As the Wings approach the middle of the WNBA season, they find themselves far from a finished product.
“We’re still becoming,” coach Vickie Johnson said. “We have spurts. You can see our defense, you can see the flow of our offense, and then we go back to becoming a young team.”
But while the team is still growing and evolving, Dallas finds itself in a great position in the standings as the No. 6 seed with an 8-8 record.
With this week marking the halfway point of the 36-game campaign, here are five things we have learned about the Wings in the first half of the season and five things to watch out for the rest of the way.
Five things we learned
Team showed resolve: The Wings haven’t been the best team against adversity over the past few seasons, which isn’t surprising considering their youth. But something has clicked with this year’s team. Dallas no longer goes down without a fight.
Only two of the Wings’ losses have been by double-digits. The other six were all by eight points or less, and all six went down to the final few minutes. That wouldn’t have been the case last year. Games like Wednesday’s eight-point loss to Las Vegas — where Marina Mabrey, Arike Ogunbowale and Satou Sabally all were unavailable by the end of the third quarter — likely would have been settled by much larger margins.
That fight has manifested itself in wins, too. Dallas came back from a 12-point halftime deficit in Connecticut to defeat the Sun in May. More recently, the Wings repelled a late charge from the Mercury on Friday to win by five.
Gray, Mabrey step forward: Allisha Gray and Marina Mabrey have been good basketball players since they entered the league. Gray was Rookie of the Year in 2017 and won a gold medal with the 3-on-3 team in Tokyo. Mabrey averaged double figures her first two years with the Wings.
But both have taken major steps forward in 2022.
Gray is likely to earn her first All-Star appearance later this month thanks to an all-around game that has become nearly impossible to overlook. The naturally quiet Gray has been more vocal about her impact on winning basketball games and her desire to be All-Defense, and that mindset is translating to on-court confidence as well.
Mabrey has made the starting point guard position her domain. As a score-first guard with the ability to get a bucket off the dribble and a knockdown 3-pointer, Mabrey is a great fit next to Ogunbowale. She is still learning the intricacies of playing the point, but her competitive fire has been key in many Dallas wins.
Solid Commissioner’s Cup: The Commissioner’s Cup in-season tournament was not very exciting this year. Las Vegas ran away with it in the West and clinched its berth in the championship against the Wings last Wednesday. Chicago clinched its berth Sunday and has an 8-1 record in the competition.
Dallas, who has only one Commissioner’s Cup game remaining against the Lynx, could presumably finish second in the West standings. While second place doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme, it would mark an improvement on last year’s 3-7 record.
Coach-mixed lineups: Some coaches have a strict lineup rotation. Not Vickie Johnson. She is a tinkerer who enjoys the challenge of identifying mismatches and attempting to exploit them. She mixes and matches so much sometimes it feels like she would fit in well with the scientists at UTA’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, located just a few buildings away from College Park Center.
That mindset is why role players like Awak Kuier and Veronica Burton see their minutes fluctuate from game to game. It is also why players might sit at different intervals. Johnson evaluates the opponents and adjusts to what she thinks is the best lineup on the floor.
“I know our strengths and our weaknesses as individuals and as a team,” Johnson said. “That’s why I try to plug people in. Fans may not like it, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to win games.”
Discipline lacking: The word Johnson has emphasized most over the last two-plus weeks has been “discipline.”
Before Sunday’s game, Dallas had been struggling to put four quarters together. Johnson said the reason was a lack of discipline that resulted in taking quick shots, getting stagnant on offense, fouling on defense and falling back into bad habits.
Playing with discipline results in consistent, steady play from half to half and game to game. Johnson will continue to hammer that home the rest of the season.
“Great teams like Seattle that have vets, they already have a routine,” Johnson said. “They don’t change their routine. It is what it is. This is who I am every night. For us, we’re learning, we’re becoming consistent, disciplined in every area of the game. Especially late game, we have to be disciplined.”
Five things to watch
McCowan’s role: Teaira McCowan arrived from Indiana with major expectations. The former No. 3 pick averaged 10.7 rebounds and 8.8 rebounds in her first three seasons and spent this winter playing at an elite level in Turkey.
But after arriving late due to her overseas commitment, McCowan spent the first month of her Dallas career adjusting to a new team and learning a new system. The result was a collection of underwhelming performances, all limited to 10 minutes or less.
But something changed June 12 against Seattle. McCowan stopped overthinking.
McCowan is a cerebral player who wants to know what her teammates like to do. But that mindset was hampering her adjustment to Dallas. She was trying too hard to figure out the tendencies of her teammates instead of playing her game.
This change has worked wonders. McCowan scored 13 points against the Storm, notched her first double-double against the Mercury last Friday and finished with a plus/minus rating of plus-24 against the Sparks.
At 6-7, McCowan provides an interior presence unlike anyone else on the Wings roster. Her offensive rebounding and defensive prowess were a difference-maker in the win over Phoenix. At her best, she can be that difference on a day-in, day-out basis. The question is whether she will have the time to get to that level consistently this season.
Ogunbowale’s evolution: Ogunbowale quietly has been playing great basketball over the last two weeks. Except for the game she was ejected from at halftime, she has scored over 20 points five times and notched six assists twice.
The face of the franchise can be difficult to evaluate. She is never going to be the most efficient shooter — her field goal percentage of 39.2% is right in line with her career average of 39.3% — but there’s nobody who can score the basketball like she can. Her second-quarter barrage Sunday was a prime example of that.
It can be hard to remember that Ogunbowale is only 25 years old and has not had an older veteran to guide her since she came to the league. She’s had the burden of doing a lot on her own. But she is starting to let her teammates carry some of that burden, too.
“I think she understands that to get the real accolades in the W, it has to be more than scoring,” Johnson said. “She has to become a willing passer and I think she’s becoming that. She ain’t completely there but she’s working towards it.”
Chicago games, must-see: As the defending WNBA champions, the Chicago Sky are circled on every opponent’s schedule. But there will be an extra emphasis on the Wings’ three matchups against Chicago.
For one, Dallas lost to the Sky in the first round of the playoffs last year in a game that many players have said stuck with them long after the final buzzer. Wings president Greg Bibb scheduled Chicago in the preseason because he thought it was important to return to where their 2021 campaign ended. They won that game, but the Wings will still have that chip on their shoulder when they face off for the first time in the regular season on July 16.
The other reason is that Chicago is one of the league’s best teams this season at 10-5.
Dallas is 3-6 against the five WNBA teams with winning records. But those three wins were all impressive road victories at Washington, at Connecticut and at Seattle.
Beating the W’s best teams instills confidence. Beating Chicago — especially in the Windy City — would do that and then some.
Final homestand crucial: Dallas will play seven games the final two weeks of the season. While they will end the year on the road at Phoenix and Los Angeles — whom they are 3-1 against this season — the Wings have a four-game homestand leading into that final West Coast swing.
Those four games arguably will be the biggest stretch of the season for Dallas. The Wings will face Las Vegas, Indiana and then New York twice. The league-leading Aces will be tough to beat but Dallas has played them tough twice already this season. A win would be a huge confidence booster but it’s the other three games that will be more important.
Those are three very winnable games, and ones that Dallas should win on its home court. The middle of the pack in the WNBA is always fairly close. Taking care of business down the stretch at home can be the difference between a favorable first-round matchup or a difficult one.
What does playoff success look like?: A lot has been made of Dallas’ youth over the past few seasons, and rightfully so. The Wings haven’t had a veteran with more than eight years of experience since 2016.
That inexperience still showcases itself during the regular season. But as the team continues improving, those moments will happen less and less.
But the playoffs are a different animal. You can play in playoff-like regular season games, and Dallas has had a few so far, but you can’t fully recreate the atmosphere of a playoff game.
The Wings crossed the playoff Rubicon last season, and the experience paid tremendous dividends. But the team’s 12 players have still combined to play 18 playoff games.
The playoffs are nearly two months away but it looks like Dallas is in great position to grab a seed between five and seven. There’s never an easy path in the WNBA playoffs. But the Wings have the potential to hit another major milestone for the franchise: Advance to the second round for the first time since moving to Dallas.
For a team that has never hosted a home playoff game, that would be a major step forward.
Find more WNBA coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.