The WNBA playoffs begin Thursday. While the slate of contenders is top-heavy as per usual, there is a wider window than usual this time around.
The Sun have been the best team throughout the season but remain unproven. The Storm are the defending champions, but Breanna Stewart is dealing with an injury. And the Aces are in their usual spot with their usual limitations.
Here’s a guide to the best betting value for the WNBA title as the playoffs tip-off.
Diamonds In The Rough
Minnesota Lynx (+700)
Let’s start hot right out of the gate!
The Lynx are 7-1 despite having a better half-court offense than the Sun, the best effective field goal percentage in the league and a defense that was ostensibly tied with the Aces. They also snuck into the 3-seed thanks to the Storm’s late struggle without Stewart, which means they avoid the Mercury (assuming they beat the Liberty), the Storm and the Sun. If the Sky show up, they’re dangerous, but not more so than the Storm. The Aces, again, are a weak spot I look to fade every year.
Look at the firepower on this team. Layshia Clarendon is in the 83rd percentile league-wide as a scorer out of pick-and-roll. Sylvia Fowles is in the 94th percentile in the post. Napheesa Collier is having a weird shooting year; she’s at 25% from 3 after shooting 40.8% last year and 36% the season before. The team’s big offseason pickup, Aerial Powers, is looking healthy; she scored 27 to eliminate the Mystics in the season finale.
The Lynx are dangerous in any playoff environment, and they have a favorable fall of the bracket as well. The Lynx went 2-1 vs. the Aces this season, 1-1 vs. the Sky, 1-2 vs. the Sun. They are live for the title.
Phoenix Mercury (+900)
The Mercury went 7-0 in August, playing red-hot after the Olympic break before cooling down as the playoffs approached with their spot in hand.
Phoenix boasts the fourth-best half-court defense and the second-best half-court offense. Diana Taurasi is back from her hip injury (though she is nursing a sore ankle). The Mercury are the hottest (forgive the pun) team headed into the playoffs.
The Mercury’s path is brutal, not going to lie. Their first-round is a cakewalk vs. the Liberty, who are just happy to be there. But after that, it’s the Storm. That’s a classic and legendary matchup between Bird and Taurasi, Griner and Stewart … if Stewart’s healthy. If Stewie isn’t able to go, that’s a series the Mercury can win.
Then it’s the Sun. The Sun boast a better defense, but the Mercury’s offensive advantage in the half-court still grades out higher. My half court-adjusted model puts Mercury-Sun as a pick ‘em. There will be value on the Mercury in that spot … if they can get past the Storm.
A better play might be to take the +190 on the Sun and then bet back on the Mercury in that matchup, as I think the Sun is vulnerable to both.
Then the Mercury would face either the Aces or Lynx in the Finals. The Aces would be a heavy favorite. However … the Mercury are the No. 1 team in defending the rim on non-post-ups this season, per Synergy Sports, and No. 2 in scoring in such situations. Over their final 10 games of the season, the Mercury averaged the second-most made 3’s per 100 possessions in the league, a central key to upsetting the archaic Aces offense.
The Lynx pose a tougher matchup, honestly, but at that point, you’ve already positioned yourself for a hedge. If the Lynx are upset, the Mercury would face the Aces and avoid the Sun until the Finals.
I think the Mercury are live.
The Safe Bets
Seattle Storm (+450)
Look, call them old news. Call them washed. Call them over the hill.
The Storm’s best is still better than everyone else’s. It’s been that way the past four seasons. If Breanna Stewart is healthy — and that’s a big if — then there isn’t a team in this thing that can beat them. The Storm went 2-0 vs. the Sun, 2-1 vs. the Lynx, 2-1 vs. the Mercury. They went 1-2 vs. the Aces, who, again, I’m fading.
Not only did they beat the Sun, but they beat them by an average of 13 points per game.
Their regular-season numbers don’t show how good they are; this team coasted. Not only did they win the title last year, but they had the Olympics throwing in a wrench. Every time they’ve gotten up for a game, they’ve rattled the heavens.
Stewart’s injury is, of course, the elephant in the room. It’s an unknown foot injury. Foot injuries are never something to brush off. She’s supposed to be re-evaluated before the playoffs. You cannot bet this without knowing Stewart’s situation. If she’s out, they’re out. If she’s day-to-day, it’s a no-bet. Even if she does play, there must be a decent chance of re-injury.
Jewell Lloyd, Sue Bird, Jordin Canada, Katie Lou Samuelson and Mercedes Russell have a negative plus-minus without Stewart.
Bear in mind that Stewart won Finals MVP the year after she tore her Achilles. She’s tough as nails. But if she can’t go, there’s no chance the Storm win the title.
However, with Stewart available, the Storm have the best lineup in the WNBA, outscoring opponents by 19.3 points per 100 possessions with Bird, Russell, Talbot and Lloyd next to Stewart. They are still a juggernaut.
Still, they’ll likely be underdogs vs. the Sun and Aces if they get past the Mercury (who may be their biggest threat). The better play may be to wait, be sure that Stewart is healthy, and then bet them series by series.
Connecticut Sun (+190)
I know, I know, the favorite, huh? Big shocker. The Sun feature the likely MVP, Jonquel Jones, and the league’s best half-court defense. Jasmine Thomas provides enough shooting to keep up with any team, and they’re not limited by an archaic offense like Las Vegas. They finished the season on a 14-game winning streak.
The Sun went 15-5 vs. playoff teams in the regular season, only losing the season series to the Sky and the Storm. Those two teams and the Lynx are the teams I’m most concerned about toppling the Sun. There’s no chance of the Lynx (as the third seed) meeting the Sun before the Finals, so I’m not worried about them. All three teams would be dogs, allowing for a hedge opportunity depending on A) if the Sky look like they just flipped a switch and B) if Stewart is healthy.
I don’t think the Sun are juggernauts like they were in the regular season; Seattle handled them in their matchups this season and profiles like a sleeping giant. They’re vulnerable to shooting variance. However, the Lynx, Sky and Aces all average fewer made 3’s per 100 possessions than the Sun do per 100 possessions.
The number is why they’re still this high despite my reservations on certain matchups. Their implied odds at +190 are 35%, and the Sun have to win two series. That’s it. They’ll likely face the winner of Mercury-Storm, both of whom have injury concerns.
The Sun will have homecourt advantage, where they had the best record this season. If the Mercury and the Storm beat one another up as expected, I’m only concerned about the Sky or Lynx upsetting the Aces. The Sun went 3-0 vs. the Aces this season, and we’ll get to why I’m fading Las Vegas again in a bit.
The Long Shot
Chicago Sky (+2000)
Here’s what this team does to me.
The Sky underperformed out of the gate, then stabilized. Then after the Olympic break, they had a nightmarish schedule. They played the Storm thrice, the Aces thrice, the Mercury and the Aces. Nine of their final 12 games were against playoff teams. Allie Quigley missed six games; Candace Parker missed nine.
The Sky’s combo of Quigley, Courtney Vandersloot and Parker hasn’t hit its potential. They remain this sleeping giant, and if you wake them up, they could become the kind of team that makes an improbable run.
The talent is there. The Sky have a better half-court defense than the Storm; Chicago is ranked fifth. Their problem is they’ve struggled with shot creation. Vandersloot is just 35th percentile this season as a scorer out of pick-and-roll. Parker’s numbers don’t look like a star player’s, but the talent is there. Does she suddenly pick it up, and the shooters they have begin to overwhelm teams?
I’m not convinced. I’m nervous, and I feel like I just can’t quit this team after betting them in the preseason at what I thought was a long number then. But I can’t say I have a lot of confidence at this point. If they face a grind-it-out series vs. the Sun, they aren’t quite tough enough. If they face an offensive juggernaut, they’ll likely fall short, too.
I will say my half court-adjusted model has them as only 3.8-point underdogs to the Lynx, who they would face in the second round if they get past the Wings. I don’t want to bet them now, but I’ll be looking for game-by-game spots.
Why I’m Fading The Aces … Again
Las Vegas Aces (+220)
I’m going to be wrong one of these years. They’ve been at the top of the league the past four seasons. They always rack up impressive records and impressive stats. They have a double-digit point differential for the second season in a row. They have all the stars: A’Ja Wilson, Liz Cambage, Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum. They have the league’s best half-court offense and the third-best half-court defense. They have to win two best-of-five series. That’s it.
If you want to bet them, I can’t blame you. On paper, they look awesome.
I’m fading them, as I have each of the past three years.
The Aces’ big issue is their offense. In 2019 in their playoff losses, opponents made seven more 3-pointers per 100 possessions. Last season, their opponents averaged three more made 3’s per 100 possessions in their losses. This season, in losses, opponents made eight more 3-pointers per 100 possessions.
In the last three seasons, here are the Aces’ rankings in 3-pointers made per 100 possessions:
- 2019: 12th (last)
- 2020: 12th (last)
- 2021: 12th (last)
Their offense is archaic. It’s simply not able to keep up. It’s surprising because the Aces’ overall offense, per possession, is tremendous. They average a league-best 107.1 points per 100 possessions. They have the most efficient half-court offense.
But they get outpaced in the postseason. It would be one thing if they faced teams with similar rock-fight tendencies. But the Storm, Mercury, and Sun can all bomb if necessary.
In 2019, Cambage finished with a negative on-court net rating in the postseason. In 2020, with Cambage out, Wilson finished with the same in the Wubble. When it’s your best players, the superstars, who provide the backbone of your championship contention, that’s a concern.
It’s not the talent; they have shooters. It’s their style of play. Throw in Cambage’s recent bout with COVID, and it’s enough to make them a team to not only stay away from but bet against.