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The W Is It: The WNBA’s playoff format will screw 3 of the league’s best 5 teams

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The league’s top two seeds will get double byes. Everyone else has to survive at least one win-or-go-home game.

Candace Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks puts her hands behind her head as she reacts to a play during a game.

Elena Delle Donne took her face mask off and walked to the locker room after crushing the New York Liberty with a 22-point, 10-rebound performance in a 101-72 win Sunday. There, she unhooked her knee brace and replaced it with ice packs to sit and field questions from reporters. This is the regular routine for 2019’s presumptive MVP, who’s missed one game due to lingering effects from last year’s deep bone bruise injury to her knee, and three more in the 34-game season to a broken nose.

By traditional and advanced metrics, the Washington Mystics have been the best team in the league this season. Yet they might not finish the season with the best record in the league — or maybe even the second-best. They’ve lost every game Delle Donne missed, bringing their record to 21-8, just 2.5 games above the No. 3 spot.

That No. 3 spot is the one no elite team wants to finish in.

If they slip, Delle Donne, the league’s best and most popular player by all-star fan vote, must play in a single-elimination playoff game, as she did last year. That’s despite the team outscoring opponents by 14 points per 100 possessions this year, a point differential that’s nearly three times larger than the next-best team, the Las Vegas Aces.

If the season ended today, the Mystics would finish with the most efficient offense in WNBA history, yet if the Mystics finish third or below in the standings, they are only one bad performance from having their entire season wiped away.

In 2016, the WNBA adopted a new playoff format that made sense at the time, dropping conference considerations to seed teams 1 through 8 regardless of geographic location. That set the stage for back-to-back Finals showdowns between Western Conference arch-rivals in the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks. Those series were instant classics that converted many casual fans to the sport, and would not have occurred in the finals under the old format.

To accommodate that change, the league gave the teams with the two best records double byes and introduced single-elimination playoff games in the first two rounds. Any team seeded below the top two had to face at least one win-or-go-home situation. Four teams every year lose a season’s work in 40 minutes.

This wasn’t a huge problem in 2016 or 2017 because the top two teams had much better records than everyone else. It wasn’t really an issue in 2018 because the Seattle Storm were miles ahead of the rest of the pack.

But it will become a problem this year, potentially in cruel ways.

As of Aug. 26, two weeks before the regular season’s end, the top five teams are separated by just three games in the standings. The Mystics lead the Connecticut Sun for the No. 1 seed by one game. The Los Angeles Sparks and Las Vegas Aces trail the Sun for the No. 2 seed by 1.5 games, and the Chicago Sky are a half game behind them. In the end, two of these teams must play one-and-done games, and the lowest seed of the group will play two.

“It’s awful,” Delle Donne said about the possibility of earning the No. 3 seed again. “It sucks to play an entire season and play great basketball and then you could be out in a single elimination game. It’s crap.”

This year’s WNBA season has been highly competitive, but that’s in part because the W is missing many of its biggest stars due to injury or absence. Seattle’s star duo of Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird, Minnesota’s six-time all-star Maya Moore, and Atlanta’s five-time all-star Angel McCoughtry haven’t played a game all season. Phoenix’s legend Diana Taurasi missed 16 games before returning Sunday. LA Sparks star Candace Parker missed 12 games, Las Vegas Aces young sensation A’ja Wilson missed eight, and veteran Mystics point guard Kristi Toliver has missed six (and counting).

Parity wasn’t created naturally, but now it’s here. The W’s playoff system won’t treat its now-healthy stars kindly. Parker’s had no games to spare since returning from injury to put her team in contention for a double bye, and Taurasi’s almost assured to have to play two single-elimination games.

Worse, the top-five seeds could all be decided by a tiebreaker. If teams are tied by overall record, the league looks at head-to-head record, and that’ll include games these superstars missed.

Here are the standings:

1. Washington Mystics, 21-8
2. Connecticut Sun, 20-9
3. Los Angeles Sparks, 18-10
4. Las Vegas Aces, 19-11
5. Chicago Sky, 18-11

Here are the tiebreaker scenarios:

Aces

  • 1-2 series loss against Mystics (One loss was postponed due to an earthquake at halftime, and Liz Cambage didn’t play in that second half.)
  • 2-1 series win over the Sky
  • 1-2 series loss against the Sun
  • Trailing the Sparks, 1-2, with one game on Aug. 31. A win would move the tiebreaker in favor of the team with the best record against .500 teams. (One loss came without A’ja Wilson)

Mystics

  • 2-1 series win over the Aces
  • 2-1 series win over the Sky
  • 1-1 tie against the Sparks (One loss came after Delle Donne broke her nose in the opening minute)
  • 1-2 series loss against the Sun (One loss came without Delle Donne)

Sky

  • 1-2 series loss against the Aces
  • 1-2 series loss against the Mystics
  • 1-2 series loss against the Sparks (One loss came without Courtney Vandersloot)
  • 1-1 series tie against the Sun, with one game on Sept. 6

Sparks

  • 2-1 series lead over the Aces, with one game on Aug. 31. A loss would move the tiebreaker in favor of the team with the best record against .500 teams. (One Sparks loss came without Candace Parker)
  • 1-2 series loss against the Mystics
  • 2-1 series win over the Sky
  • 2-1 series win over the Sun

Sun

  • 2-1 series win over the Aces
  • 2-1 series win over the Mystics
  • 1-2 series loss against the Sparks
  • 1-1 series tie against the Sky, with one game on Sept. 6

The good news is the final two weeks of the regular season will be intense, with every game having significant playoff implications at the top.

No matter how it shakes, though, someone will get the short end of the stick. For the first time, the single-elimination format will have unintended consequences that could make parts of the postseason a huge bummer.

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