By DOUG FEINBERG AP Basketball Writer
A WNBA season like no other will get underway on Saturday with all 12 teams at a single site.
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, league staff and the player’s union worked together on a plan to tip off the league’s 24th season at a single site during the coronavirus pandemic. They coordinated on medical protocols and the logistics of playing in one location.
After a couple of weeks in the bubble, the plan seems to be working. There have only been two positive tests for the coronavirus by staff and players, and those were in the first few days when people arrived on July 6. There have been none since.
“Knock on wood every day, but things are stable here” in Brandenton, Florida, Engelbert said. “So far, the plan and the protocols are working. Wearing masks, washing hands, daily temperature checks.”
Engelbert, who just finished her first year as the league’s commissioner, is confident the WNBA will have a successful season and make it through the playoffs in October.
“Again, I’m not superstitious, but the more I talk about how well things are going, I do get a little nervous,”the commissioner said. “But I’m very confident right now.” she said.
The league welcomes back a few of its stars who missed last season because of injury or pregnancy. Seattle got the biggest boost with the return of Breanna Stewart (Achilles’ tendon) and Sue Bird (knee). Phoenix also will have a healthy Diana Taurasi back after she only played six games last season because of hamstring and back injuries as well as Skylar Diggins-Smith (pregnancy).
MISSING IN ACTION
While the league will have many players back, it will be missing a few who have decided to take the season off for a variety of reasons including medical and social justice reform.
Reigning MVP Elena Delle Donne is out rehabbing her back after having surgery on it January. She was denied by the league’s independent panel of physicians for receiving a medical exemption for her Lyme disease, but the Washington Mystics are still going to pay her salary. Her new teammate Tina Charles, who was acquired in the offseason was given the medical exemption by the panel because of an extrinsic asthma condition.
Other players missing include Las Vegas Aces’ star Liz Cambage, who was given a medical exemption. Washington’s Natasha Cloud and Atlanta’s Renee Montgomery decided to opt out of the season to focus on social justice reform.
The Black Lives Matter movement is at the front of the players and the league’s mind as the season tips off. Players will wear uniforms for the opening weekend of the season and beyond featuring Breonna Taylor’s name when the league begins play. The league and union also formed a Social Justice Council that will come up with ideas for the players to continue to work on this cause.
“I think to me it’s a no-brainer,” Stewart said. “We want to continue to use our platform to amplify things we’re fighting for and continue to put an emphasis on Breonna Taylor. Focus on the fact that her killers haven’t been arrested.”
No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu is one of seven rookies on the New York Liberty roster this season — the most of any team in the league and the most to be on a roster in at least a decade. While Ionescu is one of the most recognizable new players in the WNBA, there are a bunch of talented first-year players expected to make an impact, including Satou Sabally (Dallas), Bella Alarie (Dallas), Chennedy Carter (Atlanta) and Ruthy Hebard (Chicago). There are also two new coaches in the league with Walt Hopkins taking over the New York Liberty and Marianne Stanley coaching the Indiana Fever.
Teams will play 22 games this year facing all the other franchises twice. There will be no fans in attendance and no travel to other cities which should save some of the grind on the bodies of the players. The playoff format will be the same as its been for the past few years with the top eight teams making the postseason and the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds getting byes to the semifinals. The first two rounds will be single-elimination playoff games.