Los Angeles Sparks
The controversial new coach, Derek Fisher, may receive a lot of attention later this season, but this collection of talent on the Sparks is the real interest. There are only four remaining players from their last championship season in 2016, but winning at the highest level is still fresh in the team’s memory.
One of the four remaining champions is center Candace Parker, who was on the luckier side of all the league’s injuries to stars and only missed the first three weeks of the season. Parker is can be as dominant as ever, and alongside forward Nneka Ogwumike they are one of the toughest duos in the league. This season they’ll surely continue their great chemistry on both ends. When the two were on the court together the team had a net rating of plus-9.4. For context, champion Seattle Storm’s was 8.8 last season.
In the offseason, the Sparks added even more front-court players with a trade for all-star forward Chiney Ogwumike and drafting NCAA national champion center Kalani Brown in the first round. One of coach Fisher’s toughest challenges will be finding the right combination of centers and forwards when Parker and the Ogwumike sisters are taking breathers. Obviously, the Sparks strength is their talented centers and forwards, which of course leads to their weakness of lacking wing players and guards. The team lost Odyssey Sims and Essence Carson to free agency in the offseason, adding pressure on the remaining younger guards to step up.
Point guard Chelsea Gray, another player remaining from 2016, is guaranteed to continue her ice-cold late-game heroics and will be relied on for clutch plays in the playoffs. Reigning Defensive Player Of The Year and nine-time All-Defensive Team winner Alana Beard is the perfect tough-nosed grinder for a deep playoff push as well.
If Parker can fully recover and there are no other surprises, the Sparks are certainly in the mix to continue their championship tradition.
Unlike the Sparks, the Lynx may very well be out of their usual title contention. They’ve lost legend Maya Moore for the season due to personal reasons, Rebekka Brunson is injured for the year, and Lindsay Whalen (arguably best point guard ever) just retired in the offseason. The only two remaining starters are Sylvia Fowles and Simone Augustus.
With Maya Moore out, Sylvia Fowles will certainly be an MVP candidate and will have lot more opportunities. In her 11 seasons, she’s won 20 awards and is a reliable leader, scorer and rebounder.
After all the Lynx player losses, Cheryl Reeve the number one winningest coach ever and boss general manager hit the lab and made boss moves. She traded for rival Sparks point guard Odyssey Sims as an attempt to replace Whalen, signed vet and 2012 WNBA champion forward Karima Christmas-Kelly, traded for forward-center Alaina Coates, and traded for second-year guard and sharpshooter Lexie Brown on draft day. Reeve very intentionally designed team with maturity, outside shooting, defense and versatile players that can play and guard multiple positions.
Under Cheryl Reeve’s leadership and some competent additions to the roster, the Lynx will make the playoffs but not have the same talent level and synergy to make it to the final round.
New York Liberty
As the second worst team in the league last year at 7-27, with a 13 game losing streak, the rebuilding Liberty had all the typical flaws of a young team. Lack of leadership, inconsistent and sloppy play, and a need for basketball basics. The 2018 season was sorely missing a lot of boxing out, defensive stances, motion on offense, paying attention to waning shot clocks etc. That being said, there’s a lot of potential on this team with some especially exciting young players.
In a very deep rookie class, Liberty’s rookie guard Asia Durr out of Louisville could very well win rookie of the year. Of all rookies, she has the most refined offensive game, with excellent ball handling, icy step backs, and Kobe-esque mid-range pull-ups off the dribble. She can be inefficient at times, but that should be lower on the list of worries for the Liberty in her first season.
Another rookie who has garnered a lot of hype, is 18-year-old Han Xu, the WNBA’s fifth player ever from China. Han is years away, but could potentially be the ideal center of the future, who can shoot from anywhere on the court and provide dominant defensive rim protecting. It’s of the utmost importance that her skills are developed thoroughly but with patience.
Second-year player Kia Nurse, was the Liberty’s second-leading scorer last season despite an ups and downs in playing time. She’s a combo guard who can drive and shoot as well as a competent defender.
So far this season the Liberty have shocked some good teams. They beat the Aces by 10 (only to lose to them by 35 days later), as well as the Lynx and the Sparks by six. The Liberty will regress to reality sooner rather than later and go back to learning some tough lessons. It’s up to the coaching staff and team culture to bring all the Liberty kids to greener pastures over time.
Legendary 9-time all-star point guard Diana Taurasi is another one of the WNBA’s many injured stars and she is hoping to make a comeback very soon. In the meantime superstar and grittmaster Brittany Griner needs to take over by getting boards, buckets and setting the team’s defensive tone. Over the years Taurasi has groomed Griner to take over the team in her absence and she should be fully capable of it.
However, so far this season, Griner has been a little too passive and the Mercury have had a slow 7-8 start. Forward DeWanna Bonner, in her 10th season, has stepped up to a lead the team in scoring and rebounding especially in Griner’s most off games. Last season Bonner was one of only two players (the other being Candace Parker) to average over 17 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists.
In order for the Mercury to be serious about winning the title, they’ll need to turn around their slow start and grab a hold of a top playoff seed. This means Griner needs to get back to being the best defensive player and start leading the team in scoring and rebounding again. Otherwise, Taurasi might come back to an unsalvageable season.
Breanna Stewart’s season-ending achilles injury will be a serious blow to the defending champs’ basketball strategy and the league’s business model. Sue Bird’s more recent knee injury made for a very Seattle-appropriate “when it rains it pours” situation.
Point guard Jordan Canada flashed some great court vision and playmaking in her rookie season coming out of UCLA. So far this season she’s on track to win the Most Improved Player Award and has done a surprisingly good job controlling the team’s pace and distributing without excessive turnovers.
Forward Jewell Lloyd indicated she is more than willing to take on more responsibility and has improved significantly every season of her career. Last season she averaged 15.5 points and 3.7 assists. She has benefitted greatly from Stewart drawing a lot of opposing defenses attention so she will need to step up her own shot creation skills.
2019 will be an exciting test for Storm players trying to fill the massive void that Stewart and Bird left. While they may very well sneak into the playoffs, the team will be out of contention for the ultimate prize.
The Mystics had a tough loss to the Storm in last year’s finals and look to return for another shot at the rings. With many of the league’s stars out for the season and especially the Storm’s star Breanna Stewart out, the Mystics are favored with the highest Vegas odds to take advantage of the league’s power vacuum.
It’s been a much-repeated stat that the Mystics lineup of Kristi Toliver, Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins, Elena Delle Donne and LaToya Sanders outscored opponents by 30.3 points per 100 possessions last season. By far the most dominant five in the league.
Five-time all-star and 2015 MVP forward Elena Delle Donne, who played through a bone bruise in her knee during last season’s finals, is on track for an MVP season as expected. Her health and consistency will be crucial for a 2019 title run. Donne has been criticized for not being a vocal enough as the team’s leader, which will be even more important this season with some younger players on the bench.
Natasha Cloud is on the verge of having a breakout season. She’s had a few impressive games so far, including her 26-point game against the Liberty earlier this month. Cloud fills the Mystic’s need for high energy, rebounding hustle players. Without her, the team can lean too far towards finesse stylistically, which will not fly in the playoffs.
Of all team’s in the league, the Mystics have the biggest mandate to take advantage of this wide-open league. If they can stay healthy and tighten up a bit more, it’s theirs to lose.
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Photo Credit: SusanLesch [CC0]