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Greatest WNBA Teams: Three Decades of Prestige

Greatest WNBA Teams: Three Decades of Prestige

Breaking down the three decades of WNBA existence and examining how each team performed and who really won each era.

We’ve released our all-time prestige rankings for the WNBA and in-depth looks at each of the 12 active teams. But we’re looking at the information in an alternate way: by the decade.

The WNBA has completed 22 seasons and is just starting number 23. The WNBA of the 2010s has looked quite different from the WNBA of the 1990s, in size, membership, play and more. Some of the greatest runs in the league’s history came from now-absent participants. By looking through smaller lens, we give those teams and the others who dominated in their day, their due.

Points are tallied in the same way as for the overall rankings. However, unlike in the overall rankings, these will be determined by raw points and not a score adjusted for the number of seasons a team played. In a shortened window like this, teams that only played for a portion of the decade likely impacted that chunk of years less than those that existed for longer, and the rankings should reflect that.

Like in the overall rankings, teams are not considered as overall franchises but rather as different teams if a move occurs. For example, the Detroit Shock, Tulsa Shock and Dallas Wings are all treated as three separate entities despite being the same franchise.

The 1990s

The ‘90s were short for the WNBA with the league only tipping off in 1997. But there are three seasons to consider, and the Houston Comets would appreciate the deserved love, so the decade gets its own segment.

Here are the rankings (1997-99):

  1. Houston Comets: 968 points (3 Championships, 3 Finals)
  2. New York Liberty: 311 points (2 Finals)
  3. Charlotte Sting: 195 points
  4. Phoenix Mercury: 181 points (1 Final)
  5. Cleveland Rockers: 97 points
  6. Los Angeles Sparks: 70 points
  7. Sacramento Monarchs: 26 points
  8. Detroit Shock: 15 points
  9. Orlando Miracle: -1 points
  10. Minnesota Lynx: -15 points
  11. Utah Starzz: -16 points

Surprising to no one who was keyed into the WNBA at the time, Houston stands on top by a wide margin. The Comets won the league’s first three championships in 1997, 1998 and 1999, establishing themselves as the WNBA’s first dynasty. The team was a combined 71-19 in the regular season during that span, with the top record in the league each season, and went 10-2 in the playoffs, never dropping a game before the Finals. At this time, Houston had a stranglehold on the WNBA as tight as any dynastic squad.

The Liberty made it to two Finals, but the existence of the Houston Comets is the biggest curse to strike New York. In the early days of the WNBA, the Liberty were consistently elite, but a dynasty always stood in their way of taking the final step to a title. In the 1990s, it was Houston who neutered New York. Getting to the championship is a great accomplishment in of itself, though, and the Liberty were certainly one of the WNBA’s best in this era.

The Utah Stazz sat in the basement, unable to muster a season ending in positive points in the ‘90s. The team posted a 30-60 record with zero playoff appearances or above-.500 marks. Their only six positive points in our system came from All-WNBA selections in 1997 and 1999.

The 2000s

In the WNBA’s first full decade, the Comets faded and the Los Angeles Sparks and Detroit Shock were the dominant forces with the Phoenix Mercury coming on late. The three combined for seven titles in the 2000s and nine WNBA Finals appearances.

Here are the rankings (2000-09):

  1. Detroit Shock: 1,463 points (3 Championships, 4 Finals)
  2. Los Angeles Sparks: 1,412 points (2 Championships, 3 Finals)
  3. Sacramento Monarchs: 970 points (1 Championship, 2 Finals)
  4. Phoenix Mercury: 777 points (2 Championships, 2 Finals)
  5. Connecticut Sun: 707 points (2 Finals)
  6. New York Liberty: 700 points (2 Finals)
  7. Houston Comets: 568 points (1 Championship, 1 Final)
  8. Seattle Storm: 509 points (1 Championship, 1 Final)
  9. Indiana Fever: 472 points (1 Final)
  10. San Antonio Silver Stars: 306 points (1 Final)
  11. Charlotte Sting: 212 points (1 Final)
  12. Atlanta Dream: 202 points
  13. Cleveland Rockers: 163 points
  14. Washington Mystics: 146 points
  15. Utah Starzz: 110 points
  16. Minnesota Lynx: 34 points
  17. Orlando Miracle: 33 points
  18. Miami Sol: 27 points
  19. Portland Fire: -8 points
  20. Chicago Sky: -26 points

Houston picked up its fourth-straight championship at the start of the new millennium, but that would be the end of its dynasty. The first to fill its shoes were the Sparks.

From 2001-03, Los Angeles represented the Western Conference in the WNBA Finals, winning it all in 2001 and 2002. Lisa Leslie was balling out, doing her thing, and the supporting cast of Tamecka Dixon, DeLisha Milton-Jones and others did the rest. The Sparks are one of the most successful franchises in WNBA history, and the early-2000s is when that really started.

The Finals defeat in 2003 came at the hands of the Detroit Shock, the new bully on the block ready to step into the WNBA forefront. With Bill Laimbeer at the helm and Swin Cash running the show, the Shock made their statement. A few years later when the team went to three-straight WNBA Finals from 2006-08, winning twice, it was still Laimbeer and much of the same core who took it there. Since then, the franchise has moved twice and experienced two seasons above-.500, but in the 2000s, the Shock were on top. Without a doubt, the Detroit Shock were one of the most successful WNBA teams ever.

The Sacramento Monarchs, Phoenix Mercury and Seattle Storm round out of the 2000s champions, but they find themselves in different positions in the rankings. With one title and two finals, the Monarchs were comfortable the third-best of the decade, largely because of their consistency. Sacramento made the playoffs in eight of 10 tries in the 2000s and found ways to collect points without multiple championships.

The Mercury are right behind Sacramento in fourth, but by a couple hundred points. Phoenix had two of the best seasons possible in 2007 and 2009, winning titles both years, but otherwise, it didn’t see too much success in the 2000s. The Mercury only made the playoffs three times in the 10-year window, and without the two championships, they wouldn’t sniff the top half of these rankings. But they happened, so here they are.

Seattle had a similar story to Phoenix’s, but the difference is one fewer championship and one fewer finals. The Storm did make the playoffs seven times from 2000-09, but only once did they do anything in the postseason: their 2004 title. That’s why, even with the crown, Seattle ranks behind two championship-less teams and eighth overall.

Despite only existing for less than half of the 2000s, the Chicago Sky were dreadful enough to be the worst team of this era. The Sky started play in 2006 and proceeded to post only negative points from then through the end of the decade. In all, Chicago went 47-89 and never finished better than .500. It’s normal for expansion teams to struggle to start, but the Sky took it to an extreme.

The 2010s

The 2010s in the WNBA can also be referred to as, “The Minnesota Invasion.” The Lynx have been far and away the team of the decade, racking up four titles and six finals before the era even officially ends. Some other teams have found success this decade that would normally put them in contention for the period’s best, like the Mercury, Sparks, Storm and Indiana Fever. But the Lynx are on another level, and no one can say anybody but Minnesota owned the WNBA in the 2010s.

Here are the rankings (2010-18):

  1. Minnesota Lynx: 2,055 points (4 Championships, 6 Finals)
  2. Phoenix Mercury: 1,018 points (1 Championship, 1 Finals)
  3. Indiana Fever: 853 points (1 Championship, 2 Finals)
  4. Los Angeles Sparks: 818 points (1 Championship, 2 Finals)
  5. Seattle Storm: 808 points (2 Championships, 2 Finals)
  6. Atlanta Dream: 795 points (3 Finals)
  7. Washington Mystics: 388 points (1 Finals)
  8. Chicago Sky: 329 points (1 Finals)
  9. New York Liberty: 289 points
  10. Connecticut Sun: 168 points
  11. San Antonio (Silver) Stars: 23 points
  12. Dallas Wings: 18 points
  13. Las Vegas Aces: -4 points
  14. Tulsa Shock: -17 points

From 2011-17, Minnesota won more than 50 percent of the league’s championships and appeared in the Finals every season except 2014. The achievements speak for themselves. There are plenty of good reasons for the Lynx to be so far and away the top team of the decade, like Cheryl Reeve, Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, Sylvia Fowles and the many other players and staff who have come through Minnesota this decade. The Lynx are one of two WNBA teams to ever win four championships and the only active one to hold the accomplishment, and it’s not a coincidence.

Despite only winning one championship and finals in this period, Phoenix is second, and by a good distance, too. The Mercury haven’t been racking up the crowns, but they have been racking up the playoffs appearances, and those points can pile up. Our system rewards consistency, and Phoenix has been a model of that this decade. The team only missed the playoffs once so far this decade – 2012 – and have gone to at least the Western Conference Finals five times. Add in some individual accolades worth points and an incredible 2014 campaign, and the Mercury are No. 2 in the 2010s.

The Storm are a strange case and have been for really their entire existence. Despite two championships in this decade, the only team with multiple crowns so far in this era, Seattle finds itself ranked fifth and in the middle of a four-team group all within fewer than 100 points of each other. Why? The same reason Phoenix is where it is: consistency. When the Storm are good, man, are they ever. Seattle posted 397 and 374 points in 2010 and 2018, respectively, their championship seasons this decade, earning positive points in nearly every possible category. But from 2011-17? The team tallied 67 points with one season above-.500, two total playoffs wins and zero series victories. You can’t say a team with two championships isn’t one of the best in that era, but you can’t argue it’s at the top with a long stretch of mediocrity in the middle.

The Sparks and Fever are the other franchises with championships in 2010s, each with one. Indiana experienced a strong five half of the decade, appearing in two WNBA Finals, winning a championship and going to the playoffs every year from 2010-16. If only the decade ended then. After losing in the Finals in 2015, Indiana has recorded 12 total positive points in three seasons: a playoff appearance in 2016 off a .500 record. The 2017 and 2018 seasons were rough for the Fever, but they did well enough before to largely cancel it out.

Los Angeles has consistently played in the postseason this decade, qualifying for the playoffs eight of nine seasons to be completed in this era. Three of those times, the team got in with a below-.500 record, but inclusion is all that matters. The playoffs appearances aren’t why the Sparks are where they are, though. They help, but it’s the 2016 and 2017 seasons that have them toward the top yet again. In 2016, L.A. won its first championship since 2002 and earned 364 points, then got back to the Finals in 2017, compiling 220 points following a loss to the Lynx in a rematch of the championship from the year before. The back-to-back Finals seasons make up 71.4 percent of the team’s points this decade, but it doesn’t matter how they come, only that they do.

The defunct Tulsa Shock are the basement dwellers of the 2010s. The Shock saw a good deal of success in Detroit in the 2000s, but once the team moved to Tulsa, it tanked to the depths of hell. The team opened the decade with records of 6-28, 3-31 and 9-25, didn’t achieve a single positive point until 2014 and only finished with a positive number of points in a season once: 2015, the franchise’s final year in Tulsa. The Shock made futility history in multiple ways during the 2011 season, which has to be considered the worst WNBA campaign of all time. From that season, the team still holds records for the most losses in a regular season (31), most consecutive games lost (20) and lowest winning percentage in a season (.088). In all, Tulsa went 59-147 overall from 2010-15 (0-2 in the playoffs) before the team moved and became the Dallas Wings. Over the years, many WNBA teams have done their best to be the worst, but none were as successful as the Tulsa Shock, in the 2010s and beyond.

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