WNBA playoffs 2023: Are the New York Liberty now the favorite?

The 2023 WNBA playoffs are here, with the No. 3 seed Connecticut Sun hosting the No. 6 seed Minnesota Lynx on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App), followed by the No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces welcoming the No. 8 seed Chicago Sky (10 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App). The other two series kick off Friday when the No. 7 seed Washington Mystics travel to the No. 2 seed New York Liberty (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App) and the No. 5 seed Atlanta Dream visit the No. 4 Dallas Wings (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App).

So much focus has been on a potential WNBA Finals clash between the superteam Aces and Liberty, as the former hope to become the first repeat champions in two decades and the latter seek to win the franchise's first WNBA title. But the other six teams have plenty on the line.

Chicago made the postseason despite a midseason head coaching change and two season-ending injuries. In the first year following Sylvia Fowles' retirement in Minnesota, the storied Lynx overcame early adversity in a 0-6 start to return to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus.

The Wings and Dream are also looking to solidify new chapters for their organizations: First-year head coach Latricia Trammel could lead Dallas past the first round for the first time since 2009, when the franchise was based in Detroit; Tanisha Wright returns the Dream to the postseason for the first time since 2018 following a tumultuous few years.

The Sun own the league's longest active streak of consecutive playoff appearances (seven), but after a transformative offseason look fairly different from last year's squad that made a Finals run. And then there's the Mystics, arguably the most intriguing team in the playoffs given their indisputable potential but slew of injuries. Washington's health remains a big question, and it's unclear whether Shakira Austin will be available, but their matchup against the Liberty should be as good a series as any in the first round.

ESPN.com's M.A. Voepel, Alexa Philippou and Kevin Pelton break down the biggest storylines we're watching in the playoffs and, along with ESPN Fantasy Games writer Eric Moody, offer predictions for which team will pop championship champagne in October.

Are the superteams on a collision course? Which team other than Las Vegas or New York has the best chance of reaching the WNBA Finals?

Pelton: An Aces-Liberty Finals is certainly more likely than not, but there's a tendency to overstate the certainty for almost any favorite. Although Dallas has been better over the last two months, I'd give Connecticut the better chance of crashing the Finals by virtue of the Sun's playoff experience and more favorable path to the semifinals.

Philippou: Assuming the first round is all chalk, it's tough to imagine the Sun winning three games against the Liberty after going 0-4 against them in the regular season (of course, Connecticut beat Chicago last year in the semifinals after going winless against them in the regular season). If the Mystics take down the Liberty and face the Sun in the semifinals, Connecticut has a 4-0 edge in their season series. A good rule of thumb I've developed after covering the Sun for five years: Underestimate Connecticut at your own risk.

Dallas has shown it can beat Las Vegas, crushing the Aces in paint scoring and rebounding in a 80-78 win July 7. But should they advance, the Wings must stake a claim defensively to get the better of the defending champs in a series. In each of its last two meetings versus Las Vegas, Dallas allowed 104 points.

Voepel: The Aces lost back-to-back games once this season (to Washington and New York), while the Liberty did not. That tells you how unlikely it will be for either to lose a series to any team except each other.

It seems like the best odds of disrupting their potential Finals matchup will come if one loses in the best-of-three first round. So, possibly the Mystics -- being the best version of themselves -- upsetting New York.

The oddsmakers -- Caesars Sportsbook has the Aces favored to win the 2023 title at -160, with the Liberty behind them at +135 -- aren't keen on that possibility.

The Aces were the heavy favorite most of the season, but they lost five times since Aug. 6. The majority of our panel picked the Liberty to win the 2023 title. What caused the shift?

Pelton: The loss of Candace Parker is the single biggest factor. Las Vegas lineups with all four All-Stars (Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, A'ja Wilson and Jackie Young) have been just as good with Kiah Stokes and Alysha Clark alongside them, outsourcing opponents by 21.4 points per 100 possessions after the All-Star break as compared to plus-23.4 before it, according to my analysis of lineup data from WNBA Advanced Stats.

However, if any of those four stars is off the court, the Aces have been outscored since the break (minus-2 points per 100 possessions) as compared to a dominant plus-15.8 when Parker was healthy in the first half of the season. The Vegas starters are still good enough to win a title, but there's a lot less margin for error if Parker -- who had foot surgery in July -- is unable to return in time for the Finals.

Philippou: The Liberty beat Las Vegas three times since the start of August, including the Commissioner's Cup championship. They have simply come together as the team they were anticipated to be as they've had time to play together, plus Jones is finally healthy and comfortable in New York's system.

For the Aces, there's been a drop-off on the defensive end and in their production on the glass, a testament to Parker's value in both areas. Before the All-Star break, their defensive rating of 95.6 points allowed per 100 possessions was best in the league. Since then, their defensive rating is tied for third at 100.0, a touch behind the Liberty's mark of 99.7. Becky Hammon always stresses that if her team isn't hitting its shots, they must defend to win games.

I picked the Liberty beating the Aces for the title based on how the matchups went in August, but the Aces' core four -- spearheaded by a practically unstoppable Wilson -- can still get it done.

Voepel: I'm sticking with the Aces to repeat, but it's totally understandable why many feel the tide has turned toward the Liberty. New York won three of the four times the teams played in August. The cohesion of the Liberty has continued to get better. And even though the Aces won the title last year without Parker, they didn't face a team in the playoffs that had quite as much talent as the Liberty have this year.

Maybe the Aces use it to their advantage. They don't come into the playoffs with any sense of overconfidence. Coach Becky Hammon has their full attention when telling them how they still have to keep improving through the remainder of the postseason in order to win again.

Which player could have the single biggest impact on the postseason?

Pelton: Jonquel Jones. The 6-foot-6 forward's return to something more closely resembling her MVP form after being slowed by a stress reaction in her left foot has been the biggest factor in New York's improvement over the course of the season. After averaging 10.3 PPG and 6.1 RPG in 22.6 MPG before the All-Star break in mid-July, Jones averaged a double-double (12.2 PPG and 10.3 RPG) in 27.0 MPG in the second half of the season. If Jones gets in foul trouble and struggles to finish inside, the Liberty are vulnerable. If she's helping Breanna Stewart dominate the paint, New York is the title favorite.

Philippou: Jones winning Commissioner's Cup MVP proved when she's at her best, so is New York. Her ability defensively to slow down Wilson -- who has averaged 26.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game since the All-Star break -- is just as important as her scoring and productivity on the glass. If the Liberty win it all, Jones will have played a huge role. And for the Aces, could Chelsea Gray be primed for another postseason tear like last year when she was named Finals MVP?

And how about Arike Ogunbowale? She only played one playoff game last year as she dealt with an abdominal injury, and although Dallas has a lot of other talented options (Satou Sabally, Teaira McCowan, Natasha Howard), it's been Ogunbowale's franchise since she was drafted in 2019. She's led the league in minutes (37.2 per game) this season. Can she lead the Wings to places they've never before reached?

Voepel: If it isn't any of the aforementioned players, maybe it will be New York's Sabrina Ionescu, who led the league in 3-pointers with 128. The Liberty, who lead the WNBA with 11.1 3-pointers per game, really stretch out defenses, and Ionescu leads the way there.

For Las Vegas, Jackie Young might be the difference-maker. She is shooting a career-best 52.3% from the field, 44.9 from 3-point range.

2023 WNBA playoff predictions

Click here for a series-by-series first-round preview.

First round: No. 1 Las Vegas or No. 8 Chicago?

Moody: Las Vegas in 2
Pelton: Las Vegas in 2
Philippou: Las Vegas in 2
Voepel: Las Vegas in 2

First round: No. 2 New York or No. 7 Washington?

Moody: New York in 3
Pelton: New York in 2
Philippou: New York in 3
Voepel: New York in 3

First round: No. 3 Connecticut or No. 6 Minnesota?

Moody: Connecticut in 3
Pelton: Connecticut in 2
Philippou: Connecticut in 3
Voepel: Connecticut in 3

First round: No. 4 Dallas or No. 5 Atlanta?

Moody: Dallas in 3
Pelton: Dallas in 3
Philippou: Dallas in 2
Voepel: Dallas in 3

Which teams will meet in the WNBA Finals?

Moody: Las Vegas and New York
Pelton: Las Vegas and New York
Philippou: Las Vegas and New York
Voepel: Las Vegas and New York

Which team will win the championship?

Moody: New York
Pelton: New York
Philippou: New York
Voepel: Las Vegas

Who will be the WNBA Finals MVP?

Moody: Breanna Stewart, New York
Pelton: Breanna Stewart, New York
Philippou: Jonquel Jones, New York
Voepel: A'ja Wilson, Las Vegas