Robert Walker grew up in Washington state, but now lives and works in Las Vegas as director of sportsbook operations for USBookmaking. Hence, it’s no surprise that the Seattle Storm and Las Vegas Aces are his two favorite WNBA teams.
It just so happens that Walker’s top two squads will face each other in a best-of-five WNBA semifinal series that starts Sunday, which would seem to create quite the rooting quandary. But in some ways, it might make things easier when Walker, an Aces season ticket holder, attends the games live.
That’s because Walker tries his hardest not to clap at games.
“I try to remain impartial. I’m a bookmaker,” he explained.
If ever a series were to leave Walker in a neutral state, it’s the battle between the WNBA’s fourth-seeded Storm and the top-seeded Aces, who finished tied with the defending champion Chicago Sky for the league’s best record. But while his hands may fail to make contact with each other, Walker, a WNBA super-fan, foresees an “epic series” that could be imminent retiree Sue Bird’s last unless the Storm — consensus underdogs (2/1 at BetRivers and the SuperBook) — can pull off an upset.
“You have the two best players in the world in [Seattle’s Breanna] Stewart and [Vegas’] A’ja Wilson,” said Walker. “The Aces have four all-stars and you have the star power of Sue Bird, who literally played one of her best playoff games ever” in the decisive Game 2 of the Storm’s first-round victory over Washington.
“I’ll be stunned if this series doesn’t completely overwhelm the other one,” he added, referring to the semifinal matchup between Chicago and Connecticut.
When the Aces and Storm last met in the playoffs, it was during the 2020 WNBA Finals, with Seattle sweeping Vegas en route to its fourth title. But that was then.
“In terms of power ratings, Vegas has been incredible all year with that two-headed monster of Wilson and [Kelsey] Plum, and they’re also so deep as well,” said PointsBet Trading Manager Sam Garriock, whose sportsbook recently reported a 152% year-over-year increase in WNBA handle. “Vegas has been considered a super-team for awhile, and Seattle’s depth isn’t what it was in their title-winning seasons. You won’t find a bigger Breanna Stewart fan than I, but there’s just not a lot of depth on that Seattle team.”
WNBA playoffs continue tonight including Game 1 of Storm vs. Mystics. The Seattle Storm were the most bet team to win the WNBA Finals this year @PointsBetUSA. This season WNBA betting saw a 98% increase in bets and 152% increase in handle from last year.
— PointsBet Communications (@PB_Comms) August 18, 2022
Lloyd the X factor for Seattle
Given their underdog status against Vegas, it’s hardly startling that the Storm have the longest title odds (6/1 at the SuperBook) of the four remaining teams. Equally unsurprising is that they’re consensus 5.5-point underdogs in Game 1 at Las Vegas on Sunday.
But Walker thinks it would be foolish to discount the chances of a franchise with multiple championships and four former No. 1 picks on its roster (Vegas has three).
“I think it comes down to [Storm shooting guard] Jewell Lloyd,” said Walker. “I think Stewart will be Stewart and Bird will be Bird. I think it really just depends on how Jewell Lloyd shoots. She’s streaky, and when she’s hot, she’s unstoppable. I’ve seen her have some horrific games and have games where the rim looks like an ocean, but she can create her own shot. The Storm are really hard to beat when Jewell shoots well.
“They have the talent. They’re a little bit older. It wouldn’t surprise me if they won the series.”
Both the Storm and Aces were fortunate enough to win their first-round series by virtue of 2-0 sweeps in their home arenas. But on the other side of the bracket, Chicago and Connecticut each had to face lower-seeded teams on the road in decisive third games. The Sky and Sun won decisively, but that did little to quell debate over how best to structure a best-of-three series.
“I don’t think you’re ever gonna have an ideal situation in a three-game format,” Walker said. “They can’t have a 1-1-1. That’s insanity.”
While he’d like to see first-round series expand to a best-of-five format, Walker feels “best-of-three is much better than one-and-done with two byes” — which is how 2021’s eight-team playoff bracket was structured. In that format, the top two seeds got double byes into the semifinals, while the lower four seeds played winner-take-all games for the right to face the third- and fourth-seeded teams in yet another win-or-go-home round.
Another Sunset against the Sky?
After finishing .500 during the regular season last year and sneaking into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, Chicago pulled off a stunning 3-1 upset of top-seeded Connecticut in the semifinals before defeating the Phoenix Mercury in four games to win it all.
Chicago continued its domination of Connecticut during this past regular season, winning all four games. Yet the teams’ odds to win this year’s title are nearly identical (both +350 at PointsBet, although the SuperBook is offering the Sky at 3/1 and the Sun at 5/1) and Chicago (a consensus 3.5-point favorite at home in Game 1) is a narrow favorite to win the series. BetRivers is offering both squads at negative money, and the SuperBook features the best price on Connecticut (+115) to advance to the finals.
“We think that the Sun are still really good,” said Garriock. “We thought they were the best team in the league last year going into the playoffs before being upset by the Sky.”
Added Walker, “With Chicago, you have the best passing center if you consider [Candace] Parker a center, then you have Courtney Vandersloot. You have two facilitators who are just incredible. But I love this Sun team. If you’re a WNBA fan, or just a basketball fan, you couldn’t have asked for a better two series. I don’t think there’s an easy out. I would be surprised if the Sky swept the Sun.”
Should the Aces advance to the finals as expected, Walker said he thought the Sun would be a tougher opponent due to their more methodical style of play. But, he added, “The Sky are really good,” pointing to Chicago’s stunning comeback from a 28-point deficit to defeat the Aces in Vegas in late June.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Walker, who witnessed the Aces’ collapse in person. “I was mesmerized.”
Walker said he doesn’t think the Aces “deserve to be an even-money favorite” to win the title, which they are at most mobile sportsbooks. But in the course of comparing the splendid Vegas guard Chelsea Gray to Magic Johnson, he gushed, “This Aces team is really talented. One through five, they’re as good as anyone, maybe ever.”
Photo: Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY