W.N.B.A. Preview: The Seattle Storm Are Ready to Run the West

The W.N.B.A. season begins Saturday with everything a basketball fan could want, from a wave of intriguing rookies to a slate of superstar veterans ready to win another championship.

Below, our reporters tell you what to expect this season in the W.N.B.A.’s Western Conference. (And click here for our preview of the race in the East.)

SEATTLE STORM

In a rarity for this bubble season, the Seattle Storm can focus on who they have back rather than be concerned about who isn’t around. And that has fans dreaming of the confetti that billowed down the last time this entire group was together.

“It feels like we went right from 2018 to 2020,” forward Breanna Stewart said during a Zoom conference call with reporters on the Storm’s media day. Two years ago, Stewart had one of the most decorated 12 months in basketball history, highlighted by the trifecta of the league Most Valuable Player Award, a W.N.B.A. championship and finals M.V.P. in 35 days.

She’ll make her return this season after tearing her right Achilles’ tendon in a EuroLeague game in April 2019 and will be joined by the 11-time All-Star point guard Sue Bird, who also missed last season because of a knee injury.

Their absences made 2019 feel like a lost year following the franchise’s third championship, in 2018, yet the team still advanced to the second round of the playoffs.

Moving forward without Stewart and Bird forced Jewell Loyd, Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard, named the 2019 defensive player of the year, to carry the load. Point guard Jordin Canada and center Mercedes Russell also received hefty starting minutes in their second seasons.

All of them are with the Storm in Bradenton, Fla. It’s the 2018 roster redux.

“We literally have a starting five on the bench,” Bird said last week on a Zoom call with reporters. “Players who have proven themselves in those roles.”

That depth will be even more important in a truncated, 22-game regular season with games being played every two to three days. But the Storm are in one of the better positions to win the Western Conference. Their confetti dreams are warranted.

Las Vegas looked like a star-studded title contender in February, when it added the five-time All-Star Angel McCoughtry to a group that reached the playoff semifinals in 2019.

Yet the Aces were already short-handed when they arrived in Florida for training camp. The All-Star center Liz Cambage, last summer’s splashy roster addition, has opted out of the 2020 season, while the former No. 1 draft pick Kelsey Plum is sidelined with a torn left Achilles’ tendon.

That makes A’ja Wilson the Aces’ unquestioned anchor. Her strength and skill to score and rebound down low, attack on the drive and facilitate have already made her an All-Star in her first two W.N.B.A. seasons. She could elevate herself to an M.V.P. candidate in 2020.

Wilson will get support from Kayla McBride, a three-time All-Star who will need to remain a long-range shooting threat with Plum out. Forward Dearica Hamby, who sent Las Vegas to the playoff semifinals on a stunning last-second steal and hoisted shot against Chicago, will get the chance to build on a 2019 season that ended with her winning the league’s Sixth Woman of the Year Award. Guard Jackie Young, last year’s top draft pick, could make a jump in her second season.

McCoughtry, though, is primed to be under the league’s spotlight in 2020. It will be her first game action since August 2018, when she tore ligaments in her left knee and had surgery. Can the 33-year-old still be a two-way dynamo on the wing? Even if she has lost a step, she has already made an impact by spearheading the movement to put Breonna Taylor’s name on the backs of players’ jerseys.

While other contenders like Seattle and Phoenix are returning to full health, the Aces have already suffered setbacks. Still, Las Vegas has the talent to make a push during the postseason.

Minnesota Lynx

Seimone Augustus was the No. 1 over all draft pick in 2006 and spent her entire career donning a Lynx jersey, winning finals M.V.P. honors in 2011 and four championships. Her legacy is cemented in Minnesota’s W.N.B.A. dynasty, but for the first time in 14 years, Augustus will be opening the season in enemy territory, wearing purple and gold as a member of the Los Angeles Sparks. Her departure leaves Sylvia Fowles, a former league M.V.P., as the sole veteran from those dynasty days and opens a hole that Coach Cheryl Reeve and the Lynx will need to fill by leaning on their young, emerging talent.

There was doubt in 2019 as to whether Reeve would be able to whip this young group into shape with Maya Moore sitting out to focus on social activism and Lindsay Whalen having just retired. However, an impressive debut from Napheesa Collier, who won the Rookie of the Year Award, kept Minnesota’s playoff streak alive and is the reason the Lynx can hope to make a 10th-straight playoff appearance in 2020.

Collier, now a team captain, will have to play a larger role this season if Minnesota wants to compete in a strong Western Conference. Shenise Johnson and Karima Christmas-Kelly, two talented veterans who have both suffered knee injuries over the last two seasons, look great on paper but present health concerns. There’s excitement around the additions of Crystal Dangerfield and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, as well as Rachel Banham, a native of Lakeville, Minn., who is in her fifth W.N.B.A. season after setting several N.C.A.A. records with the Minnesota Golden Gophers. With the Lynx’s roster in transition, the opportunities are endless for these young stars to prove they are valuable pieces and keep the team’s postseason streak intact.

As the clock approached zeros in the Sparks’ final game of the 2019 season, three of the team’s superstars — Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray — sat on the bench, dejected. None hit the court in the fourth quarter.

The Sparks, who made the top three teams in The Associated Press’s preseason power rankings, are putting the past behind them and focusing on building strong team chemistry for the 2020 season.

“The teams that are successful in sports, they have great culture, great messaging,” said Derek Fisher, the Sparks’ second-year head coach. “Everything they do, there is a shared vision and alignment in what you’re trying to accomplish, and last year that was confirmed for me that that’s what we have to focus on.”

Los Angeles did well in free agency by picking up Seimone Augustus and Kristi Toliver, who have won multiple championships, to join the core of Parker, Ogwumike, and Gray. Toliver and Chiney Ogwumike opted out of the season, allowing the Sparks to bring in Reshanda Gray and Te’a Cooper to round out the 12-player roster. The team has spent the past several weeks at IMG Academy having game nights and group dinners to build strong relationships.

From players like Augustus, who is on her second team in her 15th season, to Kristine Anigwe, who is starting her second season on her third team, 2020 marks a rebirth for Sparks players and the organization.

Parker said she hoped the Sparks would take on a younger sibling approach to their new beginning. “I think with youth comes, you know, desire and passion. And sometimes it’s best to not know and just go out and try it and do it.”

Phoenix Mercury

The Phoenix Mercury hinged their success in 2019 on a “Pound It In To Brittney Griner” formula that helped the team win its third championship in 2014 but has since been overused to the point of predictability. An influx of bigger, stronger, more versatile players into the league since then has elevated the depth and intensity of play in such a way that teams must adjust to remain competitive. Phoenix, however, has refused to loosen its grip on the Griner strategy and, worse, held onto hobbled veterans instead of bringing in younger players.

Diana Taurasi, the franchise star, played just six games last year because of injury and finished the season with 26 total points. But the depleted roster was not enough to inspire Phoenix to keep its 2020 draftees, particularly Te’a Cooper and Stella Johnson — two smart guards who could contribute now and may dominate in the future.

With DeWanna Bonner and Briann January now with the Connecticut Sun, the Mercury brought in Jessica Breland, who will not play after receiving a medical exemption, plus Nia Coffey, Kia Vaughn and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough.

Skylar Diggins-Smith, Phoenix’s biggest acquisition, is the seasoned veteran the team needs on both sides of the ball.

Yet, it is Bria Hartley whose impact is most likely to break Phoenix out of the “Pound It In To B.G.” doldrums. Hartley didn’t get to flash the full range of her talents while with the Liberty, but she can accelerate with roadrunner-like speed and spread an offense with her court vision and passing. If all goes well, Hartley will hasten the Mercury toward a 21st-century offense and show why she’d win a foot race against the 143 other women in the league.

This is a relatively brand new Dallas Wings team. And a young one at that.

Seven of the 12 players on the roster weren’t on the team last year, and half of the roster has one year or less of experience. Nevertheless, the Wings, after a 10-24 record last season, are poised to make the most of a rebuild. They’ll be led by Coach Brian Agler, who won the Coach of the Year Award in 2010 and championships with the Seattle Storm in 2010 and the Los Angeles Sparks in 2016.

They’ll start with the top collegiate talent they acquired with three of the top nine picks in the 2020 W.N.B.A. draft: No. 2 overall pick Satou Sabally out of Oregon; No. 5 pick Bella Alarie from Princeton; and No. 7 pick Tyasha Harris out of South Carolina.

They will join a stable core of young veterans including defensive stalwart Kayla Thornton and Arike Ogunbowale, who jumped from Notre Dame to the Wings’ floor general and face of the franchise in a matter of months. She’ll serve as an example and a sounding board for the young players as they transition from college to the pros.

Much of the excitement this season centers on Moriah Jefferson, who missed last season with a knee injury. Jefferson, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft and the winner of four consecutive national championships with UConn, is set to debut as a welcome true point guard for the Wings. With both Jefferson and Skylar Diggins-Smith out last year, Ogunbowale — a shooting guard — spent much of the season playing out of position. That won’t be an issue anymore, freeing her up to do what she does naturally: score.

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