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Arike Ogunbowale
NBAE, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC
Wolf's Wagers

One Key Lineup Question for Each WNBA Team: Part 2

by Jake Wolf
Updated On: April 30, 2022, 10:30 am ET

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The start of the WNBA season is under a week away and we’re starting to get our first look at potential lineups during preseason games. I looked at each WNBA team and identified the most important question heading into the season. You can find part one here, and this will be part two with the bottom-six teams in championship odds at PointsBet Sportsbook. 

Washington Mystics (+2000): Can Elena Delle Donne stay healthy? 

The former MVP was the first player in WNBA history to reach the 50/40/90% threshold over a single season and there is no denying her ability to carry an offense by herself, but the Mystics will need an extended stretch of Delle Donne dominance that hasn't been on display since prior to her injury in the 2019 WNBA Finals.

Despite losing the league's leading scorer from last year in Tina Charles, the Mystics have enough supporting pieces to be a dangerous matchup for any playoff team, especially with the improvement shown by Myisha Hines-Allen last season. This team also has a lower floor than the odds imply, since Washington was outscored by 12.92 points per 100 possessions in 349 minutes without Charles and Delle Donne on the court last year.

I'm staying off Washington's futures until there's more clarity on Delle Donne's health, but her ability to drop 21 points in 18 minutes was a good sign, even if it was only a preseason game.

New York Liberty (+2200): Who will be the backup point guard?

New York experienced a massive drop in performance with Sabrina Ionescu off the court last season, dropping from a -6.27 net rating to -14.84 according to PBP Stats. The Liberty put up a solid -2.95 net rating in 566 minutes of Sami Whitcomb and Ionescu sharing the court but were outscored by more than 10 points per 100 possessions when either one sat, including a horrendous -22.66 net rating in 109 minutes without both guards on the court.

Second-year wing DiDi Richards could be called on to step into the role of backup point guard, or new coach Sandy Brondello could stagger Ionescu and Whitcomb's minutes to ensure there is always a capable distributor on the floor.

All-Star wing Betnijah Laney could also take on a higher playmaking burden this season after a career-high 5.2 assists per game last year, but will need to cut down on turnovers to be effective in that role. Laney's 64 turnovers were the most by one player in a single-season since at least 2009, surpassing the 63 giveaways by Sylvia Fowles in the 2018 season.

Dallas Wings (+4000): What will the frontcourt rotation look like?

Dallas made a big move this offseason trading for Teaira McCowan, the league's leading offensive rebounder from last season. McCowan didn't attempt a single three-pointer last season and backup big Isabelle Harrison only attempted one. The Wings outscored opponents by 7.58 points per 100 possessions with Isabelle Harrison on the court, compared to a -8.93 net rating without Harrison. Despite being a Sixth Woman of the Year candidate last season, Harrison could see a reduced role this season with the addition of McCowan.

The Wings also have Charli Collier, last year's top overall pick, and Awak Kuier, the fourth pick in the 2021 WNBA draft, on the roster and neither are strong shooters from outside. The Wings didn't trade multiple first round picks for McCowan only for her to sit on the bench for extended stretches, so at least one of those players will see a reduction in minutes.

No combination of Harrison, Collier and Kuier shared the floor for more than 63 minutes last season. That's unlikely to change this season, with Satou Sabally entrenched as the team's power forward. I was eyeing Harrison as a potential sleeper in fantasy heading into this offseason, but barring another trade I'm planning to avoid this frontcourt in fantasy if possible and hope for a big season from guards Arike Ogunbowale and Allisha Gray. 

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Los Angeles Sparks (+4000): Who will be the starting guards?

Last season, the Sparks posted a 96.3 defensive rating with Brittney Sykes on the court, which jumped over 10 points per 100 possessions to 106.7 when Sykes was off the court. The team's defense was even better when Sykes shared the floor with Nneka Ogwumike, holding opponents to 94.3 points per 100 possessions in 470 minutes of court time according to PBPstats.com.

Sykes scored 675 fantasy points using ESPN's scoring system last year, well above most players being drafted outside the top-50. With steals and blocks at a premium, I expect Sykes to exceed her ESPN projection of 67th this season. Sykes led the WNBA with 1.8 steals per game last season and finished with the sixth-highest rebounding average among guards while placing second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting.

Sykes started L.A.'s first preseason outing alongside offseason acquisition Jordin Canada, but the Sparks were without veteran Kristi Toliver for the game. In addition to Toliver and Canada, Sykes will compete with former Rookie of the Year Chennedy Carter for playing time at guard. If one of Carter or Canada settles into a role as an explosive scorer coming off the bench, Sykes should easily outperform her draft slot in fantasy. The Sparks are my favorite longshot title bet at +4000, but there is significant downside potential with a team full of new pieces, especially after Carter missed all but 11 games last season and was suspended by the Atlanta Dream.

Indiana Fever (+6600): Can NaLyssa Smith replace McCowan on the offensive glass?

The Indiana Fever finished with the worst record in the league last season and also ranked dead last in defensive rating and shooting efficiency. The Fever made plenty of changes to the roster this offseason, bringing in four first-round picks headlined by second overall pick NaLyssa Smith. Smith will need to step into a big role immediately after Indiana traded Teaira McCowan to the Wings this offseason.

The Fever were outscored by a whopping 24.1 points per 100 possessions when Kelsey Mitchell played without Teaira McCowan on the court and put up a disappointing 87.7 offensive rating in that 324-minute sample. According to PBP Stats, Indiana scored the fewest first-chance points in the league last year.

Indiana also struggled to connect from beyond the arc, as the only team to make fewer than 30% of three-point attempts. The 2021 Fever also ranked in the bottom-five for accuracy on above-the-break threes among all WNBA teams since 2009. Two of Indiana's first-round picks, Emily Engstler and Lexie Hull, placed in the 86th percentile or better among draft prospects for above-the-break three-point percentage, according to CBB Analytics. The Fever could be at the start of a successful rebuild, but it will be difficult for the rookies to step in and change the team's fortunes right away. I expect to be looking to fade the Fever early in the season since the young roster will need time to adjust to the WNBA level.

Atlanta Dream (+10000): Will Aari McDonald start at guard?

Atlanta has the longest odds on the board for the 2022 WNBA Championship, but there are some intriguing young players on the roster that could help the Dream catch some opponents by surprise this season. Aari McDonald made a late push for Rookie of the Year last season, averaging 6.8 points, 2.5 assists and 1.2 steals per game after the break.

Top overall draft pick Rhyne Howard should be a lock for the starting lineup alongside offseason acquisition Erica Wheeler and Monique Billings, who re-signed with Atlanta as a restricted free agent this offseason. Tiffany Hayes ranked second on the team in scoring average last season and the team's top returning scorer will likely play alongside Wheeler, which could force McDonald to stay in a bench role unless the Dream plan to play some three-guard lineups.

The combination of Billings and McDonald shared the court for 347 minutes last season and posted a 101.9 defensive rating, much lower than the 110.0 defensive rating Atlanta conceded with both players on the bench. If McDonald is in the starting lineup along with Nia Coffey, a strong three-and-D wing who signed with Atlanta this offseason, the Dream's defense could be better than expected and cash some unders early in the season. 

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Jake Wolf

Jake Wolf is covering basketball for NBC Sports Edge and has worked for FNTSY Sports Network and YES Network. Follow him on Twitter @jakewolf13 for betting content and basketball analysis.