So it looks like Atlanta is the favorite in the East...but what about the West? What follows is a shot in the dark regarding the WNBA's Western Conference and how teams will finish this year.
1. Phoenix (25-9). Why would I pick Phoenix over Seattle in the West, particularly when Seattle whalloped Phoenix throughout the 2010 season. Many reasons:
a. Diana Taurasi has had a lot of time to rest after a botched drug test forced her out of Fenerbahce. A top of the line player with a few months of rest and something to prove is something to worry about.
b. Penny Taylor, DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree are about as good as you can get when it comes to teammates. Furthermore, Taylor left Fenerbahce the same time as Taurasi did and also has the benefit of rest.
c. "Regression to the mean" - teams which surge to the front have trouble staying there. Seattle had a supernaturally good season last year with Lauren Jackson having an MVP season. Furthermore, Bird and Jackson are now on the "wrong side" of the age curve. (Granted, they have a lonnnng way to go before it begins to make an impact.)
I can hear the laughter from Seattle, but we'll see who's laughing at the end of the season. (Seattle answers in unison: "Us!")
2. Seattle (21-13). The goal of Seattle through the entire off-season has been to avoid any regression. Even though they managed to resign Camille Little and Swin Cash, players like Svetlana Abrosimova and Abby Bishop won't be back this year. Katie Smith was brought over from Washington to reunite Smith with head coach Brian Agler who coached Smith back when they were both with the Columbus Quest of the ABL. They won a couple of championships there, and I suspect both are looking forward to the reunion.
My concern with Seattle is the sheer amount of wear and tear that Storm players go through. The Storm had the lowest Herfindahl index of any team last season - a low Herfindahl index indicates that Storm starters play a lot of minutes with brief substitutions, so you can expect that the bench players from 2010 would be wary in signing up in 2011. Players like to play basketball. Smith will be 37 when the season starts, Lauren Jackson hurt her leg in Australia and Swin Cash has her own checkered health history. With the minutes Seattle players rack up one player going down could mean disaaster. Agler was lucky last year, but can lighting really strike twice?
3. Los Angeles (20-14). Oh, for a year when Candace Parker can stay healthy. The year 2009 was the Pregnancy Year and 2010 was the Shoulder Injury Year, but it looks like Parker's schedule has finally cleared up for 2011 and it's smooth sailing for a player who almost averages a double-double. If you can get 34 games out of Parker, it will be a sweet year for the Sparks.
The problem is that for a team called the Sparks, there are a lot of old timbers that could cause the whole structure to go up in flames. Tisha Penicheiro will be 37 at the end of the season, but last year she led the WNBA in assists and will probably cross the 2,500 assist mark this season. Tina Thompson will also be 37 at the end of the season and so will Delisha Milton-Jones...and they both started last year. The Sparks have some youth in the form of Kristi Toliver and rookie Jantel Lavender, but they really need some help from their bench to avoid a first round sweep by the Mercury or the Storm.
4. San Antonio (20-14). Do you know who led in Win Shares for San Antonio in 2010? Michelle Snow, who is now playing for the Chicago Sky. Jia Perkins will take up a starting spot in San Antonio, but I suspect that Chicago might have gotten the better end of the deal. It's unlikely that either Chamique Holdsclaw or Edwige Lawson-Wade will be suiting up for the Silver Stars, or we would have heard something by now.
So it's the Becky Hammon and Sophia Young show once again. Other than that, San Antonio's season rests on a lot of unknowns, and unknowns are not what you want to have in a conference with Phoenix, Seattle and Los Angeles. Is Jayne Appel ready to be at full strength or have injuries reduced her value as a player? Will Ruth Riley ever return to the kind of player she was in Detroit? Will Danielle Robinson be the next Becky Hammon or will she be a turnover-prone bust? San Antonio can probably sneak into a playoff spot with smoke and mirrors, but the illusion will be over in the first round.
5. Minnesota (19-15). Ah, Minnesota. I've given up on you. Every year I pick you as being a world-beater; every year the rocket tenatively lifts off before crashing into the pavement...and then the parachute opens. You won't fool me again this year. If there's anything bad that's ever happened to a WNBA team, it has probably happened to the Minnesota Lynx at one time or another. Some moan about the "Mystakes" but I suspect the Missing Lynx are the WNBA's Chicago Cubs, the only truly cursed team in the WNBA.
Oddly enough, Minnesota's fans spit in the face of danger and are strangely optimistic, believing that Maya Moore will lead Minnesota to glory. I don't see it happening. One player does not a team make, even if that player is Maya Moore. The Lynx made a great move in getting Taj McWilliams-Franklin away from New York but they lost Nicky Anosike to the Mystics.
The big X-Factor for Minnesota will be Monica Wright. Everyone lauded Wright last year despite her .370 shooting percentage - yes, she averaged 11.1 points per game but the only player who took more shots per game was Seimone Augustus. Wright has had great numbers in Euroleague, shooting 51 percent there and averaging 15 points a game in Poland. If last year's member of the All-Rookie team plays in the W like she did in Europe, you can move this team up a notch.
6. Tulsa (6-28). If you made it this far without turning away from the computer screen in disgust, I'm sure you found plenty to laugh about. The thought that Connecticut might have a core of players that could make it to the top of the Eastern Conference. The very idea that Phoneix might have what it takes to displace Seattle at the top of the West. The conceit that Minnesota won't win it all! But if there's any part of this preview that could make someone say, "he got that right, at least" it would be the idea that Tulsa would struggle to win basketball games in the WNBA.
Is Liz Cambage the real thing? I've heard it said that she is, but what have the Shock got besides Liz Cambage? They've got Sheryl Swoopes and Marion Jones, one player who might be past her prime and another player who skipped hers. They've got Betty Lennox and Ivory Latta who might be best known for being starters on a team that only won four games in 2008.
Coaching is suspect. Management is hopeless. But think of it this way - there's still a lot of reasons to enjoy watching the Shock if you're a Tulsa fan, because who knows who might step up out of that roster to help Tulsa win a game or two? Every game is an adventure in Tulsa, but expect the Shock to join the 1997-98 Utah Starzz and the 2004-05 San Antonio Silver Stars as the only WNBA teams to finish in the single digits in wins for back-to-back seasons.