WNBA Power Rankings: Liberty pass Aces to take over No. 1

ByM.A. Voepel ESPN logo
Monday, August 21, 2023

The Los Angeles Sparks broke a 13-game losing streak to Las Vegas Aces on Saturday, beating the Aces for the first time since 2019. It gave the Sparks their first four-game winning streak since August 2021 and has them currently holding the last playoff spot.

And it did something else: It helped the New York Liberty move to No. 1 in ESPN's WNBA Power Rankings, the first time this season the Aces have been displaced from the top spot.

It doesn't mean the Aces are no longer favored to repeat as WNBA champions (they are). They still have a comfortable three-game lead in the standings ahead of the Liberty. The Aces might even look back on the past week as having helped them.

Last Tuesday's Commissioner's Cup final, a 82-63 Liberty victory in Las Vegas, didn't count in the standings. But that doesn't mean we can't take the game into consideration when evaluating where the Liberty are as a team now.

It was the Liberty's second double-digit win over the Aces in a row, following New York's 99-61 victory Aug. 6 in Brooklyn. Las Vegas then beat the Liberty 88-75 on Thursday, also at Michelob Ultra Arena.

But with New York's 85-63 win at Phoenix on Friday and the Aces' 78-72 loss to the Sparks, who came in as 17-point underdogs, it all added up to the Liberty getting a shot at our No. 1 slot.

"You see the chemistry of this team," Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said. "Overall, I just love their activity and how they're connected with each other."

The Aces clearly miss injured Candace Parker, and coach Becky Hammon has looked for opportunities to increase the playing time of reserves such as Cayla George and Kierstan Bell to get them ready for important minutes in the postseason. There is no timetable on a possible return for Parker.

The loss to Los Angeles also reflected understandable fatigue for the Aces, who played five games between Aug. 11 and 19, while the Sparks had two games in that time span. Plus, the Sparks are playing with urgency as they battle for a playoff berth.

The Aces remain in strong position to be the No. 1 overall seed, which would give them home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Defense, rebounding and slow starts, along with Parker's absence, are concerns for the Aces. "Concern" is a relative term, of course, when talking about a team with an .875 winning percentage.

But Hammon knows the Aces have to keep improving, because it's what the Liberty are doing.

New York forward Jonquel Jones was Commissioner's Cup MVP, reflecting how she's back to her typical high level of play after a slower start to the season as she recovered from a foot injury. Jones improves every aspect of the Liberty, whose depth is a strength.

In their past four games (including the Commissioner's Cup final), they've had four different players as leading scorer: Breanna Stewart, Marine Johannes, Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney.

The Aces lead the league in scoring average (93.1 PPG) and are second in 3-pointers per game (9.4), while the Liberty are second in scoring (88.0) and first in 3-pointers (11.2). The later we get into the regular season, the more it seems these teams indeed are on a collision course to meet for the WNBA championship in October.

"It's pretty cool to watch it flourish," Las Vegas star A'ja Wilson said of the rivalry between the Aces and Liberty. "I feel like we're giving people what they want. I love playing in these games, because you get better, no matter what."

1. New York Liberty

Record: 25-7

Previous ranking: 2

This week: at Connecticut (Thursday), at Minnesota (Saturday)

The Liberty are in the midst of six consecutive games on the road, where they have been strong all season. As much as the combo of Stewart and Jones makes New York so hard to guard, Ionescu's 3-point shooting (109-of-244) and Courtney Vandersloot's court management continue to stand out for New York.

2. Las Vegas Aces

Record: 28-4

Previous ranking: 1

This week: at Atlanta (Tuesday), at Chicago (Thursday), at Washington (Saturday)

Don't worry about the Aces. They are a veteran-led squad good at diagnosing what they need to fix. Along with the things already mentioned, Hammon wants to see more consistent 3-point shooting -- which is something fatigue also probably affected. It's another busy week for the Aces, who have four in a row on the road, but look for them to rise to the challenge.

3. Dallas Wings

Record: 18-14

Previous ranking: 4

This week: at Minnesota (Tuesday), vs. Minnesota (Thursday), at Phoenix (Sunday)

After a 2-0 week with road victories against Connecticut and Washington, the Wings return to the No. 3 spot for the second time this season. (The first was in late July.) They also defeated the Sun the previous week; those two wins allowed the Wings to jump over Connecticut in the Power Rankings but not in the standings. The remaining schedule could be favorable to Dallas. The Wings face just one team ahead of them in the standings, and four of their eight games are against teams that currently aren't in playoff position.

4. Connecticut Sun

Record: 22-10

Previous ranking: 3

This week: at Washington (Tuesday), vs. New York (Thursday), vs. Los Angeles (Sunday)

The Sun went 1-1 and officially clinched a playoff spot Sunday, although it has been clear for a long time that they were headed to the postseason for the seventh year in a row. Still, Connecticut's success with Brionna Jones missing much of the season because of injury and Jonquel Jones now in New York puts Stephanie White in the WNBA Coach of the Year conversation, along with Dallas' Latricia Trammell and others. Both White and Trammell are in their first seasons with their respective teams.

5. Atlanta Dream

Record: 16-16

Previous ranking: 7

This week: vs. Las Vegas (Tuesday), vs. Los Angeles (Friday), at Indiana (Sunday)

After three consecutive losses, last week was what Atlanta needed: one game, and it was a victory over Chicago, even though star Rhyne Howard was out because of a nose/facial injury. Cheyenne Parker came up big with a career-high 29 points to beat the Sky. The Dream have to be ready for a tougher time this week, including the dreaded task of facing the Aces after a rare loss. The Dream hope to have Howard back for that game.

6. Los Angeles Sparks

Record: 13-18

Previous ranking: 8

This week: vs. Phoenix (Wednesday), at Atlanta (Friday) at Connecticut (Sunday)

The Sparks looked like they were bound for the draft lottery after losing eight in a row between June 29 and July 22. Now, they've won six of their past nine, including the biggest win of their season when they upset Las Vegas on Saturday. Jordin Canada is in the mix for Most Improved Player, and even if Nneka Ogwumike isn't in the MVP race, she's putting up MVP-like numbers. This weekend, Curt Miller will make his first trip to Connecticut this season; he spent seven years leading the Sun before taking over the Sparks.

7. Minnesota Lynx

Record: 15-17

Previous ranking: 5

This week: vs. Dallas (Tuesday), at Dallas (Thursday), vs. New York (Saturday)

The struggles at Target Center have to be frustrating for the Lynx, the only team currently in playoff position that has a losing record at home (6-10). One of those losses came Sunday to Seattle, two days after Minnesota had won at Seattle. The Lynx are 2-4 in August, and this is a gut-check week coming up with back-to-back matchups against the surging Wings.

8. Washington Mystics

Record: 15-17

Previous ranking: 6

This week: vs. Connecticut (Tuesday), vs. Las Vegas (Saturday)

It has been yo-yo emotions for the Mystics, who were thrilled to see Elena Delle Donne and Ariel Atkins return in Friday's win at Indiana -- ending a nine-game road losing streak -- only to have Delle Donne out again in Sunday's home loss to Dallas. Delle Donne said her ankle is feeling better, but now her hip is hurting. But having back Atkins and Shakira Austin (she missed Sunday's game for recovery/rest) will help a lot, even if Delle Donne is out for another stretch of games. Brittney Sykes and Natasha Cloud are holding the Mystics together.

9. Seattle Storm

Record: 10-22

Previous ranking: 10

This week: at Chicago (Tuesday), at Indiana (Thursday), vs. Chicago (Sunday)

The Storm are 6-3 since their 10-game losing streak. Like Ogwumike, Jewell Loyd realistically won't be in the running for league MVP, but she's been everything for Seattle. That included a 31-point performance Sunday at Minnesota as the Storm split games with the Lynx this past week. With two games left against both Chicago and Los Angeles in the regular season, it looks as if the Storm will play a role in determining the last playoff spot.

10. Indiana Fever

Record: 9-24

Previous ranking: 12

This week: vs. Seattle (Thursday), vs. Atlanta (Sunday)

The Fever have three victories in August, which is two more than they had during July. The latest win came at Phoenix on Sunday, behind 28 points from Kelsey Mitchell and 25 from NaLyssa Smith. Rookie Grace Berger also tied her season high with five assists.

11. Chicago Sky

Record: 12-20

Previous ranking: 9

This week: There's no way to sugarcoat it: Things are going downhill for the Sky. After back-to-back wins over Dallas to start August, they have now lost five in a row, including to Atlanta and Connecticut this past week. Their playoff hopes are riding on a turnaround, and quickly.

12. Phoenix Mercury

Record: 9-23

Previous ranking: 11

This week: at Los Angeles (Wednesday), vs. Dallas (Sunday)

Center Brittney Griner was out for health and safety protocols in losses this past week to New York and Indiana. The Mercury have now lost three in a row, and edged closer to missing the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

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