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Basketball

The Wings Are Back in The Playoffs. But Have They Made Progress?

Dallas' performance in the first-round could ensure continuity or set the stage for a summer of upheaval.
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Marina Mabrey and the Wings will have their hands full playing without Arike Ogunbowale. Photo by Mary Adger Bowen.

Celebrations were in order on Monday night, after the Wings beat the Liberty, 86-77. Not necessarily because they got a career-high 31 points from guard Marina Mabrey, nor because they did it without stars Arike Ogunbowale or Satou Sabally, who are out with ankle injuries. (Ogunbowale, in fact, will be sidelined through at least the first round of the playoffs.) With the victory, Dallas clinched a playoff spot for the second consecutive season for the first time since 2017 and ’18. 

The 17 wins are the most since the Wings moved to Dallas; they had 18 in their final season as the Tulsa Shock in 2009. With three regular-season games left, they can reach the 20-victory plateau for the first time since 2008, when they won 22 games en route to capturing the WNBA title as the Detroit Shock. 

Refocusing on the more recent performances, the year-to-year improvement in the win column is the headline. It suggests the Wings have grown and improved over the 2021 team, which finished 14-18.

Hold that thought.

Let’s start with the basics. The Wings are averaging 82.5 points a game, marginally better than last year’s squad (81.1 points). Same with field goal percentage: this year they’re at 43.1 percent, compared with last year’s 42 percent. The teamwide plus-minus is in the black this year, 0.5 as opposed to minus-0.3. Offensive rating also showed a bump, from 102.2 to 103.6, as did net rating, which went from minus-0.8 to 0.3. 

This is where things get a bit complicated. Compared to last season the team is statistically worse in a few important places. Take, for example, three-point percentage; last year, Dallas shot 35.4 percent, almost two percentage points better than this year. On average, the Wings also attempted about one fewer three-pointer per game. The biggest regression has been at the free-throw line. Dallas is the second-worst team from the stripe, at 76.5 percent after ranking fourth last year (82.9 percent). The good news is that the Wings are getting to the line more than any other team in the league, averaging almost 21 attempts a game.

It’s not just the shots, though. The team’s big offseason move was the acquisition of center Teaira McCowan, a bonafide paint presence who is finishing strong. Even with her addition, more playing time for No. 2 overall pick Awak Kuier, and other adjustments, the team is averaging fewer rebounds (34) than it did last year (36.1). Blocks are down slightly as well, from 3.9 to 3.7. The same can be said for opponents’ points in the paint (37.6 from 37.4) and second-chance points (9.6 to 11).

There are factors affecting the numbers, sample size being the most significant. Last year teams only played 32 games in the regular season. With 36 games this year, that will change some math. Not enough for wild swings, but the margins will be softened some. And injuries have to be factored in. Most notably, Sabally has played only 11 games. Some things are within the Wings’ control, mainly the glacial pace of McCowan’s integration to the squad early in the season. 

Despite these miniscule differences on the stat sheet, the team is better. If you’re looking for why, cast your eyes to the paint. McCowan has had four double-doubles during the five-game winning streak, and she missed a fifth by one rebound. She leads the team in field goal percentage, shooting a remarkable 61.3 percent, which ranks second in the league.

McCowan has given Dallas consistent scoring, which is helping offset the shooting from outside. (Mabrey, Ogunbowale, and Allisha Gray are all shooting in the low 40s.) Last year the Wings relied on Ogunbowale and Mabrey to shoot them to victory. Now the game plan is different. With McCowan providing reliable scoring down low, a bad shooting night from the guards doesn’t hurt as much. Far too often last year, Dallas relied on lower-percentage shots.

So what does all of this mean for the Wings’ playoff chances? As of writing they are sixth in the standings, and that’s probably where they’ll finish. Barring some chaos, Dallas will most likely face Connecticut in a best-of-three playoff series. That’s no small challenge: the Sun have been to the semifinals each of the last three seasons. Dallas won the season series, 2-1, but those games were played with Ogunbowale, with her averaging 18 points in the wins. The Wings, however, might be built to weather her absence. McCowan is red hot, Sabally looks as if she’ll be ready to play, and Mabrey just had a career night against New York. There might be enough to carry the team through this series if things break their way–namely, McCowan being able to counter 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones in the middle and Mabrey outshooting the Courtney Williams-led opposing backcourt. Combine that with strong bench performances from players such as Isabelle Harrison and Ty Harris, and the odds look more favorable. 

It’ll be a big test for this club, and the outcome will probably inform the franchise’s strategy this offseason. A series win amounts to the sort of progress the numbers haven’t picked up–proof that this core is trending in the right direction. A second straight first-round loss, on the other hand, could prompt the front office to make changes, such as acting on the recent trade rumors surrounding Gray. These new-look Wings have the chance to prove this group can do what’s necessary to stay together. Now they need to act on it. 

Author

Sam Hale
Sam Hale covers the Wings and FC Dallas for StrongSide. His relationship with Everton FC is forever "it's complicated." He's…

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