The 2021 WNBA Finals starting Sunday on ABC (3 p.m. ET) showcase two of women's basketball's all-time greatest players in the Chicago Sky's Candace Parker and the Phoenix Mercury's Diana Taurasi. They've both been league MVP (Parker twice) and WNBA Finals MVP (Taurasi twice). Taurasi is the league's leading career scorer; Parker is the only player to be MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season, and she also was Defensive Player of the Year last season.
Taurasi is 39 and Parker 35. Both were iconic players for legendary NCAA programs, and both are GOAT candidates. It's like having two silver screen superstars finally end up in the same blockbuster movie.
But the WNBA Finals are loaded with plotlines. The matchup also has one of the sport's best centers, the Mercury's Brittney Griner, and point guards, the Sky's Courtney Vandersloot. Players such as Chicago's Allie Quigley and Phoenix's Shey Peddy persevered despite being cut multiple times. Spouses -- Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello and Sky assistant Olaf Lange -- will be coaching against each other.
And it pits one of the WNBA's eight original franchises in 1997 -- three-time champion Phoenix -- vs. expansion Chicago, which entered the league in 2006 and is seeking its first title.
For the first time since the WNBA's 2016 change in playoff format, two teams -- No. 5 seed Phoenix and No. 6 Chicago -- that had to play in the single-elimination early rounds have advanced to the WNBA Finals.
It's the Valley of the Sun vs. the Windy City. Phoenix went 3-0 against Chicago in the regular season, though two of those games were played four months ago. What does it all mean as we close in on crowning a champion? Our panel -- ESPN's Katie Barnes, Kelly Cohen, Paul Gutierrez, Kevin Pelton, Mechelle Voepel and Josh Weinfuss, and The Undefeated's Sean Hurd -- break down the Finals from all angles and predict which team will win the 2021 title.
What individual matchup will have the biggest impact on which team wins the WNBA title?
Pelton: Skylar Diggins-Smith vs. Vandersloot. When the All-WNBA teams are announced during the Finals, Diggins-Smith and Vandersloot could be the two first-team guards. They're elite point guards with different styles. Diggins-Smith is the more dangerous scorer -- she averaged 24 points per game in three head-to-head meetings this season -- while Vandersloot is (with apologies to Ticha Penicheiro) perhaps the best passer in WNBA history. She has handed out at least 10 assists in six of their 17 career matchups.
Gutierrez: Griner vs. Azurá Stevens. As the old trope goes, you can't stop Griner, you can only hope to contain her. When Griner gets going and is feeling it, she is unstoppable. Her midrange jumper is deadly, and her defensive presence on the block is intimidating. Stevens doesn't have to match her point for point, but she will have to keep her off balance, which will be challenging enough.
Barnes: Parker vs. Brianna Turner. Turner gave the Las Vegas Aces' A'ja Wilson headaches all series and has the ability to wreak havoc offensively in addition to her defense. With Turner's athletic ability to step out and guard on the perimeter, Parker isn't going to have an easy time getting buckets or rebounds, or even being able to facilitate the way she prefers. But of course, Parker can be equally disruptive on either end of the floor. Whoever gets the edge here might be able to tip the balance in her team's favor.
Voepel: Parker vs. Turner might be the most pivotal matchup, and Vandersloot vs. Diggins-Smith one of the most exciting to watch. But it also will be intriguing to see how much Chicago's Kahleah Copper and Phoenix's Peddy go head-to-head. Peddy is just 5-foot-7 but has needed to play in the small forward/wing position. At 6-1, Copper is more naturally suited there, and she has scored in double figures in every playoff game and all but four regular-season games.
Cohen: Like Pelton, I'm looking at the guard matchup. The Mercury and Sky played each other three times in the regular season; in back-to-back meetings in early June, Phoenix won both by single digits, including one in overtime. Guard play stood out in both matchups, even though both teams were hampered by injuries. Taurasi didn't play in either of those games; when they met again Aug. 31, she scored 17 to help the Mercury blow out the Sky 103-83. Taurasi has the momentum behind her going into the Finals after a strong Game 5. Is Vandersloot helping to defend her? Or Quigley? We know guard scoring and shooting will be a key, but ball movement and whoever helps better create those offensive opportunities will win the WNBA title.
Weinfuss: It's not quite an individual matchup, but the Griner vs. Stefanie Dolson/Stevens/Astou Ndour-Fall combination. We usually say this about Taurasi, but how Griner goes, so go the Mercury right now. If she can be as dominant on both sides of the court in the Finals as she has been throughout the playoffs, she'll be the deciding factor. But having a three-person rotation coming at her, with seemingly fresh legs guarding her all the time, Griner will have to be consistent and dominant -- maybe even more dominant -- than she has been at any point this postseason. And as we've all seen, she's been fairly unstoppable at times.
What other X factor should we be watching?
Pelton: The Sky's 3-point shooting. Although Chicago managed to win two one-and-done games with poor 3-point shooting (a combined 10-of-45), usually making 3s is the key to the Sky's success. Including the last two wins over Connecticut in the semifinals (21-of-45), Chicago is 12-1 this season when hitting at least 38% from beyond the arc. In all other games, the Sky's record drops to 10-17 -- including all three losses to Phoenix.
Gutierrez: Taurasi's ankle and shooting touch. Taurasi limped into the semifinals against Las Vegas but strutted out, scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter, including three 3-pointers after missing her first five attempts from beyond the arc, to close the deal. Taurasi was a nonfactor through the first three quarters, but she seemed to wake up after a brief skirmish with Aces guard Jackie Young. Or was the 39-year-old simply pacing herself?
You don't poke the bear.— Rebecca Lobo (@RebeccaLobo) October 9, 2021
Barnes: It's the bench for me. Phoenix is coming in short-handed, having lost Kia Nurse (torn ACL) for the rest of the season in the opening minutes of Game 4. Sophie Cunningham has missed the past two games with a calf strain. And of course, Taurasi is hobbled as well. The Sky, however, are healthy but will need quality minutes from the bench to get that first championship. Diamond DeShields has had an up-and-down year, but having a player of her caliber come off the bench for the Sky could be huge, especially with the Mercury's lack of guard depth.
Voepel: As Josh noted above, trying to defend Griner will be a Sky group project, and post players Dolson and Ndour-Fall are part of that. They aren't going to stop her, but both are 6-5 and physical. Dolson's court time went down in Games 3 and 4 vs. Connecticut; those were the only times this season she played less than double-digit minutes. That was a direct result of Stevens playing so well against the Sun interior, and it was a smart decision by coach James Wade.
But don't count out Dolson providing some needed minutes in the Finals. Ndour-Fall has had double-digit minutes just once in the playoffs, but that came in the semifinal-opening double-overtime victory over Connecticut that set the tone for the series. While the Sky didn't totally shut down league MVP Jonquel Jones -- nor should they have been expected to -- they did make her work hard for everything. Wade and the Sky defense will try to do the same against Griner.
Hurd: For Phoenix, it could be Bria Hartley. It's clear that Hartley is still finding her way back to form after her season-ending ACL tear last season. But we also know what Hartley is capable of; before her injury she had been playing some of the best basketball we had seen in the WNBA bubble (14.6 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 4.5 APG). If Hartley is able to find even part of that 2020 rhythm, it would go a long way for a Mercury team that needs more than a stopgap off the bench to win a championship.
Cohen: Stevens played lock-down defense against league MVP Jonquel Jones in the semifinals. She also averaged 11.0 points and 7.3 assists per game against the Sun, both noticeable jumps from her regular-season average. And don't overlook Stevens' ability to be a complement to Parker. Just like Parker, Stevens' versatility allows her to contribute -- and disrupt the game -- in different ways from night to night, whether it is shooting outside or getting boards inside in the paint.
Weinfuss: How Diggins-Smith picks up any slack that Taurasi can't carry herself. Taurasi will always be a feared force on the court, but with how banged up she is, guards are taking advantage of her and either taking her off the dribble more or losing her on screens. On the other side of the ball, teams know her mobility is limited, so they're throwing varied defensive looks at her. That's where Diggins-Smith comes into play. If she can start scoring early and play the type of lockdown D she's capable of, she'll be the final piece of the Mercury's Big Three to put this team on her back and help carry them.
Which team will win the 2021 WNBA championship?
Pelton: Chicago in four. As impressive as Friday's win in Las Vegas was, I think losing Nurse could eventually cost the Mercury. Should this series go the distance, Phoenix will set a WNBA record with 12 playoff games. (Chicago would tie the previous high of 11, done three times, most recently by the 2015 Indiana Fever.) At the end of the longest postseason runs in recent memory, depth favors the Sky.
Gutierrez: Phoenix in five. There's a certain symmetry to Taurasi, who has won three WNBA titles but only one league MVP crown, perhaps going out on top. But that requires both her and Griner perfecting that inside-out game. Parker will have something to say about that, too. But the Mercury have been on such an unlikely run that it's hard to see it ending, especially with home-court advantage.
Barnes: I agree with Pelton: Chicago in four. It's hard to bet against the Mercury's Big Three, but it's more difficult to see the Mercury beating the Sky in a series when they're so short-handed and banged up. The Sky have the edge on depth and rest for me, and in an intriguing matchup like this one, depth and a little more rest might just be enough.
Hurd: Phoenix in four. Against the Aces on Friday, we waited for that fatigue to overcome the Mercury starting five as the Aces, in a fast and physical game, pushed a lead of as much as 10 in the second half. But Phoenix never folded. Can Phoenix sustain a full playoff series in which four out of five starters will likely need to play 35-plus minutes per game? Maybe not, but perhaps the resilience and toughness of this Mercury team can neutralize that depth deficit.
Voepel: Chicago in four. It goes against all my better judgment to pick against Taurasi. She has appeared in the NCAA championship game, the WNBA Finals and the FIBA World Cup final three times each and the Olympic gold-medal game five times. She won all 14. She just doesn't lose when the stakes are this high. And Griner has been the postseason MVP thus far.
But as Kevin and Katie pointed out, the Mercury are banged up, and the Sky can match them strength to strength regarding offense. Vandersloot is playing for what will cement her into that most elite level: a championship. For Parker, who won a WNBA title in 2016 with the Sparks franchise that drafted her, it's a chance to do that in her hometown and with teammates who all consider her the missing element to the Sky's success. This series could easily go either way, which makes it fun. But I'll lean slightly toward Chicago getting the trophy.
Cohen: Chicago in five (can we get a Finals series that goes all five games, please!). The Mercury have had such an impressive run in these playoffs, and it started with a strong winning streak coming out of the Olympic break. But the Sky's run has been the most impressive. They were so inconsistent for much of the regular season, at or below .500, despite having all the pieces to have a better record. Well, now they figure out how to use all those pieces perfectly -- and I am not betting against Parker leading her team all the way.
Weinfuss: Phoenix in five. Two words: Diana Taurasi. In the end, as we saw against the Aces, it really doesn't matter how badly her ankle is sprained, how many bones she does or doesn't have broken, Taurasi can simply will her team to win by imposing her sheer dominance on the other team, no matter how much younger or better it might be. Mercury coach Brondello said after the Game 4 loss to the Aces that Taurasi can't play for long periods of time, but if she makes the most out of those minutes, or at the very least stays fresh enough to go off in the fourth quarter if the game is close, then she will do everything in her physical capabilities to win one more championship before she walks off the court once and for all.