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WNBA stretch run: Playoff outlook, MVP race between A'ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart, title favorites

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The All-Star break (more like a mini siesta) is not actually the halfway point of the WNBA season. But it does provide a solid spot to reset and reassess the favorites, playoff race, MVP candidates and what we're watching in the final month of the season.

Let's really embarrass ourselves and look back at the 2022 preseason predictions, too.

Who is the WNBA title favorite?

Preseason predictions: Connecticut Sun (2), Chicago Sky

Preseason odds: Las Vegas Aces +350, Sun +350

BetMGM odds (as of Thursday): Aces +170, Sky +225

The Sun were my preseason favorites, but losing Jasmine Thomas at point guard does change things.

The Aces came into the season like they were shot out of a cannon, but have cooled off since then. Defense is their most glaring issue as they've allowed a league-worst 98.4 ppg the last five games as of Thursday morning. That's 26 more points than league-leader Minnesota Lynx in that span, and 20 points more than the Chicago Sky's fourth-best mark.

Head coach Becky Hammon harped on defense early, and now we're seeing what happens when it lags. The lack of bench points has also brokered concern. They average a league-worst 11.7 ppg in 9.1 mpg. Not terribly problematic given their starters' offensive output, but could prove problematic especially if there is foul trouble in the postseason.

That leaves the Sky as the favorite for the way they've played heading into the break and coming out of it. Look no further than Candace Parker's 31-point double-double against the Dream. She's averaging 19 points and nearly 10 rebounds in the last five games.

The first four seeds will host the first-round series in the new playoff format.

Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson drives to the basket against Connecticut Sun forward Jonquel Jones during their game on June 2, 2022, at Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas. The Sun defeated the Aces 97-90. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson drives to the basket against Connecticut Sun forward Jonquel Jones during their game on June 2, 2022, at Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas. The Sun defeated the Aces 97-90. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

What's the playoff race look like?

Preseason predictions for last four in

Cassandra Negley: Mercury/Lynx/Liberty/Sparks

Johanna Huybers: Sparks/Liberty/Mercury/Lynx

Hannah Withiam (Just Women's Sports): Lynx/Sparks/Aces/Liberty

There are anywhere between 10 and 13 games left for most teams in the league, so every one is going to matter down the stretch. Because there are only 1.5 games (as of Thursday morning) between the Atlanta Dream at No. 6 and Minnesota Lynx at No. 11. The Indiana Fever are likely going to be mathematically eliminated soon enough (though the rebuild there is solidly underway), but everyone else is fighting for a spot.

Those games anyone has against the Fever will be important since they should be must-wins. The team that's quickly changing its playoff prospects is the Lynx. They're outscoring even the Aces over the past five games with 95.6 ppg (to the Aces' 90.8), led by Aerial Powers averaging a league-best 22.8 over that span. They're also outrebounding the second-best Sky by nearly 10 a game (44.4-36.6) to lead the league.

The Lynx could also have an Olympic gold medalist and All-Star back for the stretch run. Napheesa Collier rejoined the team ahead of All-Star and began practices this week after giving birth to her first child in May. Collier reiterated on the Lynx broadcast last week she is trying to return to play for Sylvia Fowles' final season, but is making sure her body is ready for it.

Sabrina Ionescu continues to catch more fire, and if the Liberty can turn that into wins (they've lost three in a row, albeit two to the Aces) they'll be a team to watch for the eighth spot.

Who is frontrunner for MVP?

Preseason predictions: Breanna Stewart (2), Kahleah Copper

Who else but A'ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart leading the race for another MVP each? Sue Bird noted during All-Star weekend the veteran duo are constantly in talk for the award and showing what consistency at that level means.

Wilson leads the league in rebounds (10.3 rpg) and is sixth in scoring (18.7 ppg). She's second in blocks (2.1 bpg), has the best efficiency rating and is vital to the Aces' league-leading offense.

Stewart leads in scoring (20.9), is 11th in rebounds (7.1), second in steals (1.9) and second in usage rate. Much like Wilson, she's the engine of the Storm.

Many bettors (and fans) have included two more in the MVP shot, though history shows their chances are slim. The last true guard to win the award was Diana Taurasi in 2009 and she joined Cynthia Cooper as the two guards to win. Sheryl Swoopes (three times) and Elena Delle Donne (twice) won as guard/forwards.

Kelsey Plum is averaging 20.2 ppg, only slightly off Stewart's mark, and hitting 41.6% of her 3-point attempts. It's the best mark of the six players averaging at lest six 3-point attempts a game. Plum is third at 7.7.

Ionescu has also been in MVP conversation averaging 17.8 ppg (eighth), 7.4 rpg (leading all guards) and 6.3 apg (third). She's hitting 3s at a 36.6% clip and averaging 7.1 attempts per game.

What about the rest of the awards?

Sixth Player of the Year

Brionna Jones is the clear frontrunner coming off a Most Improved Player year in 2021. Coaches voted her into the All-Star Game as a reserve next to a group of league starters. She's averaging 13.8 ppg on 58% shooting (best of any bench player to qualify for the award) and adds 4.6 rpg and 1.2 spg. Her defense is key for the Sun.

Connecticut Sun forward Brionna Jones is a frontrunner for the WNBA's Sixth Player of the Year award. (Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Connecticut Sun forward Brionna Jones is a frontrunner for the WNBA's Sixth Player of the Year award. (Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Most Improved Player

I find this an awkward category that should be changed to something like Comeback Player. Most players have improved and it comes down to what that means to a voter. More than an MVP, it can vary widely. Sabrina Ionescu could easily win this award, even though we all expected such levels out of her. The Aces' Jackie Young is the runaway contender here with Storm center Ezi Magbegor in the conversation. Young is averaging a career-best 17.3 ppg and hitting a career-high 46.3% of her 3-pointers on an average 3.2 attempts. (That's the Becky Hammon to Bill Laimbeer effect for you.)

Defensive Player of the Year

Names thrown around so far are Stewart (1.9 spg, second), Candace Parker, Wilson (2.1 bpg, second), Magbegor (league-best 2.5 bpg) and Alyssa Thomas. Brittany Sykes could also be in there (league-best 2.1 spg), just as she was last year. But it's tough for a guard to win. Parker is top of mind for this voter after notching 12 deflections in her 31-point double-double performance again the Dream. Sky head coach James Wade said it was a record in his coaching career. But Stewart's defensive performance this year for the league's best defense has been impressive to watch.

Rookie of the Year

It's going to be a lot different than last year's race in that there's an actual competition here. Atlanta Dream guard Rhyne Howard was impressive in the first part of the season, but dropped off as opponents figured out her game better. She still leads all rookies at 14.7 ppg and 2.7 apg.

NaLyssa Smith is close behind at 13.1 ppg and hitting her shots at a better clip (42.6% to Howard's 37.4). The Indiana Fever forward leads all rookies in rebounds (8.4 rpg). Mystics forward Shakira Austin is also in contention as is Sky rookie Rebekah Gardner, who has a decade of professional experience overseas but is in her first season in the W. She's tied with Howard to lead all rookies in steals (1.5), is shooting 53.6% and has been key for Chicago off the bench.

Game of the week: Aces-Sun

The Lynx-Fever and Dream-Mercury games will bring large shifts in those standings. Yet, the game of the week is at the top between the Las Vegas Aces, who need to get fully back on track, and the Connecticut Sun, who are trying to stay in the top-four spots and host first-round playoff series in the new format.

The sides split the two games in Las Vegas over Memorial Day weekend in May. The Aces won the first, 89-81, and lost the second, 97-90. Jackie Young scored 47 points combined and Jonquel Jones bounced back from an eight-point, 13-rebound showing to notch 20 and seven, respectively, in the win.

The good thing for the Aces is three of their final 13 games are against the Fever (5-20 as of Thursday morning). They face the Sky once (the other is for the Commissioner's Cup), the Storm twice and the Mystics once. That dominating performance against the Liberty on Thursday afternoon is a bright sign.

The Sun play the Sky twice still (0-2 in first-half games against them) and the Storm once. All three of their games against the Lynx remain, a scheduling quirk that looked a lot better a month ago than it does right now.

What you may have missed

WNBA schedule

Games not on CBSSN, Amazon or ABC are available on League Pass. All times ET.

Friday: Lynx at Fever (7 p.m., CBS Sports Network), Sun at Dream (7:30 p.m.)

Saturday: Sky at Wings (8 p.m., CBS Sports Network)

Sunday: Aces at Sun (1 p.m., ABC), Lynx at Mystics (3 p.m., Facebook), Dream at Mercury (6 p.m., Amazon Prime), Fever at Storm (6 p.m., CBS Sports Network)

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