Even though the league has been in existence for 20 years, the WNBA has never ceased tinkering with its cosmetic or substantive elements in an effort to draw attention or financial viability to a women’s league playing basketball in the traditional off-season between May and October. For example, franchises have a tendency to move around as local women’s college teams gain success (see: Tulsa’s team moving to Dallas as the Oklahoma women’s team ceased being a perennial title contender and Baylor’s experienced more success), and uniforms have begun to look more like European ones, with corporate sponsors replacing team names on the front of the jerseys.
This year’s big change happened to the WNBA’s playoff format. The new system replaces the best-of-three opening rounds with two rounds of single elimination games, with the last four seeds playing each other for the right to play the next two teams in the rankings in another round of single elimination games to make the semifinals. The semifinals and finals are now best-of-five series. In addition, the league did away with geographically-oriented conferences; the teams with the eight best records would make the playoffs, not the top four in each conference. They would be seeded one through eight in the new playoff format, too, regardless of conference affiliation.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the NCAA Tournament in all of its single elimination glory. There’s something really satisfying about pulling for a team of less talented yet scrappy student athletes playing a perfect game and beating a team full of future pros. Watching professional sports is different. It’s about watching the best talents in the particular sport strive for excellence night in and night out. I want each round to feature the best teams and players of the sport and see tight, tense games all the way to the finals.
I was uneasy about the single elimination policy in the WNBA playoffs, and this year’s set of first round games proved it. One of these games showcased the Seattle Storm and Atlanta Dream. In the first half, Seattle looked like the better team with crisper ball movement and execution of plays, which translated to an eight-point lead at half. Unfortunately, the lead quickly evaporated once Atlanta settled into a zone, daring Seattle to shoot three-point shots (that were missed). The Dream’s star player, Angel McCoughtry, also played a superb game, scoring 37 points, good for seventh-most in playoff history. Giving credit where credit is due, McCoughtry was sensational and Seattle could have done a better job defending her, especially since McCoughtry scored the most points in a WNBA playoff game ever with 42 in 2010 and holds four of the top 10 highest point totals by a WNBA player in a playoff game. But Seattle simply did not play well enough in the second half and missed several wide open three-point shots for a team with good shooters in Sue Bird, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, and Breanna Stewart, among others. I would have loved to have watched Seattle play Atlanta again to see if they could alter defensive schemes on McCoughtry and play better as a team to win a series against a team with one superstar and a solid supporting cast, but under the new playoff format, I’ll never get the chance.
The new format also shortens the season for teams that have worked so hard for months to get there. For example, another single elimination game featured a women’s basketball legend, Tamika Catchings, a league MVP, 10-time All-Star, 4-time Olympic gold medalist, second-ranking WNBA player by career points and rebounds… There isn’t enough space in this column to do Catch’s impact on the WNBA justice. Catchings announced at the beginning of the season that 2016 would be her last one, and happily, her Indiana Fever made the playoffs this year. Unfortunately, the Fever qualified for one of the two opening-round, single-elimination games, and the Fever lost. Admittedly, the Phoenix Mercury were probably the better team in that game, but I can’t help but believe that a player of Catch’s stature deserved to have a full playoff series to close out her career rather than a single elimination, winner-take-all game on a weeknight in mid-September.
All that being said, the decision to do away with conferences and seed the tournament based on the eight best records in the league was absolutely successful and definitely creates an environment where the best teams can reach the finals. This year’s final series featured the two best teams in the WNBA in the Minnesota Lynx and the Los Angeles Sparks; both teams have multiple All-Stars and Olympians, and they had the two best records in the league by several games over the third-place New York Liberty. The combined winning percentage of the finalists was the most in WNBA history. Since both of these teams would have been in the Western Conference in the old playoff format, these two teams would have been forced to play in the Conference Finals and then play an arguably inferior team in the Finals. That did not happen this year, and the series lived up to the hype. The first game was decided on a buzzer-beater and the Lynx forced a decisive game five after a thrilling game four on LA’s home floor and no team holding a lead greater than 10 the entire game. And this all came before the winner-take-all game five, which turned into an instant classic decided in LA’s favor on a buzzer-beater by league MVP Nneka Ogwumike where no team held a lead greater than 8. The league undoubtedly did the right thing by giving its best teams the best opportunity to play each other on the biggest stage.
The WNBA definitely took a gamble in the new playoff format, making it so different from its NBA counterpart. Sometimes, gambles work out, and sometimes they don’t. This was a case of a gamble partially working; the conference-less seeding led to one of the most exciting finals series I’ve ever seen, but it doesn’t quite make up for the fact good teams and players were unceremoniously eliminated in earlier rounds off one sub-par game.