For all that was strange and unprecedented about the 2020 WNBA season in a bubble, one thing was standard: The team with the fewest questions won the championship. The Seattle Storm had all the pieces, led by WNBA Finals MVP Breanna Stewart.
Even if coach Dan Hughes couldn’t be in Bradenton, Florida, for health reasons, he contributed as much as possible from afar, and assistant Gary Kloppenburg filled in well for him. The Storm tied the Las Vegas Aces for most regular-season wins, then swept the Minnesota Lynx and the Aces for the franchise’s fourth title.
After winning the 2018 and 2020 championships with a similar core group, Seattle now faces change — starters Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark are gone — brought on by trades and free agency. The 2021 Storm have some uncertainties, but so do most of the WNBA’s teams.
“When you’re in the situation, it feels like you’re the only one going through that,” said Los Angeles Sparks coach and general manager Derek Fisher, who also lost two starters, Candace Parker (Chicago Sky) and Chelsea Gray (Las Vegas), to free agency. “But there are a number of teams that lost key or significant All-Star level players, and there was a great deal of turnover.
“At the end of the day, it’s a great thing. I think these women deserve the opportunity to pursue different places, opportunities, environments.”
Fisher also voiced what seems to be largely a consensus: Las Vegas starts as the 2021 favorite.
“I feel like [with] everybody else, nobody really knows exactly what it’s going to look like,” Fisher said. “And that could be a good thing. I think there’s going to be a level of parity that always has existed, but just more that’s unknown this year.”
As is always the case with the WNBA, there are early absences because of overseas play. And injuries are always a major factor. But looking at what teams expect their rosters to look like when everyone arrives, what is the biggest question each is facing this year? We take a look in our preseason power rankings.
Note: Throughout the regular season, Mechelle Voepel will rank all 12 teams from top to bottom, taking stock of which teams are playing the best basketball and which teams are looking most like title contenders.
2020: 18-4; tied for first, lost in WNBA Finals
How well will Liz Cambage fit in again with a team that made its first Finals appearance last season?
With Cambage in 2019, the Aces reached the semifinals. Last year, the 6-foot-8 center was out on a medical exception, and forward A’ja Wilson (20.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG) was spectacular as the regular-season MVP. Both say they are looking forward to playing together again. Guard/forward Angel McCoughtry also excelled in her first season with the Aces last year (14.4 PPG, 5.1 RPG), and forward Dearica Hamby — before injury forced her out during the semifinals — averaged 13.0 PPG as one of Las Vegas’ most dependable players. Guard Kelsey Plum (missed last season with Achilles injury) is back. Add in former Sparks catalyst Chelsea Gray at point guard and this looks like an Aces team that has the bases covered with talent and experience, even with Kayla McBride moving on to Minnesota.
Cambage did play in her native Australia late in 2020, and she has worked out extensively since then.
“She’s probably in the greatest physical condition she’s been in that we’ve ever seen her,” coach Bill Laimbeer said. “How that translates into the game, that’s what we’re going to find out. It’s a matter of, with a year off, what are your post moves like?
“How it all works together with our lineups, and how I mix and match — that’s going to be a work in process, it’s a mystery. You never know until you start playing.”
Cambage will likely do just fine, and Laimbeer will focus on some other things to try to maximize the Aces’ potential.
“The 3 is probably our skinniest position,” he said of lack of depth at wing behind McCoughtry. “Hamby can slide down to that spot, but from a pure 3 position, that’s probably our No. 1 concern.”
2020: 18-4; tied for first, won WNBA title
Do the Storm have a championship-caliber defense?
Too high a spot right now for the defending champs? Perhaps, but when you have Breanna Stewart (19.7 PPG, 8.3 RPG), you have world-class strength on both ends of the court. And players such as guards Jewell Loyd and Jordin Canada are quite confident in their defense as well.
“Defense is one of my strengths,” Canada said. “The way we rotate, the way we are aggressive, we take pride on defense. I can use my quickness and speed to get to passing lanes and be aggressive on the ball.”
Loyd (15.5 PPG) is so known for her offense that she thinks she is underestimated defensively. And Sue Bird at 40 might not have the wheels she once did, but she has a whole lot of smarts. The Storm added savvy veteran forward Candice Dupree. While center Mercedes Russell might miss the start of the season because of her overseas commitment, she will be a dependable presence. Plus, the Storm might see a breakout second season from 21-year-old Australian center Ezi Magbegor.
That said, Natasha Howard was the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year and Alysha Clark has been universally acknowledged the past several seasons as one of the most versatile WNBA defenders. Howard has moved on via trade to the New York Liberty, and Clark went as a free agent to the Washington Mystics, although she’s out with injury this season. Those are difficult players to replace.
“We just try to play to the strengths that we have,” Hughes said. “We’re not asking anybody to be exactly like somebody from last year.”
3. Chicago Sky
2020: 12-10; sixth, lost in first round to Connecticut
Is Candace Parker the missing piece for a title run?
Bringing a player of Parker’s stature back to her hometown to likely finish her career was a great move. Parker is a two-time MVP and future Hall of Famer, and she is coming off a season in which she won the league’s DPOY award for the first time.
However, she turned 35 last month. She has said that playing last season in a bubble was good her, as it removed the travel wear and tear. And like most veterans she has learned to be really smart about taking care of herself.
Parker can do a lot, but she can’t do everything. The Sky could use big performances this year from guard Diamond DeShields and forward/center Azurá Stevens, both of whom had injuries limit their 2020 seasons to 13 games.
Coach James Wade said DeShields hasn’t been restricted in practices thus far and should be, “Diamond as you know her.” If that’s like the 2019 DeShields who averaged 16.2 PPG, it’s great news for the Sky.
Stevens is healthy, Wade said, but he wants to exercise caution to make sure she stays that way. Parker could be a terrific mentor for Stevens, who has a high ceiling.
The Sky have been waiting on team stalwarts Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, who are going through the COVID-19 protocol after their overseas seasons, but Wade knows what he will get from the veteran guards, along with others such as guard/forward Kahleah Copper.
2020: 9-13; eighth, lost in first round to Phoenix
What will the Mystics get from Elena Delle Donne and Tina Charles?
The former MVPs both missed last year, and Delle Donne has had two back surgeries since her 2019 championship season. If both players are healthy, that gives the Mystics two major superstars and could push this team to the top of the power rankings.
Delle Donne didn’t play in the Mystics’ 87-80 exhibition loss to Atlanta on Wednesday but is hopeful of being ready for Washington’s opener on May 15. Charles played and looked sharp, with 18 points and four rebounds. Washington acquired Charles via trade last year, and then she re-signed with the team as a free agent. She said it’s good to be back with coach/general manager Mike Thibault, for whom she played in Connecticut at the start of her career. Thibault said that even though Charles will have a lot of talent around her, she’s still a go-to player.
“I’m looking forward to the day when we can put her, Elena and some others on the court together,” Thibault said. “It’s really hard for teams to play us that way.”
In the absence of so many older players last year, Myisha Hines-Allen had a breakout season, averaging 17.0 PPG and 8.9 rebounds, and we’ll see how she plays this season. Thibault said another thing to watch is the battle for the backup guard spots.
2020: 13-9; fifth, lost in second round to Minnesota
Which Brittney Griner will we see?
Last Aug. 21, Griner missed her first game of the 2020 season, and the next day she left the bubble. Griner was the Mercury’s leading scorer and rebounder at the time, but Phoenix was not playing well at 6-7 overall, having lost four of its past five.
After Griner left, the Mercury went 7-2 and had an exciting first-round playoff win over Washington before falling to the Lynx. There were questions about whether Griner would be back with Phoenix this season. But she is, and coach Sandy Brondello said Griner is ready to contribute.
In February, Griner spoke to the media about mental health concerns she faced in the bubble and said counseling had helped her a lot, as had time off from playing last summer and fall after she left Bradenton. Subsequently, Griner was part of the UMMC Ekaterinburg team (along with several other top WNBA players, including Seattle’s Stewart and Chicago’s Vandersloot and Quigley) that won the EuroLeague championship last month, and the Mercury hope she’ll bring that winning spirit back with her.
“The bubble wasn’t for everyone,” Brondello said of Griner. “She took care of things. It’s the first time she really had a break, and I think that was great for her. She’s in a great spot, she’s motivated.”
Guard Diana Taurasi turns 39 in June, but she is coming off a very strong season (18.7 PPG) and she meshed well in the backcourt with Skylar Diggins-Smith in her first year in Phoenix. Forward Brianna Turner continued to improve in her second season in the league and already is a top-notch defender. Brondello thinks Turner can take steps forward offensively.
In the offseason, the Mercury traded with New York to get former UConn standouts Kia Nurse and Megan Walker.
“We thought we needed to get more consistent outside shooting,” Brondello said of the acquisition of Nurse in particular. “And she gives you more than that; she’s a two-way player. She’s tough-minded.”
2020: 14-8; fourth, lost in semifinals to Seattle
Will center Sylvia Fowles be back to her old self?
Minnesota has had the past two Rookie of the Year award winners in forward Napheesa Collier and guard Crystal Dangerfield. Last season, forward Damiris Dantas had the best of her six seasons in the WNBA. Forward Bridget Carleton made progress in her second year in the league.
The Lynx added players such as guard Kayla McBride, guard/forward Aerial Powers and forward Natalie Achonwa in the offseason. They drafted Tennessee wing Rennia Davis, who could fit a need when she’s able to play (she is currently out with a stress fracture).
In short, Lynx coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve has done well reconstructing the team from the four-championship dynasty years. Yet one holdover from that time — Fowles — is likely going to be a big key to this season.
The 2017 MVP, Fowles had been one of the league’s most durable post players until last season, when she was limited to seven games by a lingering calf injury. If Fowles, 35, returns to form, that’s a major plus for the Lynx. Fowles is particularly excited to play again because of the time she missed in 2020.
“Yes, I am healthy this year,” Fowles said. “The biggest challenge for me is learning how to wind [it] back. I’m that player who wants to go every rep in practice, do every defensive drill. I am getting a little older, and my body hasn’t been holding up like it has in the past. So making sure you dial back a little bit, but at the same time still be present.”
2020: 15-7; third, lost in second round to Connecticut
How big of an impact can the Ogwumikes have?
Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray and Riquna Williams (who, like Gray, is in Las Vegas) are gone, and they were three of the Sparks’ top four scorers last season. The team is entering a new era, albeit with some familiar faces.
Nneka Ogwumike returns for her 10th season in Los Angeles, and the 2016 MVP has sister Chiney back with her. This will be the sisters’ second season playing together in the WNBA.
Nneka battled through back issues and migraines last season, averaging a career-low 13.3 points. Chiney didn’t play in the bubble last season after going to Los Angeles in 2019, when she averaged 9.6 PPG and 5.8 RPG. She started her WNBA career in Connecticut in 2014.
“There’s always chemistry with a sibling,” said Nneka, adding that their respective off-the-court endeavors — Nneka is president of the union’s executive committee and Chiney works for ESPN — has made their bond even tighter as they share those accomplishments.
Veteran guard Kristi Toliver, who opted out of last season, brings a lot of experience in her second go-round in Los Angeles. Center Amanda Zahui B left New York and signed as a free agent with the Sparks, as did guard Erica Wheeler from Indiana. Both have the kind of competitive personalities that could be a welcome boost to the Sparks.
Overall, there is so much different about the Sparks that it’s hard for even Fisher to know how this will look. There’s reason for optimism, but the Sparks are in this spot in the power rankings because it might take a while for them to jell.
“I’m excited to see where this is headed,” Nneka said. “I think our speed is going to be something that really contributes to how we play well. I look forward to seeing how much more room we have to grow.”
2020: 10-12; seventh, lost in semifinals to Las Vegas
How effective a duo can DeWanna Bonner and Jonquel Jones be?
Connecticut lost heart-and-soul player Alyssa Thomas for 2021 due to an overseas Achilles injury, but she is still with the Sun trying to provide as much positive energy and advice as possible. The Sun will have to settle for that contribution from her this year.
Bonner (19.7 PPG, 7.8 RPG) was terrific last year in her first season in Connecticut after 10 at Phoenix, and now she’ll pair with the 6-6 Jones, who opted out of last season but averaged 14.6 PPG and 9.7 RPG in 2019, when the Sun fell to Washington in the WNBA Finals. Brionna Jones averaged 11.2 PPG last year in the best of her four seasons. So even without Thomas, the Sun have some real strengths in the paint.
“We’re going to be pretty big and pretty long,” said Bonner, who’s 6-4. “So we’re going to bank on defense. I think our defense is still going to be one of the tops in the league.”
And in the backcourt are veterans such as Jasmine Thomas and Briann January, whom coach Curt Miller can count on. Like most teams, the Sun will have their share of late arrivals, which means they could get off to a slow start like last year. But the Sun usually find a way to get things together.
“We’ve thrown a lot at this group,” Miller said. “New terminology, new systems in some ways, different combinations, a lot of new people in camp. So it’s a little bit messy at times, but I appreciate their attitude and effort.”
9. Dallas Wings
2020: 7-15; 10th, missed playoffs
Can the still-young Wings be a playoff team?
Dallas fell short of the postseason last year, which is one of the reasons then-coach Brian Agler and president/CEO Greg Bibb parted ways. They didn’t assess the 2020 season the same way, nor were they in alignment about the Wings’ future plans. Vickie Johnson was hired to take over what Bibb hopes will soon be the blossoming of the Wings.
“I’m proud of our defense, the effort we have,” Johnson said. “Being able to guard one-on-one and teamwise. Our energy level is very high. I’m actually surprised with our conditioning; we’re in great shape.”
She has a true star in guard Arike Ogunbowale, who led the WNBA in scoring last season (22.8 PPG), her second in the league. Forward Satou Sabally had a strong rookie season (13.9 PPG, 7.8 RPG) to build on, and the Wings still have guard Allisha Gray, who is just entering her fifth season but almost seems like a grizzled veteran on this squad.
And after being limited to nine games due to injury last year, guard Moriah Jefferson might play a bigger role in 2021. Guard Tyasha Harris, who averaged 6.8 PPG as a rookie, made progress in her game while overseas.
“I’m very happy with Moriah Jefferson,” Johnson said. “Her conditioning, her timing are getting back to 100%. Ty has improved a great deal, getting downhill and shooting the basketball.”
With the 1-2 picks in April’s draft, Dallas took two post players: Charli Collier out of Texas and Awak Kuier from Finland. Both have a lot to learn in the WNBA but possess plenty of raw talent.
10. Atlanta Dream
2020: 7-15; 10th, missed playoffs
How will the Dream react to so much leadership change?
Change really is the key word for Atlanta this season. There is new ownership after the strained relationship between former co-owner Kelly Loeffler and the Dream was a storyline all last season. General manager Chris Sienko was fired last month shortly after the WNBA draft. And then Monday, coach Nicki Collen left just before she was to start her fourth season with the Dream, leaving to take over at Baylor.
Rookie guard Chennedy Carter (17.4 PPG) led Atlanta in scoring last season, and guard/forward Betnijah Laney was the league’s most improved player but then left to sign with New York.
Center Elizabeth Williams, forwards Shekinna Stricklen and Monique Billings, and guard Courtney Williams — who all started at least 14 games last season — return along with Carter. Guard Tiffany Hayes is back after opting out last year. Among the free-agent additions for the Dream are guards Odyssey Sims and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and forwards Cheyenne Parker and Tianna Hawkins.
And with the first pick in April’s draft, the Dream took Arizona guard Aari McDonald. We don’t know how the final roster will look, but it’s going to be interesting to see how Atlanta will share the ball with so many guards who seem to have similar playing styles. With Collen gone, that is up to interim head coach Mike Petersen to figure out.
“Our focus is to stay together, play together and continue to play hard,” Sims said after an exhibition win over Washington on Wednesday. “I think we have something special with this group. We’re going to stay with it.”
11. New York Liberty
2020: 2-20; 12th, missed playoffs
How will Sabrina Ionescu perform in a “redo” rookie season?
Ionescu won’t be considered a rookie again by the league after she played in three games last year, her season cut short by an ankle injury. But it will seem as if the 2020 No. 1 draft pick is getting a fresh start to her WNBA career.
The cliché “nowhere to go but up” fits the Liberty after they finished last in 2020, but right now there’s still enough uncertainty to make you wonder just how far “up” could be in 2021.
“We’re deep, and I think we’re a little more veteran than we were last year,” Ionescu said. “With seven rookies last year, it was kind of all over the place. We had no idea what to expect.”
The Liberty’s 2020 struggles were well-chronicled, with guard Asia Durr missing the season due to COVID-19, along with Ionescu’s absence. Durr, the No. 2 pick in the 2019 draft, is still dealing with symptoms and is unlikely to play this season.
New York made some big moves in the offseason to change things. The Liberty dealt Nurse and Walker to Phoenix. They obtained forward Natasha Howard, who has been part of championship teams in Seattle and Minnesota, in a three-way deal that involved the Storm and Wings. They signed Laney away from Atlanta, while Zahui B left as a free agent to Los Angeles.
Forward/guard Jocelyn Willoughby is out with a season-ending Achilles injury, but 2021 No. 6 pick Michaela Onyenwere could make an impact. And most are expecting that Ionescu will.
“I’m just excited to get back out here with the team,” Ionescu said. “After such a serious injury, I just want to make sure I’m taking all the proper steps.”
12. Indiana Fever
2020: 6-16, 11th, missed playoffs
Can the Fever form some kind of identity?
Coach Marianne Stanley, in her second season with the Fever, said she wants two things: For the Fever to play with a quicker pace and to be better defensively. Whether either can happen remains to be seen. But a defensive improvement would at least give the Fever something to build on.
Indiana’s top draft picks in 2019 (6-7 center Teaira McCowan, No. 3) and 2020 (6-4 forward Lauren Cox, No. 3) came to the WNBA with stellar defensive reputations. Indiana has added veterans such as forwards Jantel Lavender and Jessica Breland and guard Danielle Robinson, all of whom bring a lot of individual accountability in all aspects, including defense.
That is needed, because the Fever’s defense was pretty dreadful last season; Indiana didn’t protect the rim and didn’t force enough turnovers.
On the offensive side, Kelsey Mitchell (17.9 PPG) is back as the team’s leading scorer. Fellow guard Victoria Vivians — who was limited to six games last year after aggravating a knee injury that cost her the 2019 season — is someone Stanley sounds optimistic about having play a bigger role. And Julie Allemand had a solid rookie season at point guard last year.
But looking at this roster now, you’re left wondering whether the Fever really can be any better than they were a year ago.
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