WNBA power rankings: A rivalry is budding between Aces and Sparks. Will it take hold?

The WNBA revealed its All-Star roster last week, and let’s get one thing straight: The league got this right.

Sure, we can quibble over the exclusion of two Australian frontcourt players, Ezi Magbegor and Alanna Smith — neither of whom would get to play in the game due to their Olympics duty. Nevertheless, it’s hard to be disappointed in a midseason showcase that will feature the league’s two highest-profile rookies, Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese, as teammates against the USA women’s national basketball team. Before the league goes on hiatus for one month, fans will be treated to two of the WNBA’s most exciting young stars in a competitive game as they work to get on the radar of USA Basketball for the next Olympics cycle.

In addition to Clark and Reese, there’s the prospect of Aliyah Boston versus fellow South Carolina great A’ja Wilson. Wilson also has to do battle with teammate-turned-foe Dearica Hamby, who always brings it against the Las Vegas Aces. Team WNBA additionally features two other USA basketball snubs Arike Ogunbowale and Nneka Ogwumike. Plus, fiancés Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner will be on opposite teams. In terms of entertainment value, these rosters couldn’t line up more perfectly.

As the WNBA acclimates to its exploding popularity, there will be some growing pains. On that note, it would be nice if the skills challenge and 3-point shootout participants were announced more than a couple of days before the event. But in terms of the premier event, the WNBA has set itself up for success. New and old fans alike should be thrilled with this year’s All-Star Game format and rosters as the league heads into its break with some positive momentum.

For individual teams, positive momentum has been hard to come by. The longest winning streak is only three games, and the longest losing streak is only four. Anything can happen on any given night.

Three standout performances

1. A win for parity

The bottom rung of the standings has been through some tough times this season, with Dallas and Washington experiencing double-digit losing streaks and the Los Angeles Sparks recently dropping eight in a row. To wit, three games spanning Friday night and Saturday afternoon featured near double-digit spreads — Seattle, Las Vegas and New York each were favored by at least 9.5 points in respective games against Chicago, Los Angeles and Indiana. However, all three favorites lost.

The Sky were led by Reese (more on her later) and a dominant 33-point effort from Chennedy Carter, who continues to have the most lethal first step in the league. Opponents can’t keep her out of the paint despite her lack of a consistent jump shot, not even when defenders are as long and athletic as Jordan Horston. The Indiana Fever had double-digit scoring outings from each of their core four, including a double-double from NaLyssa Smith and a triple-double from Caitlin Clark in their win over New York. They trailed by 37, 23 and 36 points in the first three losses to the Liberty, but they battled back from a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit in the fourth meeting. The Sparks got career-best performances from Aari McDonald and Stephanie Talbot to take down the Aces for the second time this season.

Individually, all three outcomes were surprising. Collectively, the result was an absolute stunner, something that would never have happened during the super-team season of 2023. Perhaps parity has taken root in 2024.

2. Budding rivalry between Aces and Sparks

Before their final regular-season meeting in 2023, Las Vegas had beaten Los Angeles 13 straight times. Hopes of a regional rivalry were dashed by the teams being at dramatically different stages of development.

But the Sparks knocked off the Aces then, one of six losses for the defending champs that year, and they have taken two off of Las Vegas in 2024. Each of those home games in Los Angeles drew nearly 14,000 fans. Before the Sparks’ game Sunday against Phoenix, even Mercury coach Nate Tibbetts and general manager Nick U’Ren remarked on the incredible atmosphere while watching on television.

“The close proximity, I think there’s always been a rivalry,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said. “Chelsea (Gray) is from L.A. She played for L.A. Last year, Candace (Parker) played. Dearica (Hamby) played for us. I think there’s just personal feelings involved sometimes. Curt (Miller) coached me in college. I’ve known Curt since I was like 19. So I just think at the end of the day, you have two really big cities that are very competitive with each other.”

The emotions were heightened in the previous meeting last month with four technical fouls, including Hammon’s ejection. Two more techs were delivered Friday, one on Kelsey Plum as a new layer of the rivalry emerged. Plum had a devil of a time guarding McDonald, who started her collegiate career at Washington when Plum was a senior. The student got the better of the teacher for the first time as a pro in the Sparks’ win, scoring a career-high 23 points. She had some words for the veteran afterward.

“Kelsey’s a great player,” McDonald said postgame. “But I mean Kelsey’s an offensive player. She doesn’t want to play on the defensive end, and she picks and chooses. I knew that coming into the game, so I had to take advantage of that.”

The Sparks still aren’t in the playoff mix, but they certainly rise to the occasion against Las Vegas. Until the two meet in the postseason, this can’t be a true rivalry. However, the seeds are certainly being planted for that occasion.

3. Veronica Burton is in the right defensive system

When she played for Dallas the last two seasons, Burton was often the only good perimeter defender on the floor. As a rookie and sophomore, she was tasked with plugging all the leaks on that end for the Wings. It was a herculean task, and her efforts were underappreciated when her offense failed to come along.

Burton’s new landing spot in Connecticut is the perfect match for player and team culture. The third-year guard is now one good defender in a string of them. The Sun leaned into their strengths by signing Burton, and she’s able to actualize those gifts on the floor. She can be aggressive at the point of attack, knowing that her teammates will rotate behind her. With that confidence on defense, Burton has been unburdened on offense. She’s making 58 percent of her field goals, well above the 31 percent she converted in Dallas, and Connecticut has a plus-10.0 net rating with her on the court, the mark of an elite team.

Burton’s season got off to a rocky start when she was cut by the Wings during training camp. She’s the fifth player from the first round of the 2022 draft to be cut by her original team — because this is simply how things go in the WNBA. Fortunately, she latched on with the Sun and made it past the league-wide cutdown date last week, so her contract is guaranteed for the remainder of the season. She’s another reminder that the hardest thing in the WNBA isn’t making the league, it’s keeping a spot.

Rookie of the week

Angel Reese, Chicago Sky

This section more often than not highlights under-the-radar rookies, but in a somewhat quiet stretch for the 2024 draft class, let’s add some more shine to the No. 7 pick. Reese made 44 percent of her field goals over the past two weeks, a meaningful increase from the 40.6 she was converting before that, especially considering her increased volume. The rebounds have ticked up from 11.1 to 14 per game. Opponents haven’t been able to knock Reese out of her comfort zone. She’s working her way deep into the paint via drives and post-ups and giving multiple efforts inside when the first attempt doesn’t convert. Defenders haven’t quite figured out her cadence inside, so Reese is getting to the line 5.5 times per game, good for sixth in the league. Rather than hit a rookie wall, Reese is only getting better as the season wears on.

Game to circle

Las Vegas Aces at Seattle Storm, 3 p.m. ET Wednesday

Camp-day games take over this Wednesday, as 10 teams tip off during the day. If you can load up a second screen at work, check out these two full-strength Western Conference contenders. They’ve split the first two meetings, the latter coming in Chelsea Gray’s return, but the Storm finally get to host a game in Seattle, where they’ve been outstanding. The season is already half over, so each matchup could be crucial in deciding playoff positioning. Right now, the teams are slotted in the No. 4 versus No. 5 matchup, and the WNBA postseason format means that the No. 4 seed hosts the first two games in the best-of-three series.

(Photo: Juan Ocampo / NBAE via Getty Images)

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