WNBA first half: The good, the bad

Minnesota Defense

Right now, there is no WNBA team flying higher than Phoenix, which has the best record in the league and is host to the All-Star Game on Saturday (ESPN, 3:30 p.m. ET). Now there's some serendipity.

When the 2014 season began, defending champion Minnesota appeared to be the favorite, and the Lynx are still a threat to win it all. But they need to get healthier, and they know that the Mercury's confidence is brimming.

Phoenix and Minnesota also have Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore leading the MVP race, along with Atlanta's Angel McCoughtry. The Dream are atop the East but are thinking bigger than that. After coming away empty-handed from three trips to the WNBA Finals, Atlanta -- with Michael Cooper now as its coach -- wants to get past that ceiling.

In terms of the schedule, we are actually already past the midway point of the season. Seattle, in fact, has just 10 games left. But it's still a good time to assess where every team is and  hand out some grades. Considering most of the league is around or below .500, it stands to reason that there's a pretty big gap between those earning A's and everyone else.

Nobody flunked, but a few teams are close to having their season get away from them entirely. We'll see if any ships get righted -- or whether a few are totally sunk -- in the next month.

Western Conference

Phoenix: A

The Mercury are on an 11-game winning streak with one contest left -- Thursday night against Connecticut -- before they host the party this weekend. The Mercury's one-point loss at Connecticut on June 12 appeared to be the little kick in the pants that Phoenix needed to play better defense and not have mental letdowns based on the opponent.

Taurasi has been even more of a playmaker this season, while still scoring at a high level. Brittney Griner's confidence and her understanding of the pro game are improved her second year. Candice Dupree is having an all-star season. Penny Taylor is back healthy. Guard Erin Phillips, who won a championship with Indiana in 2012, has joined the fun. Coach Sandy Brondello, in her first season in Phoenix, has insisted the Mercury be a better team on both ends of the floor -- and they've done that.

Chemistry is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. And it's very evident with the Mercury this year.

Minnesota: A-

In their run to the WNBA Finals the last three years, the Lynx had great luck in regard to injuries. This season, that hasn't been the case. Rebekkah Brunson, their most powerful interior player, has yet to compete in 2014 as she recovers from a knee injury. All-Star Seimone Augustus has been limited to 15 games because of bursitis in her knee and won't be playing this weekend in Phoenix.

However, Moore has been fabulous, leading the WNBA in scoring (24.1 PPG), boosting her rebounding average (8.3) by more than two a game from last year and taking on even more of the leadership mantle at age 25.

Point guard Lindsay Whalen is an All-Star again. Damiris Dantas, a 21-year-old rookie from Brazil, is providing help to Janel McCarville inside. Only the Mercury's excellence is keeping the Lynx from still being generally regarded as the favorite to win the title again. But they are still very much in the hunt for another championship, especially if they get healthy.

San Antonio: B

The Stars do not have the collection of individual talent that Minnesota, Phoenix or Los Angeles has, yet they have been holding their own in pursuing a playoff spot.

Guard Danielle Robinson is the team's top scorer and an All-Star this season. Rookie Kayla McBride, who was the No. 3 pick in April's draft, is adjusting pretty well to the pro level and has had some big scoring games.

The Stars' longtime top duo of guard Becky Hammon and post player Sophia Young-Malcolm aren't putting up the same numbers, but they are still contributing. Center Jayne Appel fills her role as a defender and rebounder. Danielle Adams is capable of scoring at a high level, but she hasn't done it much this year. The Stars might have a hard time holding off charging Los Angeles for the No. 3 spot in the West. They are good enough to get to the postseason, which they missed last year, but they have lost three in a row going into the All-Star Game.

Los Angeles: C

The Sparks bumped up from a D based on their recent three-game winning streak, which seems to be more indicative of what we can expect the rest of the way from what has been an underachieving squad so far.

Los Angeles is getting another MVP-caliber season from Candace Parker, but there have been games when it seems as if she's trying to do too much. Kristi Toliver is back full time after her trips overseas for the Slovakian national team, and Candice Wiggins has returned from injury. At least theoretically, those two guards should help alleviate the stagnation and predictability the Sparks suffered on offense without them.

In Los Angeles' 86-78 victory Tuesday at Indiana, the Sparks rallied from a double-digit deficit and didn't falter when the game was close in the final minutes. It felt as if they finally had gotten over a mental hurdle -- although let's see how they do in their next three games at home, starting Thursday against Washington.

Seattle: C-

The Storm seem to be a franchise in transition. Lauren Jackson is missing the WNBA season for the second consecutive year, and you have to wonder how many more years she has left to play. In particular, how many more summers/falls the Aussie wants to commit to being in the United States.

Sue Bird is back after sitting out last year recovering from knee surgery and has not quite returned to her typical shooting percentage (38.7 percent from the field this season compared to 45.9 percent in 2012). But she's still a valuable asset for the Storm. Crystal Langhorne, in her first year in Seattle after six with Washington, might look to add a little more scoring punch the rest of the season. The Storm had a brutal schedule to start this year, but perhaps now they can benefit from having eight of their final 10 games at home.

Tulsa: D

The Shock are in their fifth season in Tulsa, and the franchise has its fourth head coach. Fred Williams has been in the WNBA a long, long time and led Atlanta to the WNBA Finals last year. But can he get the Shock into the playoffs for the first time since they moved to Oklahoma?

Probably not this year. After starting 0-5, Tulsa won four in a row and actually seemed to be on the climb. But that wasn't really the case. They've continued to lose excruciatingly close games. They couldn't take advantage of a recent four-game homestand, losing all four -- two in a row by 78-76 scores, falling in the final seconds. However, they go into the All-Star Game on a positive note, after a 95-90 win Thursday, led by a career-high 22 points from Courtney Paris.

The Shock have talent -- Skylar Diggins and Glory Johnson are All-Stars -- but they've reached the point where just being competitive in most games is not enough. The remainder of this season, even if the playoffs evade their grasp, the Shock must focus on finishing game better, the way they did Thursday.

Eastern Conference

Atlanta: A-

We mentioned McCoughtry's MVP-caliber season earlier, but she is also -- fortunately for the Dream -- getting good help. Erika de Souza and Sancho Lyttle combine to be as good a post duo as there is now in the WNBA. They score, rebound, defend and can help give McCoughtry more space to work with. Which is tough for other teams, because she doesn't need a lot of space to be dangerous.

Tiffany Hayes is having a very solid season and can be the Dream's "stealth" weapon. Shoni Schimmel is having a good rookie season, learning as she goes. The Dream are rotating three point guards, and while that is working OK, it isn't likely to be ideal in the playoffs against teams with great point guards.

Atlanta acquired veteran DeLisha Milton-Jones in a recent trade to provide some depth inside, but she played just two games before suffering a season-ending Achilles injury.

Indiana: B

Other than Atlanta, every East team goes into the All-Star Game with a record below .500, including the Fever. But they get a higher grade and have a better outlook because they made it this far mostly without All-Star Tamika Catchings. She has played in just five of their 22 games, sitting out until recently with a back injury.

Of course, the future Hall of Famer hit the ground running as soon as she returned, and is averaging 17.8 points and 7.2 rebounds. All-Star Briann January, Shavonte Zellous and Erlana Larkins led the Fever while Catchings was out, and Indiana also got a boost from players like Marissa Coleman and Karima Christmas. Rookie Natasha Howard should benefit from getting some more court time with Catchings.

Overall, the Fever look as if they will again be the Dream's top challenger in the East, which is fitting in coach Lin Dunn's final season.

Connecticut: C

Not a lot was expected from the Sun this year, with so many young players and the loss of former MVP Tina Charles, who wanted a trade to New York. When the Sun look bad, they really look bad. Take last Sunday's 90-64 loss to Los Angeles for example. And yet there are times when you can see things click for this team, and they have been pretty resilient despite their youth. The Sun bounced back from that pounding at home from Los Angeles by winning at Seattle. Can Connecticut earn a playoff spot? They're in third place now. And considering the struggles most of the East is having, the Sun seem likely to at least stay right in the mix.

Chiney Ogwumike, the No. 1 overall pick in April's draft, is having a rookie-of-the-year-caliber season. And veteran Katie Douglas, who this year returned to the Connecticut franchise she played for from 2003 to 2007, is averaging 13.1 points and earned another All-Star nod.

Chicago: C

The season started with a lot of promise, even with star center Sylvia Fowles sidelined with injury and guard Epiphanny Prince taking some time off. Elena Delle Donne, building on her Rookie of the Year season in 2013, was clearly stronger and even more assertive her second season. Point guard Courtney Vandersloot seemed to have really figured things out in her fourth WNBA season.

But now, even though Fowles and Prince are back, Delle Donne is out with a recurrence of Lyme disease, and Vandersloot is out with a knee injury. These are tough holes for the Sky to try to fill.

Players like Jessica Breland, who earned an All-Star spot, and Allie Quigley are having their best WNBA seasons. Jamierra Falkner is proving to be a better-than-expected third-round draft pick. But the biggest unknown is when Delle Donne might return. Can the Sky hang on for a playoff spot if she doesn't?

Washington: C

The Mystics have seemed nearly lifeless a few times this year, only to roar back and be better than their opponents seem to expect. Washington doesn't have a big-time scorer. The Mystics have to depend on everyone doing her part on offense, and hope that the team defends well enough to compensate.

Guard Ivory Latta's numbers are down a bit from last year, but she's still leading the Mystics in scoring and is their on-court spark plug. Rookies Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson out of UConn are starting to get the hang of the pro game.

Veteran Monique Currie has her ups and downs as a scorer, but when she's on, she can still do damage. The player the Mystics would most like to see let loose and show her stuff is the 21-year-old center from Belgium, Emma Meesseman. She has taken a big jump from her rookie season, but she could be on her way to being one of the best players in the league if she develops more confidence.

New York: D

With two of the best players in the league in guard Cappie Pondexter and center Tina Charles, why are the Liberty in the East's cellar? Because coach Bill Laimbeer is still trying to find the right pieces of the puzzle to fit around the two superstars. That endeavor will continue into next year, even if the Liberty scramble to a playoff spot this season.

Spain's Anna Cruz, a WNBA rookie who has considerable pro experience overseas, has done a good job at point guard. And consistency from her will be crucial if the Liberty are to make a run at the postseason.

But there is no third "star" player beyond Charles and Pondexter. The Liberty, in their return this season to refurbished Madison Square Garden are a little like a theater troupe that has a show on Broadway without enough supporting talent to back the headliners. The Liberty go into the All-Star Game on a high, as Pondexter's last-second jumper beat Atlanta on Wednesday. But can New York carry that momentum into its remaining 13 games?

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