Thursday, February 9, 2023 Feb 9, 2023
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The Wings Lost Badly on Thursday. That’s OK.

Dallas' young roster looked overmatched in its first playoff game since 2018. It's what was supposed to happen.
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Dallas Wings/Lorelei Ritzert

Sometimes sports analysis isn’t very hard.

Sometimes you see a statistic like the Wings’ combined 10 games of postseason experience—a tiny fraction of the 93 played by Chicago’s veteran trio of Candace Parker, Allie Quigley, and Courtney Vandersloot—ranking as the fewest for a playoff team since 2002, and that number points you directly toward everything that happened in Thursday’s 81-64 playoff-elimination loss to the Sky.

Which is to say: sometimes experience genuinely matters.

It was an inconvenient night for such a threadbare cliché to ring true, but it did every time Dallas misplayed a screen or got snookered by a back cut, every time Chicago’s Kahleah Copper breezed by them on one end while the Wings’ offense trudged through muddy waters on the other. The Wings were outshot, outrebounded, and outblocked. They dished out fewer assists, and they attempted—and made—fewer free throws. They were beaten soundly in almost every phase of the game, which mostly owes itself to the Sky already being acclimatized to the furnace of a WNBA single-elimination game while the Wings sweltered in their first brush with it.

Which is how this stuff is supposed to go. Earlier this week, our Dorothy J. Gentry wrote about how the W’s youngest team (at an average age of 24.8 years old) has exceeded expectations at each turn. Perhaps only first-year head coach Vickie Johnson anticipated a playoff appearance this soon, and her team proved her right. Failing to go any further in this unexpected first go-around, against a team that—on paper—has the ingredients for a title run, is in no way an indictment of their season.

There is every reason to believe they’ll continue to grow together, the coach and her precocious charges, because this roster has too much pedigree not to bloom into something formidable. Arike Ogunbowale, the fifth pick in the 2019 draft, is already there, waging a one-woman war against the Sky and, after she led the Wings to trim a 21-point first-half deficit down to three in the third quarter, looked for a moment like she might come on top, too. Satou Sabally, the second pick in the 2020 draft, cracked double digits despite playing reduced minutes off the bench on a tender Achilles (and losing the contents of her stomach at one point last night). The first-time All-Star is too gifted not to become one of the league’s premier talents as well as one of its strongest voices.

Sheer odds alone dictate that at least one of Charli Collier (first pick in the 2021 draft), Awak Kuier (second in 2021), and Bella Alarie (fifth in 2020) emerges as a long-term complement to Sabally in the frontcourt. Marina Mabrey, Ogunbowale’s best friend and co-architect of Dallas’ culture, and Moriah Jefferson can shoot with anybody, while 2017 rookie of the year Allisha Gray is a Swiss army knife of a backcourt piece. Isabelle Harrison and Kayla Thornton are the role players good teams need. Perhaps one of Ty Harris (seventh pick in the 2020 draft) or Chelsea Dungee (fifth in 2021) bursts through a crowded guard room, too.

That’s 12 names—more than any WNBA contender plays and more that will reasonably develop for Dallas, too. But there is a case to be made for every single one of them playing their way into a key role on the first great Wings team. And all of this is before another top-four pick comes due this year thanks to owning the rights to Los Angeles’ pick.

And, make no mistake, there is plenty of room for them to do exactly that. Only Ogunbowale looked ready for the fight that awaited Dallas on Thursday, with Sabally coming the next closest (and getting a pass for being well shy of full health). Not everything the Wings need is on the current roster; last night made it painfully evident, for instance, how badly Dallas needs a lead playmaker who can rescue this team from relying on isolation basketball ad nauseum. But, barring a comprehensive developmental failure, at least some of this roster will grow alongside its two stars. Maybe even most of it.

The Wings lost badly on Thursday. That was supposed to happen. Now they need to improve so that they, too, can be favored in these games—and win them. Again: sometimes this stuff is simple. We’ll know they’ve made real progress when the margins grow thinner and the questions become more complicated.

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