, who we expected would go through significant losing streaks — we didn’t see their losing streak coming. New York has the highest turnover percentage (24.1 percent), the lowest rebounding percentage (44.3 percent) and the second-worst effective field goal percentage (46.9 percent) in the league.

(Photo of A’ja Wilson: Jeff Bottari / NBAE via Getty Images)

By Harriet