Monday, May 27, 2024 May 27, 2024
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What Can the Wings’ Regular Season Tell Us About Their Playoff Chances?

Not as much as you'd think, aside from this: a lot will hinge on Arike Ogunbowale's jumper.
Dallas is tough to stop when Arike Ogunbowale is on. Photo by Mary Adger Bowen.

Usually, you’ve got a pretty good idea of who a team is heading into the postseason. With the 2023 Dallas Wings, that’s not quite the case.

Dallas sits at 20-18 with two games remaining. One more victory would give the team its first finish over .500 since 2015, its final season in Tulsa. That’s notable progress for an outfit that’s been in flux throughout its time in Dallas. Odyssey Sims is the lone player remaining from the team’s first year in town, and she has been on the roster for parts of only two seasons, having been traded to the Sparks in 2017 before returning early this season as a free agent. The Wings have cycled through young talent; they drafted a quintet of players in the top five of the 2020 and 2021 drafts, only two of whom remain on the roster. More recently, they’ve gone the trade route: three of the five players averaging 20-plus minutes per game on this year’s team were acquired via trade, with Teaira McCowan joining the team during the 2022 season and Natasha Howard and Crystal Dangerfield coming over this offseason in a three-team deal that sent Tyasha Harris to Connecticut and Kayla Thornton to New York.

Given the win total, that’s yielded some bottom-line results. But is it sustainable? The Wings have had to rely heavily on starters, specifically on the trio of Howard, Ogunbowale, and Sabally. All three rank in the top eight in the league in minutes per game, led by Ogunbowale at 37.2. Per, the three of them averaged 27.0 minutes per game on the floor together this season, the most in the league. At least some of this is probably not by choice; neither Diamond DeShields, another trade acquisition, nor Lou Lopez-Sénéchal, the fifth pick in this year’s draft, have played this season due to knee injuries. But it’s also easy to wonder if highly touted prospects such as Maddy Siegrist (the third overall pick in this year’s draft), Awak Kuier (No. 2 in 2021), or Veronica Burton (No. 7 in 2022) could do more without the playing time fluctuations each has weathered this season. 

No matter the circumstances, the good news is that when the Wings’ star trio is on the floor together, Dallas is outscoring opponents by 4.8 points per 100 possessions. The bad news? Well, when those players aren’t on the floor together, things don’t look as good. The Wings have a negative net rating any time even one of those three is on the floor alone, as well as a negative net rating when all three sit. The bench depth just isn’t there to withstand not having their stars.

On one hand, that’s less of an issue heading into the postseason. Rotations shrink in the playoffs, so everyone will be playing their starters more. Dallas’ bench concerns won’t be as apparent.

But other issues may be laid bare. One is that Dallas plays its starting lineup an average of 16.1 minutes per game already, the highest mark in the league. Among all five-player lineups to play 20 or more games, that five is one of just four to average double-digit minutes together.

Here’s what that says to me: the Wings’ primary lineup isn’t always playing against another teams’ primary lineups. If everyone’s rotations shrink in the playoffs, Dallas will find itself facing other teams’ best a larger percentage of the time.

The more significant issue, though, is Dallas just isn’t built to withstand two things: injury and a poor performance from its stars.

Aside from DeShields and Lopez-Sénéchal, the Wings have actually had pretty good luck thus far on the injury front. Through 38 games, the team has had three games missed from its big three—none from Ogunbowale, two from Sabally, and one from Howard. The Wings went 1-1 with Sabally out of the lineup, averaging 79 points per game in those two contests, a good bit below the 87.1 points the team averages this season. That’s a very small sample size that you shouldn’t read too much into, but I do think it highlights a broader issue with the Wings and Sabally. The team’s net rating is 8.47 points per 100 possessions better with Sabally on the floor than with her off the floor. Dallas is very reliant on a healthy Sabally, and the team doesn’t have the personnel to replace her production when she sits.

Meanwhile, the “poor performance from its stars” part of the equation really translates to “poor shooting from Arike.” The Notre Dame product has shot 35 percent or worse 12 times this season; the Wings have gone 1-11 in those 12 games.

There’s really no better way to illustrate how precarious things are this postseason than that stat. When Ogunbowale’s shot is off, the Wings don’t win basketball games. The only one they did win came back in May against the Lynx, when she went 6 for 20, but Howard and Sabally combined for 48 points to compensate.

Sabally has emerged as a bona fide star this season, a great two-way player who has made a strong case to win Most Improved Player. But success for the Wings still rests where it has for the last few seasons: on Arike’s shoulders. 

And that fact makes the postseason a mystery, in a sense. We haven’t really seen Ogunbowale in the playoffs yet. Her only full playoff game came in 2021, when she looked more than up to the task, scoring 22 points on 50 percent shooting as the Wings lost in a single-elimination first-round game to eventual champion Chicago. Last year, though, she missed the first two games in the first round against Connecticut due to an abdominal injury before playing only six minutes in a Game 3 elimination loss. Promising as that performance against Chicago was, if her jumper can go cold in the regular season, it certainly can in the playoffs. Until we know how that holds up, along with the rest of her game going against the league’s best night in, night out, it’s hard to know what to expect from Dallas. 

That’s even with Sabally making a genuine star turn this year. After three injury-plagued seasons where she never played more than 17 games, the former Oregon standout has rarely left the floor this season, averaging 33.5 minutes per game this year to go with 18.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game. Next to her health, Sabally’s three-point shooting is the most encouraging development. She’s up to 36.3 percent this year after a putrid 23.3 percent last year.  

She’s only part of what’s become one of the league’s premier frontcourts. McCowan has missed some time through a combination of injuries and playing in EuroBasket, but she has made a major impact at the five in her 28 contests. The team has an 8.95 net rating with her on the floor and a -2.24 net rating with her off the floor, with the biggest impact felt on the defensive end. All told, the Wings allow 8.39 fewer points per 100 possessions when McCowan plays.

Add in a former Defensive Player of the Year in Howard, and Dallas can buckle down, crash the boards, and control the pace on the defensive end, even if they’ve sprung some leaks recently. The team has the worst defensive rating in the league over the last 10 games.

The Wings have the ability to switch into another gear and beat anyone. But they can also go cold from the floor and shoot their way out of games. A successful playoff run will require the defense to look closer to how it looked earlier in the season than it has in August when the team allowed 100-plus points three times. It will require Arike to shoot the ball well. It will require the team’s good injury luck to continue. And even if all of that happens, it will probably require them to find a way past the defending champion Aces, who at 32-6 are not only the cream of the crop out West but one of the best regular-season teams in league history. 

That’s a lot to ask, but one thing feels clear: when the Wings are playing their best, their ceiling is the highest it’s been since the team moved to Dallas. Now it’s a matter of Dallas finding enough consistency to bump into it.