As is often the case due to a hasty WNBA playoff structure that favors the top teams, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the league, the Seattle Storm and Las Vegas Aces, will meet in the WNBA Finals, which begin Friday night on ESPN2. The two best teams all year will culminate their Bubble season with a five-game series that features two of the last three MVPs, two veteran Hall of Famers, and two of the best coaching staffs in the league.
Since the league switched to a conference-less postseason in 2016, the Finals have been an annual treat, going a full five games in three of the past four years. With so much star power on both sides, this year’s series should be quite competitive as well, but Seattle breezed through the playoffs while the Aces enter the last round depleted and spent. Still, this series is going to be good, and these three keys could end up determining which side comes out on top.
1. The battle of unguardable MVPs
That’s what this one is all about. A’ja Wilson edged out Breanna Stewart for the MVP trophy this year, keeping Stewart from her second trophy in three seasons. They will likely match up a fair bit when Las Vegas goes small. As two of the best shot-makers in all of basketball, the way each player can get to their spots and knock down shots will go a long way in deciding the series.
Having limited Connecticut in transition in the last round, the Aces should be able to contain Stewart when she handles the ball in transition, and Las Vegas can switch different players on Stewart to make her uncomfortable. The Aces protect the paint better than any team in the WNBA, so expect Stewart’s game to take more of an outside bent in the Finals. But despite an incredible recovery from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon, Stewart has been in a shooting slump since basically mid-August. Outside of a monster 31-point outing in Game 3 against the Lynx, Stewart hasn’t been a consistently dominant scorer in weeks.
She will face Wilson, who has been the best clutch scorer in the league, willing her team to the No. 1 overall seed and a Game 5 victory over the course of a few weeks to earn the MVP award and chart the course toward a championship. Sporting an old-fashioned game, Wilson is great simply because there is no way to guard her. Throw three players at her at the elbow and Wilson will rise up for a jumper over everyone. Sell out on protecting the rim and Wilson will face up and draw a foul. Match up with a bigger player and Wilson is bound to slip past them.
The odds probably favor Wilson in terms of individual shot creation, but Stewart’s shooting is a wildcard in this and every series. With a center who can rain threes, the Storm can invert pick-and-rolls, space the floor better than anyone, and dictate matchups all series long. When two great players match up with one another and get theirs, series are often decided by the role players and coaching.
2. The versatility battle with Dearica Hamby out for Las Vegas
The reason the Storm are so deadly is not just that they have a ton of talent. With Stewart and 2019 All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard, Seattle’s frontcourt is perhaps the most flexible in the game. Both players can shoot from outside, create shots for themselves and their teammates, and defend 1-5. Think of this like when the Warriors down-sized with Draymond Green and Kevin Durant as their nominal bigs. There’s really no way to stop them when that happens.
Throughout the year, Las Vegas had its own small-ball post player duo of Hamby and Wilson to match the Storm. But in the semifinals, Hamby injured the MCL in her right knee. She will miss the rest of the season. The back-to-back reigning Sixth Woman of the Year is the ultimate modern big, a player who can protect the paint, initiate offense, and shoot. Without her, Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer simply lacks the go-to adjustment to match the Storm’s versatility.
The solution is fairly obvious for Las Vegas, as it involves playing the two best players on the team together as much as possible. While the Aces have played all of 2020 without Liz Cambage (medical exemption) and Kelsey Plum (Achilles), they made a big addition in the offseason in the form of the legendary Angel McCoughtry, who has been one of the best two-way players in the league all season. As Justin Carter noted at Winsidr, McCoughtry and Wilson have played together as the sole “bigs” for just four minutes all season, but Laimbeer noted postgame after Game 5 of the semifinals that those two would see time together against Seattle.
While neither is a typical defensive anchor, both are great team defenders and are quick enough to keep up with the Storm. Las Vegas’ other options are Emma Cannon, a late-season signing who hasn’t played in the WNBA since 2017, and Carolyn Swords, the low-minutes veteran starter whose lack of athleticism could make her a liability in this series with Seattle presenting nowhere to hide. The best bet is that we see Las Vegas close tight games with Wilson and McCoughtry together at the 4 and 5, with second-year jumbo guard Jackie Young giving the team an ultra-small look or an extra weapon to switch around defensively in spurts.
3. The Sue Bird factor
There’s been a lot of “don’t bet against Sue Bird” going around on social media among WNBA pundits since the Finals matchup was decided, but can Seattle count on Bird to stay on the court and make a huge impact at this point? The future Hall of Fame inductee played in just 11 games all year and was basically only out there to knock down spot-up threes and set up teammates. That’s a perfectly fine player, and Bird has always raised her game in the playoffs, but a couple weeks from her 40th birthday, it would be hard for Seattle to bet on getting a legendary series out of her.
Still, it’s clear Seattle had the luxury of playing things patiently with Bird all year in the Bubble to get her right for the postseason and especially the Finals. While she only shot 35.5 percent in a semifinal sweep over Minnesota, Bird took her play-making to another level and played over 26 minutes per game. But with backup combo guard Sami Whitcomb out for the Finals for the birth of her daughter, Seattle’s depth is depleted and Bird may be needed more. Based on how much talent is on the Storm roster, that may be all they need. Certainly, Seattle won plenty in 2019 and 2020 even with an unavailable or inhibited Bird. Stellar third-year guard Jordin Canada is a more than capable fill-in for Bird and is often a better option defensively.
Against Las Vegas, it may not matter. As Ben Dull noted at Floor Game, the Storm’s usual blitzing defense may not be as necessary against the Aces, who run the offense inside-out rather than from the perimeter. That means the Storm can maximize Bird on offense without asking too much of her defensively. A few key clutch shots, fast break assists or simply being able to run the offense in crunch time could be a big help for Seattle in a series that could be closely decided.
The Aces come into the series after a slog of a semifinal battle against Connecticut, while the Storm are rested and possess a clear star talent advantage. Will that matter? Smart bettors would likely put their money on this fledgling Storm dynasty to continue, but the Aces have defied odds all year and have a clearer team structure centered around elite defense and Wilson’s brilliance. A long, fun series is likely in the cards here.