Summing up the 2016 WNBA season so far

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Monday, July 25, 2016

As the focus in women's basketball is about to shift to the Rio Olympics, let's list 10 quick observations about this WNBA season thus far:

1. Los Angeles appears on a mission.

2. But so does Minnesota. And maybe New York, too?

3. Seattle rookie Breanna Stewart is doing super-Stewie stuff as a pro, too.

4. It's going to be a heck of an MVP race, right to the finish.

5. Indiana's Tamika Catchings will retire without looking like it's time for her to retire.

6. Seattle's Sue Bird gives the best jersey-retirement party speeches.

7. "Diana and the Refs: A Love Story" is a movie that will never be made ... unless it's a satire.

8. Nobody is that sure which team among those in the East is the second-best behind New York. Or third-best, or fourth-best, or fifth-best, or ... you get the picture. Right now, though, standings-wise it's Atlanta.

9. Unless something unexpected happens, San Antonio will have the worst record in 2016.

10. WNBA players definitely keep up with current events.

The league is celebrating its 20th season and has been a showcase in particular for the Sparks, who are 21-3. But the defending champion Lynx are right behind at 21-4. Those two are the front-runners for getting the top two seeds in the new playoff format, in which the best eight teams by record make the postseason, regardless of conference.

The 18-8 Liberty are the only other team now that would seem to have a realistic chance of taking one of those two top spots -- which means automatic advancement to the league semifinals.

New York star Tina Charles is the league's top scorer (21.4 PPG), followed by last year's MVP Elena Delle Donne of Chicago (21.2), Los Angeles's Nneka Ogwumike (19.6) and Minnesota's Maya Moore (19.4). Not coincidentally, those four are in the hunt for the MVP as well, as is Ogwumike's teammate Candace Parker.

Now, let's take a little more in-depth look at five of the things that have stood out about what we've seen to this point in the WNBA.

What's not hot in Phoenix?

The Mercury are two games below .500 and will have to battle for a playoff spot. Uh ... what? Seriously? Yep, believe it or not, that really is where Phoenix is at the break.

Admittedly, not everyone agreed with the league's general managers about picking Phoenix as the preseason favorite. But most people did expect the team would be contending near the top of the WNBA's combined standings. Instead, the 10-14 Mercury have been the league's biggest surprise ... but not in a good way.

With Diana Taurasi (the aforementioned ref antagonist) and Penny Taylor back, this was supposed to be something like the 2014 Mercury all over again, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. But it's been a team that too often has not been able to summon a sense of competitive urgency.

Phoenix is tied for second with Minnesota in scoring average at 85.8 PPG, just behind Los Angeles' 85.9. The key problem, though, is the Mercury's defense. They're allowing an average of 86.1 points per game, which is second-worst in the league behind Dallas (88.1). That is the highest scoring average that Phoenix has allowed since the 2012 season in which the Mercury went 7-27 and were accused by some league followers of tanking in hopes of landing the No. 1 pick for Brittney Griner in the 2013 draft (they got her).

Contrast this with the Mercury's 2014 championship season, when they allowed foes just 74.1 points per game.

Six Mercury players will be competing in the upcoming Olympics: Taurasi and Griner (United States), Taylor (Australia), Marta Xargay (Spain), Sonja Petrovic (Serbia) and Lindsey Harding (Belarus).

Then, it will be back to WNBA work, trying to make a playoff run. Phoenix unquestionably is talented, and it worries other teams that the Mercury could "flip the switch" and really be dangerous. But so far, their talent has not added up to a winning season.

Don't put us in rocking chairs just yet

Catchings and New York's Swin Cash will retire when this season ends. But they're going to be running across the finish line.

Catchings is the Fever's leading scorer (13.7 PPG) and second-leading rebounder (4.5 RPG). The Fever are 12-12 and trying to make the playoffs for the 12th consecutive year.

What would have been an emotional farewell season any way for Catchings has been even more so with the death of her beloved college coach, Tennessee's Pat Summitt. Yet Catchings doesn't look like a player riding slowly off into the sunset. She will exit the WNBA still as a key impact player, leaving totally on her terms.

As for Cash, her stats are not what they were in her peak years, but that isn't how to measure her. This is: She's still a WNBA starter and one of the true emotional leaders for the Liberty, a franchise that is still attempting to win its first title.

And after their playing careers are over, look for Catching and Cash to still make an impact in the sport.

Speaking of still going strong ...

Bird is not retiring this year, thank goodness. Although as she reminded everyone at Lauren Jackson's Storm jersey retirement ceremony earlier this month, her exit likely is not all that distant in the future. But while Bird, Catchings and Cash are all still in the WNBA together, please take time to appreciate these three. They've all been such a big part of women's basketball history.

Bird, who turns 36 in October, is the wily veteran on a Seattle team with young stars like Stewart and Jewell Loyd. Yet ol' No. 10 is still showing these whippersnappers a thing or two. In fact, Bird statistically is having a season that's just about as good as any in her storied career. She's started every game for the 9-15 Storm, averaging 32.2 minutes.

Her scoring averages of 12.5 points and a league-best 6.0 assists are highlights, as is her 44.1 percent shooting from 3-point range. Bird's best percentage for a season from behind the arc is 45.9 in 2012, which puts this year in further perspective. And in August, she, Catchings and Taurasi will play in their fourth Olympics.

A true shooter keeps shooting

No player embodies that slogan more than Los Angeles guard Kristi Toliver, who perhaps this year will add a WNBA championship to the NCAA title she won with Maryland a decade ago.

Toliver's famous game-tying 3-pointer in the 2006 national championship game is one of women's basketball's most unforgettable shots. She's taken countless treys since then. But the ones she's hitting this season could end up making a big difference in whether the Sparks get back to the WNBA Finals for the first time since they lost to Detroit back in 2003.

Toliver is second in the WNBA in both 3-pointers made this season (63 of 139) and in percentage from behind the arc (45.3). Sparks coach Brian Agler also points out that Toliver has elevated her game on the defensive end, and he doesn't hand out defensive praise lightly.

Ogwumike and Parker are the top two stars for the Sparks, of course. But Toliver, who leads the team in minutes played (32.5 per game) and is the third-leading scorer (14.0 PPG), is having a terrific season, too.

But could it ultimately end up a rerun of 2015?

Yes, it could: The Lynx are just as big a threat to win it all as they were a year ago. They will be the most represented WNBA squad on the U.S. Olympic team, with Moore, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Sylvia Fowles playing, and Cheryl Reeve coaching as an assistant to Geno Auriemma.

The Lynx felt a bit slighted by the league's GMs, who picked Phoenix to win. And now Minnesota might feel a lot of the attention in the WNBA thus far has gone to the Sparks.

But with Moore once again cranking out another fantastic season and Minnesota's core group remaining so cohesive and effective, seeing the WNBA Finals in Minneapolis again would be no surprise at all.

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