The 2023 WNBA season has been defined by superteams, with the reigning champion Las Vegas Aces and the new-look New York Liberty claiming the top two seeds in the league before sweeping their way through the first round of the playoffs. And that new superteam shine has benefitted the league, with viewership up 21%, making this the WNBA’s most watched season in 21 years.
But even with the array of talent in Las Vegas and New York, the league is deeper overall than ever, with stars sprinkled throughout the country. In fact, all 12 teams had at least one All-Star this season. And some teams had two, including the No 4 seed Dallas Wings, who will meet the Aces in one semi-final matchup, which starts on Sunday, and the No 3 ranked Sun, who will tip off against the Liberty on the other side of the country.
Despite the fact that everyone and their cousin predicted that the Aces and Liberty would meet in the WNBA finals, both teams have shown cracks in their armor. And, more importantly, the Wings and Sun have emerged as legitimate title contenders capable of upsetting the WNBA playoff picture.
“There’s not as much separation [as there used to be],” Aces guard Chelsea Gray said. “Any given night somebody can be beat. And there’s so much parity throughout the league that you go into a matchup and you think that team might win or that matchup is winning, and then it’s a different ballgame.”
The Wings swept the No 5 seed Atlanta Dream in the opening round of the playoffs to mark their first postseason series victory since 2009, when they were still the Detroit Shock. In fact, the Wings had just one winning season and zero playoff wins between 2010 and 2021, but saw signs of growth last season when they finished with a .500 record and won their first playoff game since moving to Dallas in 2016.
“I think we finally laid the good foundation for a good culture here in Dallas,” the Wings’ All-Star forward Satou Sabally said. “I have this quote: you have to go through the mud to be a lotus. And I think we kind of left the mud behind us. So, now it’s time to bloom.”
That culture change started with the Wings drafting All-Star point guard Arike Ogunbowale fifth overall out of Notre Dame in 2019. In addition to being one of the most entertaining players in the world, Ogunbowale has become a legitimate star, and averaged 21.2 points and 4.5 assists this season.
But the Wings were able to take a massive step forward due in large part to their improved front court depth. The 6ft 4in Sabally saw her averages nearly double this season to 18.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists, and she won the WNBA’s Most Improved Player award. The Wings are also the best rebounding team (coming down with 37% of their own misses) with former All-Star Natasha Howard playing alongside centers Teaira McCowan and Kalani Brown, the two tallest players in the playoffs at 6ft 7in.
The Wings will have their work cut out against the top-seeded Aces, who achieved a WNBA-record 34 wins this season behind a second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year season from center A’ja Wilson. But after losing two-time MVP Candace Parker to a fractured foot and going through a lull in August, when they went 8-4, the Aces have shown that they are human. And, as the only team to beat the top-ranked Aces, Liberty and Sun this season, the Wings are confident they can knock off the reigning champs.
“We struggled a little bit over the years but it’s all about the journey,” Ogunbowale said. “To finally get here, get to the semi-finals, after five years being on this team is amazing.”
She added: “Everybody knows Vegas, one of the best teams in the league. But it’s a new season.”
On the other side of the bracket is an exciting matchup between the No 2 seed Liberty and the Sun. The Liberty remade their team this offseason, trading for former Sun center Jonquel Jones before signing Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot in free agency to create a bonafide superteam in New York – one that finished the season on a 8-1 run.
But the Sun are no slouches either. Led by the Coach of the Year, Stephanie White, the Sun advanced to their fifth consecutive WNBA semi-finals after defeating the Minnesota Lynx in a thrilling three-game series in which All-Stars Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner led the way, scoring or assisting on 79 of the Sun’s 90 points in a crucial Game 3 win.
After losing Brionna Jones to an achilles injury a month into the season, the Sun needed a new center and turned to Thomas, who averaged 15.5 points, 9.9 rebounds and 7.9 assists while breaking the WNBA’s single-season record for total assists (316). In her 10th season in Connecticut, Thomas finished as the runner-up in the Defensive Player of the Year voting and is a favorite to win the Most Valuable Player award.
“The common denominator in all of [their wins] is Alyssa Thomas,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “I don’t know of a player with a greater will to win. That’s a player who just puts her team on her back.”
Surrounding Thomas is the veteran forward Bonner – who the Sun traded for in 2020 after she spent her first 10 seasons with the Phoenix Mercury and won two championships there – as well as five guards who each shot at least 35% from three this season, which helps make them lethal in transition.
The Sun have been to the playoffs in each of their last seven seasons, losing to the Aces in the 2022 WNBA finals. But they have never won a championship in their 24-year history, and they face a test against a Liberty team that swept them 4-0 in the regular season.
“We’re a confident group. And of course it’s led by [Thomas and Bonner],” White said about her veteran frontcourt, who have a combined 112 playoff games between them. “They are two players who have been around the block, who have been to the finals and you think about the experience.
“They’ve been the underdog and they found a way to get there. So, they understand what it takes.”
The Aces and Liberty are still favorites to win their matchups and meet in the WNBA finals, and they deserve that label after truly historic seasons. But the Wings and the Sun are legitimate competitors who will try to show the world that the league goes deeper than its two shiny superteams.