The Lynx versus the Sparks has been the rivalry of the WNBA the past two seasons. Between the regular season and the playoffs, they’ve met 16 times, with each team winning eight games.
Riveting back-to-back five-game WNBA Finals showdowns have given us the best of the WNBA to end the 2016 and ’17 seasons. Will we see the same matchup for a third time in a row this September?
The easy answer? Sure, why not? Both teams return almost all of their key players as well as their outstanding coaches, Cheryl Reeve and Brian Agler, strategizing again. There’s plenty of evidence pointing toward Minnesota and Los Angeles again finishing 1-2 and getting automatic bids into the semifinals.
However, we’ve never had the same matchup three years in a row in the WNBA Finals. So let’s look at this the other way: If we don’t get a Lynx-Sparks matchup again, what could be the biggest reasons why?
1. The age factor
The Lynx, in particular, are tired of the old cliché, “Nobody’s getting any younger.” They’ve been hearing it a while. Plus, there’s a lot to be said for the good side of age: experience. But the fact remains that Minnesota’s core five are Rebekkah Brunson and Lindsay Whalen, both 36; Seimone Augustus, 34; Sylvia Fowles, 32; and Maya Moore, 28. Tanisha Wright, 34, is the oldest of the bench players.
The Sparks bring back Alana Beard, who turned 36 this week; Candace Parker, 32; and Essence Carson, 31. Cappie Pondexter, 35, also joins the Sparks.
Rest is going to be at a premium this summer, especially with the schedule more compacted so the season can end in September before the FIBA World Cup. Both Reeve and Agler are used to balancing this, but it will be very important this season.
2. The injury factor
Both teams have been able to keep their starting lineups mostly healthy the past two seasons. In 2016, among the Sparks’ starters — Nneka Ogwumike, Kristi Toliver, Parker, Carson and Beard — there were just two missed games in the regular season, and none in the playoffs. In 2017, four of Los Angeles’ starters — Ogwumike, Parker, Beard and Chelsea Gray — started every game except one (that Parker missed) in the regular season and all the playoff games. The other starting position last year moved between three players in the regular season, as Carson dealt with injury. But Odyssey Sims claimed that spot for the second half of the season and throughout the playoffs.
The Lynx missed eight games among their starters — Augustus, Brunson, Fowles, Moore and Whalen — in the 2016 regular season, and none in the playoffs. Last year, four starters — Augustus, Brunson, Fowles and Moore — missed a combined six regular-season games. Point guard was the one position where they were impacted by injury, as Whalen missed 12 regular-season games. But all five played every playoff game.
Some of these players have dealt with difficult injuries in the past, especially Beard and Parker. But all of them have excelled in taking care of themselves over the long haul. The fact that these two starting lineups have answered the bell most of the time the past two seasons has been a major reason why they’ve had the results they’ve had.
But, combined with the age factor, this could be a danger area for the Lynx and Sparks.
3. The hunger factor
We’ll have a better idea several weeks from now of who appears to be the biggest challengers to the throne besides the Lynx and Sparks. But Connecticut might be particularly hungry. The Sun got a taste of success in the 2017 regular season under WNBA coach of the year Curt Miller, as they went 21-13 and made the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
But the tricky nature of the single-elimination early rounds stung the Sun, who lost in the second round at home to Phoenix.
There’s likely a hunger for the Mercury, too. Diana Taurasi, who turns 36 in June, would love another championship (or two) before she retires.
New York has been frustrated by its playoff finishes the past several seasons, including last year, when the Liberty ended the regular season on a 10-game winning streak, but then lost in the second round to visiting Washington.
It’s not just about other teams’ hunger, but also that of the Lynx and Sparks. That’s one area, though, where we haven’t seen any letup with the Lynx since they won their first title in 2011. They’ve made the WNBA Finals every year since except for 2014, and their chemistry and winning mentality have stayed at a high level longer than any franchise in WNBA history.
The Sparks don’t have a run like that, but they were just as motivated and hungry last year as they were when they won the title in 2016.
While we don’t expect any hunger drop from the Lynx or Sparks this year, there might be another team (or teams) that challenges that level.
4. The probability factor
In the WNBA’s 21-season history, the same teams have met in consecutive years in the Finals just twice: 1999-2000 with Houston and New York, and the past two years with the Lynx and Sparks. So how does that compare to other major American sports leagues?
NBA: The Warriors and Cavaliers have met in the past three Finals, which was unprecedented. There were 13 previous times when the same teams met in consecutive years in the NBA Finals, but three in a row had never happened until last season. Both Golden State and Cleveland are currently in the conference finals, so it could stretch to four in a row.
MLB: In the World Series, three in a row has happened only once: 1921, ’22 and 23, when the Yankees and (then-New York) Giants met for the championship.
NFL: The only time the same teams met in the Super Bowl in consecutive years was 1993-94, with Dallas and Buffalo. If you go all the way back to the start of the pre-Super Bowl NFL championship, in 1933, there were 10 occasions when the same teams met in back-to-back title games, but only one instance of three in a row: Detroit versus Cleveland in 1952, ’53 and ’54.
NHL: There is one instance of the same teams appearing in the Stanley Cup Final three years in a row: 1954, ’55 and ’56, with Detroit and Montreal.
5. The luck factor
This might seem a lot like the injury factor, and in some ways it is. There are times when players get hurt in very fluky circumstances. But we’re talking more about things like a controversial call (or no-call) by the officials late in a game, a rebound that bounces off someone’s hand, a half-court heave that goes in, a buzzer-beater.
The Lynx and Sparks have been so good that they’ve largely taken good or bad luck out of the equation throughout the regular season and in the playoffs. That is until they’ve met each other in the Finals, when some of the above things had an impact.
Under the current playoff format, Minnesota and Los Angeles have lessened the potential impact of luck because they earned byes into the semifinals. They haven’t played in the single-elimination first and second rounds. If one (or both?) end up outside the top two spots in the standings this year, then they’ll have to face that one-and-done pressure in the early rounds.
And that might be where a little bad luck comes into play, even for two teams that have shown great resilience and nerves of steel the past two seasons.