Now that the Tokyo Olympics are over, and Team USA has secured a historic seventh straight gold medal, it's time to turn our focus back to the WNBA. The 2021 season was put on hold for the Olympics, but returned on Thursday with the Commissioner's Cup Championship game won by the Seattle Storm. The regular season will then resume on Sunday.
From there, it's just a short one-month sprint to the playoffs, and there's still plenty to play for. Ahead of the restart, here's a look at three key storylines for the second half of the season.
1. The battle for the top-two seeds
Playoff seeding has always been important in the WNBA because it determined matchups and homecourt advantage, but ever since the league switched to a new playoff format in 2016, it's taken on extra importance.
The top two seeds in the regular season get a bye all the way to the semifinals and get to avoid the single-elimination rounds entirely. It's little surprise, then, that in four of the five years since the playoff format was changed, the Finals have been contested between Nos. 1 and 2 seeds.
Last season, that was the Las Vegas Aces and Seattle Storm, and heading into the second half of this season it's the same story. The only thing that's different is the Storm currently have the top spot at 16-5, while the Aces are in second at 15-6. Right now, they're the clear favorites to secure the byes again, but they'll have to hold off a few teams.
Led by Jonquel Jones, the Connecticut Sun put together an impressive first half of the season and entered the break at 14-6, just 1.5 games out of first place and half a game out of second. They've also won the season series against the Aces, so they have the tiebreaker in the event they finish tied. We'll see if the Sun can pick up where they left off, but with Jones playing at this level they should remain in contention all season long.
Another team that's still in the mix is the Minnesota Lynx. They had a bit of a slow start this season, but closed the first half on a seven-game winning streak to jump into fourth place at 12-7. They're three games out of first and two out of second, so they have some ground to make up but it's certainly not insurmountable with a month left to play.
The Chicago Sky also have a case to be in the conversation coming out of the break. They're just 10-10 because Candace Parker missed a significant part of the season, and are 5.5 games behind the Storm and 4.5 games behind the Aces. However, they still have three games left on the schedule against both of those teams. They have a ton of work to do to overtake either of them, but with that many direct matchups, there's still a bit of hope.
2. MVP race taking shape
As the second half of the season begins, it's time to start taking stock of the MVP race. At this point, there are four main contenders: Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart, Tina Charles and A'ja Wilson.
Jones, who sat out all of last season, returned in style and is the clear leader right now. At 21 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game, she's second in the league in scoring, first in rebounding and one of only two players averaging a double-double. Thanks to her stellar play on both sides of the ball, the Sun were the most surprising team in the league in the first half, and were 12-3 with her compared to 2-3 without.
Whether you prefer Stewart's all-around game or Charles' scoring would determine who you'd vote for in second versus third, but these two are neck-and-neck for the second spot.
Stewart, who won the award in 2018 and finished as the runner-up last season, is widely regarded as the best player in the league, and is once again putting together an impressive season. She's at 20.1 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.7 blocks per game, and has made sure the Storm didn't take a step back after some of their offseason departures.
Charles was traded to the Mystics prior to the 2020 season, but decided to sit out of the bubble so she didn't make her debut with the team until this summer. The time off and change of location has clearly done her well, as she's bounced back with one of the best seasons of her career. She leads the league in scoring at 26.3 points per game, which as it stands would be the highest scoring average in league history.
Wilson, the reigning MVP, is also in the mix though there's a gap between her and the other three. At 19.4 points, nine rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.3 blocks per game, she's right about where she was at numbers-wise last season. This time around, however, she has a lot more help due to the returns of Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum, and the arrival of Chelsea Gray.
3. Tina Charles chasing single-season scoring record
In 2019, Charles struggled through arguably the worst season of her career. Her 16.9 points per game were the fewest since she was a rookie, and she shot a career-worst 38.9 percent from the field. While that New York Liberty team was bad, she had carried poor offenses before, and that was a steep drop-off from the level she'd been at in years past.
Washed was too strong of a word, but there were definitely questions about whether she was still an All-Star caliber player and one of the best bigs in the league. When she was traded to the Washington Mystics ahead of the 2020 season, it seemed like a perfect match. The Mystics would get a skilled veteran to boost their title defense, while Charles would be surrounded by better teammates and slide into more of a supporting role.
Then the pandemic hit and Charles decided to sit out of the bubble, along with a number of key Mystics players. While the Mystics still made the playoffs, they were bounced in the first round. Coming into the 2021 season, however, they were penciled in as one of the main contenders. Unfortunately, Elena Delle Donne needed a second back surgery, Emma Meesseman stayed overseas in the first half of the season and key free agent signing Alysha Clark underwent season-ending foot surgery. That's to say nothing of the injuries they've dealt with since the season began.
That's all left Charles reprising her act as the lone star on a team fighting for the playoffs. And she has indeed been a star. In fact, she's one of the leading MVP candidates and on track to make history. Her career-high 26.3 points per game put her in position to win the second scoring title of her career, and would also be the best scoring average in WNBA history. The current record is held by Diana Taurasi, who put up 25.3 points per game in 2006.
Whether Charles can get there will depend not only on keeping up her torrid pace, but if she'll get the opportunities to do so. While it shouldn't take away from her incredible start, Charles has been going off in large part because she's been the Mystics' only reliable offensive player. Her 32.9 usage rate would be the third-highest in league history, behind only two Angel McCoughtry seasons in 2011 and 2013.
Elena Delle Donne and Myisha Hines-Allen are both expected to return at some point in the second half, while Emma Meesseman could rejoin the team as well. If the Mystics can get back to something resembling their best lineup, that will mean fewer touches for Charles. But while it will hurt her individual success, getting healthy will give the Mystics a chance to make some noise in the playoffs.