Eastern Conference team-by-team midseason review: A close race but blockbuster trade may shake things up

WNBA statistical leaders

New York Liberty 12 5 0.706 0 6-4 6-2 6-3 8-2 W 5
Chicago Sky 11 6 0.647 1 8-4 7-1 4-5 7-3 W 2
Washington Mystics 9 6 0.600 2 7-5 5-3 4-3 6-4 W 3
Connecticut Sun 8 7 0.533 3 3-6 3-4 5-3 4-6 W 1
Indiana Fever 8 8 0.500 3.5 4-6 5-4 3-4 6-4 L 2
Atlanta Dream 7 10 0.412 5 4-7 5-4 2-6 4-6 L 2

The All-Star game takes place midway through the WNBA season, so this seems like a good time to look at the first half of the season and consider the prospects for the second half of the season. First up is the Eastern Conference.

While the standings for the East are not in the order many expected, the race is as close as some thought it would be, with only five games separating first place from last place.

The New York Liberty is in first place and the Atlanta Dream is last. That is a surprise for sure. With one blockbuster trade impacting two Eastern conference teams in the books, it is going to be a wild second half.

NEW YORK LIBERTY (12-5, 1st place)

If one team did not want to see the All-Star break, it was Bill Laimbeer’s Liberty. They are on a five-game winning streak, coinciding with the return of Epiphanny Prince from her obligations in Russia and insertion in the starting lineup. Prince and All-Star Tina Charles are the only Liberty players averaging double figures,            but it seems to be Charles (17.2 ppg, 9.3 rpg) and someone else stepping up night in and night out. One night it is Sugar Rodgers hitting big shots, another it is Kiah Stokes dominating on the defensive end.

“We just have to stay disciplined in who we are,” says Charles. “It’s definitely been working for us to be number one in the East right now. We are just going to stay disciplined in who the Liberty is and just competing out there.

Keep an eye on: Four of the Liberty’s last five games are against Eastern conference playoff contenders Chicago, Connecticut, Washington, and Indiana, with the fifth game against Western leader Minnesota.

CHICAGO SKY (11-6, 2nd place, one game behind)

The dynamic of the Eastern conference took a big swing on Monday, when the Sky finally traded star center Sylvia Fowles, who had sat out the season to date. In return the Sky received another former All-Star center, Erika de Souza, from the Atlanta Dream. An interesting note is the Sky traded Fowles out of the East, to Minnesota, who they have already played twice; so they will not play against Fowles unless the teams meet in the WNBA Finals. The Sky and Dream do have one more meeting.

While de Souza may be on the latter part of her career, she is a legitimate inside presence, which the Sky was sorely lacking. She can defend, block shots and rebound and is a good presence, by all accounts, in the locker room. The addition could be a difference maker for the Sky this year. She has met the coring limit of four times, so she could be a rental player for Chicago.

There is no question though in discussing the first half of the Sky’s season, one has to start with Elena Delle Donne. Healthy, she has averaged 24.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg, and 2.4 bpg. Those last two should decline with de Souza’s arrival, but it will free Delle Donne of some inside pounding she has endured this season. Delle Donne’s health will be a key to the Sky’s season, after she missed time with back and Lyme disease symptoms last year.

“It’s been a great season and I’ve been able to stay healthy which is so huge, especially dealing with a chronic illness [Lyme disease],” said Delle Donne at the All-Star game.

Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley continue to thrive in their tag-team role of point guard, scoring guard for the Sky, combining for almost 24 ppg and 6.8 apg. Vandersloot has been outstanding, with a stellar assist-turnover ratio of 2.63 to 1.

One question people did have about the Sky entering the season was the trade of Prince for Cappie Pondexter with the Liberty. It has been a major success for the Sky, with Pondexter rejuvenated, and returning to All-Star form in her home state, averaging 16.1 ppg.

“It’s been great,” says Pondexter. “Everyone is really, really receptive of me coming home. My teammates have been great and it’s just been an amazing first half of the season. We’re actually having fun together. To be a part of that kind of atmosphere again is a good feeling.”

Keep an eye on: Delle Donne’s health first of all. That is the key to the season. Ten of the remaining seventeen Sky games are at home after a difficult road stretch started the season.

WASHINGTON MYSTICS (9-6, 3rd place, two games behind)

Mike Thibault’s Mystics find themselves firmly in the playoff race, despite missing a large amount of games due to various injuries from key players like Kia Vaughn (14 games), and Bria Hartley (seven games).

The emergence of second-year center Stefanie Dolson and third-year forward Emma Meesseman has been a huge part of the Mystics’ success, with the pair both making the All-Star team. Dolson struggled in training camp, but Vaughn’s injury opened the door for her.

“One Kia got hurt, obviously it’s awful what happened, it gave me the opportunity to get a little more minutes and time in practice,” Dolson explained. “I just capitalized on it and I knew my team needed someone to step up.”

Meesseman has been a Thibault project since he drafted her, and he is determined to make sure she becomes a perennial all-star with the array of skills she possesses.

Both players average over 13 ppg and around 7.0 rpg.

Veterans like Kara Lawson and Ivory Latta have complimented the young stars and give Thibault a calming presence on the floor.

Prior to today’s three team trade, perhaps the most important move of the season thus far was Washington’s signing of LaToya Sanders. An international star who has improved her game markedly over the last few years, the Mystics actually held the rights to Sanders since before Thibault has been their coach.

The time was right for Sanders to come to the WNBA, and she has impacted the team tremendously. She has played in five games, averaging just over ten points per game, and the Mystics have won three in a row prior to the break.

Keep an eye on: The health of Vaughn and Hartley will be important as the season progresses, especially since they still have three games against Chicago on their schedule.

CONNECTICUT SUN (8-7, 4th place, 3 games behind)

Almost everybody picked the Sun to finish last in the east, and with the absence of Chiney Ogwumike, Alison Hightower, Katie Douglas, and Kelsey Griffin from last year’s team, who could blame them?

Well, Anne Donovan’s team got a few early scheduling breaks (absences of players like Brittney Griner, Epiphanny Prince, and Nneka Ogwumike) but the Sun took advantage of their opportunities, and raced out to a 7-1 start before stumbling and dropping six in a row. They defeated Minnesota (missing Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus though) prior to the break, to go into the time off feeling a little better.

Alex Bentley and Kelsey Bone, both acquired by the Sun prior to last season, have continue to improve their game and were rewarded with All-Star spots on their home court.

Alyssa Thomas showed flashes of why she was so important to the Sun’s trading of Tina Charles, but has been suffering through nagging injuries, notably to her hip, that slowed her going into the break.  Camille Little has been the all-important veteran presence needed on a young team, as has Jasmine Thomas, acquired on draft day. She is a solid point guard and mentor to rookie Chelsea Gray, who has had flashes of brilliance, coming off the bench with some big plays.

On the heels of her eye opening 23-point performance in the all-star game, Bentley said, “I’m looking to get us back to where we were in the beginning of the season; looking to get back to that and our Connecticut Sun defense.”

Bone emphasized the Sun needs to start strong in the second half. “As a team we’ve gone through winning and losing, so it’s time to put it all together and keep winning, and I think the playoff push starts at game one. And we have to prepare ourselves for that and be ready.”

Keep an eye on:  It is fair to say this team is ahead of schedule in arriving to the playoff race. Can it continue in the second half of the season? Alyssa Thomas has to get healthy, while Bentley and Bone must continue to play at an all-star level.

Connecticut still has three games with New York, Indiana, and Atlanta, and two with Chicago and Washington; that is 15 of their remaining 19 games. If they take care of business in their divisional games, this should be a playoff team.

INDIANA FEVER (8-8, 5TH place, 3.5 games behind)

In her first season as head coach, Stephanie White has used ten different starters. Injuries effected Erlana Larkins and Shavonte Zellous). Natalie Achonwa and Zellous were away for foreign commitments for several games. However, the Fever still are at .500, hovering a half game out of a playoff spot right now.

Tamika Catchings is what she always has been, a dynamo on the court and a presence off it, averaging 12.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg, and 2.2 apg to earn her tenth all-star game slot. She was joined though, by All-Star first time Marissa Coleman, who has thrived under White, averaging 12.6 ppg, and being a consistent source of offense for a team known more for defense in the past. Coleman and point guard Briann January are the only two to start all 16 games this year.

First year player Natalie Achonwa and off-season acquisition Shenise Johnson have been key to the Fever’s successes in the first half, and they will be called on heavily in the second half.

Still, Zellous and Larkins, crucial parts of the prior Fever playoff teams need to be healthy for this team to get above .500 and be serious players in the playoff race. They bring consistency, something that has been sorely lacking.

Keep an eye on:  The Fever has won games by margins of 17 (New York) and 23 (Seattle). They have also lost games by margins of 26 (Chicago) and 18 (Washington and San Antonio). They need to smooth out the highs and lows and play consistent ball.

Getting everyone healthy and the return of Achonwa after the Pan Am Games will certainly have an impact on the rest of the season. However, Achonwa will leave the team again in August to compete for Canada in the FIBA Americas Championships, August 9-16. The competition is a qualifying event for the 2016 Olympic Games.

ATLANTA DREAM (7-10, 6th place, 5 games behind)

The other Eastern conference team involved in the huge three team deal is Atlanta, who added young post players Damiris Dantas and Reshanda Gray (plus a first round draft choice) from Minnesota, while sending center de Souza to Chicago.  An interesting move from the Dream’s perspective; while losing a physically imposing center, they add pieces to a roster that seems to be in the midst of an overhaul.

Sancho Lyttle and Roneeka Hodges each have ten years in the league, Matee Ajavon seven, and all-star Angel McCoughtry six, but important pieces Tiffany Hayes and Aneika Henry are in only their third year. Dantas and Shoni Schimmel are second year players, while Gray joins Cierra Burdick as rookies on the team.

McCoughtry is the clear star of the team, averaging 20.5 ppg and voted in as an All-Star starter, with Hayes emerging as the team’s second leading scorer.

Already in the basement of the East, it will not be easy to replace not only DeSouza’s statistics, but her intangibles. She played almost 29 minutes per game, banging inside, set quality screens, defended and blocked shots. That is tough to replace, and both Dantas and Gray are built more like Lyttle, a power forward, than a center. Henry will most likely be the first choice to step up and play center, but she has been a bench player her entire career. Is she ready for that responsibility?

The other “issue” that has hampered the Dream this year is the point guard position, where the team entered the season with Schimmel and Ajavon, plus rookies Samantha Logic and Brittany Hrynko. The rookies are gone, and Ajavon has been the de facto point guard as coach Michael Cooper refused to give Schimmel minutes until she worked her way into shape, which basically took the first half of the season. It looked like she was going to get her chance early in July, getting 30, 13, and 22 minutes in a three-game stretch, but in the final game before the break she was back to a four minute performance.

Voted in as an All-Star starter by her devoted fans, Schimmel looked far sleeker at that game than she did earlier in the year. She is an exciting player that makes things happen with the ability to make the big shot. The Dream is going to need her in the second half of the season if they are going to make a playoff run.

Keep an eye on: Is trading DeSouza the Dream’s way of entering the Breanna Stewart sweepstakes; in other words are they looking at the future and not the present. If that is in fact the case, what do the highly competitive McCoughtry and Lyttle think of the situation? If they are not on board with the Dream management’s strategy, things could get really ugly this summer in Atlanta.

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