2016 WNBA season showcased the league's talent

ByMechelle Voepel via ESPN logo
Tuesday, November 22, 2016

In a 20th anniversary WNBA season marked by so much reflection, Los Angeles Sparks general manager Penny Toler was asked repeatedly to recount how she scored the first basket in league history in 1997.

But she figures she'll be talking for many more years about the shot that ended the 2016 season: Nneka Ogwumike's putback with 3.1 seconds left last Thursday that gave the Sparks a 77-76 victory over the Minnesota Lynx and a 3-2 series triumph in the WNBA Finals.

After that game, the Sparks giddily posed for photos at Target Center in Minneapolis. Toler watched all that, smiling, and later stood outside the team's bus saying she was so happy "I don't know what to do now."

"I've watched this team struggle and get to where it is," said Toler, who has been in her role since 2000. "I can honestly say I've never been so proud in my life of a group of players."

It was, of course, a very different story down a long hallway to the Minnesota locker room, where the Lynx quietly answered questions about a painful loss. And coach Cheryl Reeve not so quietly called out the officials for mistakes made in Games 4 and 5 -- formally acknowledged by the league the day after both games -- while also trying to properly credit the Sparks.

Thus concluded a season that showcased the talent of the league, some of the issues it faces, the social consciousness of players, a new playoff system that for the most part was well-received, a first-year president trying to establish her authority, and some poignant goodbyes from beloved players.

MVP and a title, too

What a big year for Ogwumike. She was the league's MVP, won the WNBA championship, and moved up from vice president to president of the players' union executive council.

Ogwumike, 26, is just entering her professional peak years. Her efficiency was epic in 2016 -- shooting 66.5 percent from the field in the regular season, 62.5 in the playoffs -- and she and the Sparks have a lot to look forward to.

Consider this, too, in regard to the league's talent. From 2000-07, all eight MVP awards were won by three players: Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Lauren Jackson. In the nine seasons since, eight different players have won the honor. Ogwumike's teammate, Candace Parker, is the only person to win twice during that stretch.

Neither Parker nor Ogwumike were on the U.S. Olympic team in Rio de Janeiro. The fact that Parker, a two-time Olympian, wasn't selected stirred some controversy. But Ogwumike also was a difficult omission -- explainable only because the Americans are so rich in talent, they can leave home two players who'd be the best on any other team -- yet still win gold.

Parker being left off the all-WNBA first and second teams reflected a similar logjam of great post players, but also the league's misguided insistence on trying to have a set number of guards, centers and forwards on the teams -- rather than just the 10 best players, regardless of position.

In the end, Parker was the one posing with the WNBA championship trophy and the WNBA Finals MVP award. So it's fair to say she stated her case and then some.

This season was a big step in Ogwumike's evolution as a superstar on court, but also in terms of her presence in league leadership. Same with her sister, Connecticut Sun forward Chiney Ogwumike, who is now vice president of the executive council.

"It's always easy to have something to say, but not do anything about it," Nneka said of concerns that players have. "I think getting involved is what's necessary. But not just those who are elected. The voices that also matter are ones that aren't holding any office.

"I hope I'm good at communicating to people in a way that they can really hear things. And I think the group that we have can reach out to a lot of different people."

The new guard follows the old guard

That Ogwumikes' high-level involvement in the union comes when both are in their mid-20s is important, because the league saw the departure of players who have been carrying the leadership torch a long time.

Indiana's Tamika Catchings, who had been president since 2004, and council member Swin Cash of New York were among the big-name players who retired this year. As did Australia's Penny Taylor (Phoenix) and Lauren Jackson (Seattle), although the latter had not played in the WNBA since 2012.

DeLisha Milton-Jones, who finished her career in 2015 as the all-time leader in WNBA games played (499), hoped to have a chance to compete in 2016. But it didn't happen, so she officially retired, too.

There were also key hellos, including to rookie of the year Breanna Stewart of Seattle. She hit the ground running and never stopped, following her four NCAA titles at UConn with an immediate impact on the WNBA.

Stewart made it pretty clear there's an MVP award (or more) in her future. Stewart also helped Seattle get back into the postseason after a two-year absence, but the Storm's stay was brief. Such is a reality of the new playoff format.

Adding in one-and-done

The postseason changes seemed to go over well for the most part -- especially the move to do away with conference affiliation and seed the top eight teams by record.

Less popular, though, were the single-elimination games in the first two rounds. Some loved the NCAA tournament-like drama of that, but others felt like it was too brief. For instance, on the first night of the postseason, both Stewart and the Storm and Catchings and the Fever were eliminated. The playoffs then lasted another month.

"I do think the best two teams got into the Finals, which is the goal," Sparks coach Brian Agler said. "The one-and-done's are difficult, because in pro sports you're used to playing more games and have a little more room for error. But I think that was done more for TV purposes.

"If I was going to make one change, it would be Round 2: When the third and fourth seeds play, have it be best-of-three."

Agler said it seemed unfortunate that this year's No. 3 seed, New York, ended up with single-elimination game against a No. 8 seed like Phoenix. The Mercury were up and down all year. But when they were up, they definitely didn't play like the lowest seed in the field. They knocked off No. 5 Indiana and New York before being swept in the semifinals by Minnesota.

The semifinals were changed to a best-of-five series, and the top two seeds automatically advanced to that round. Agler liked that because, he said, allowing the Nos. 1 and 2 teams time to rest and recover was a fair reward for their regular-season success.

The down side that some see, though, is that the top teams are out of the spotlight for the first week and a half of the playoffs.

"It was probably a little too long, but we figured it out," Reeve said of Minnesota's 10 days between games. "I do like longer series, so I liked that they expanded the semifinals."

Evaluation and a look ahead

The league had some controversy. Many players supported the Black Lives Matter movement and made protests during the national anthem. At one point, several players were fined for not wearing "official" warm-ups -- opting for all-black shirts instead -- though the fines were later rescinded.

Lisa Borders, who took over as WNBA president this season from Laurel Richie, walked a tricky line between supporting the players' right to free expression but also trying to establish an authority in regard to things such as uniforms -- which is something, because of sponsorship deals, professional sports teams take seriously.

Unlike Richie, who was entirely new not just to the WNBA but women's basketball, Borders had a connection to the league through her support of the Atlanta franchise. Borders' communications with the media about the league weren't necessarily that different, though, than Richie's were.

Borders stayed on point with celebrating the league's 20th anniversary and maintaining an optimistic overall message. She lauded the offensive uptick, in particular, as the league scoring average of 81.9 was the highest ever, as was the average team field goal percentage of 44.1.

"So fundamentally, the game is stronger than it's ever been," Borders said.

However, the issue of two officiating mistakes in the WNBA Finals -- a missed backcourt violation in Game 4 and a missed shot-clock violation in Game 5 -- pointed out an issue that tends to be discussed a lot by players, coaches and fans: the consistency and quality of officiating.

This isn't occurring in a vacuum: The increased scrutiny on officiating has been across the board in all sports. But especially with late-game miscues in the two biggest contests of the year, the WNBA has to try to address why these things happened and how best to prevent them going forward.

Borders also will have a change among her inner circle as Renee Brown, who has been with the WNBA since its inception, is stepping down as chief of basketball operations and player relations. Perhaps her replacement will be quickly tackling the officiating issues.

Overall, the 2016 season will most be remembered for how it ended: With a thrilling WNBA Finals in which the league's top two teams alternated victories. That showed just how competitive a matchup it was.

The Lynx had their best regular-season record, 28-6, and were trying to win their fourth championship. That would have tied the now-defunct Houston Comets. Instead, the Sparks got their third, tying them with Minnesota and Phoenix -- which were the two teams most people had picked to win the title before the season started.

But it went to the Sparks, who did it the hard way -- winning twice on Minnesota's home court.

"This league means everything to me," Toler said. "And this was an epic Finals, especially [the last game]. I guarantee this will be a game I'll be talking about 20 years from now. I think we all will."

Related Video