After years of watching the Monarchs and Kings get bruised and beaten by the bullies from Los Angeles, Sacramento fans can finally walk around town with their fists raised triumphantly in the air.
Following a franchise-best 25-9 regular season, the Sacramento Monarchs completed a 7-1 postseason by dispatching Connecticut in the WNBA Finals to win the city's first hoops championship.
Now, the Monarchs find themselves in the unfamiliar position of a title defense. Fortunately, defense is the Monarchs trademark under coach John Whisenant, but will he be there to lead the way?
Most likely yes, though he is rumored as a candidate to coach the NBA's Kings. And why not? All Whisenant has done in two-plus seasons with the Monarchs is compile a 55-29 regular season record and an impressive 13-7 playoff mark.
Assuming he does come back, there are plenty of things Whisenant can stay up worrying about, not the least of which is how to compensate for the loss of Chelsea Newton in the expansion draft. In her rookie season, Newton proved extremely valuable as the one of the Monarchs' defensive catalysts.
Kara Lawson shared the two-guard position with Newton, sparking the second unit with 8.0 ppg and 44.4 percent three-point shooting. Whether or not she starts isn't the only question mark. Lawson was held out of the preseason because of a mysterious ailment that has caused dizziness and threatens her availability for the season opener.
One player the team will definitely be without as the season begins is 6-3 forward DeMya Walker, their leading scorer (14.1 ppg) a year ago. Walker is on maternity leave after the April 11 delivery of daughter Zachara. Rebekkah Brunson, the team's top offersive rebounder, will likely begin the year in the starting lineup, as she was last year when Walker missed 12 regular games.
Who will step up into the rotation and spark the second unit the way Brunson and Lawson did a year ago? Don't bet against Kim Smith, one of two first-round picks in the 2006 Draft. Smith, a 5-11 forward from Utah, has excelled (6.3 points, 3.7 rebounds) in the preseason.
"I can see her as part of our eight- or nine-player rotation," Whisenant told the Sacramento Bee. "She's earned a roster spot with us."
Even if Smith delivers, will this team have enough depth? Returning subs Hamchetou Maiga-Ba, Kristin Haynie and Erin Buescher should all contribute, but not a single veteran free agent was signed to compensate for the loss of Newton, Walker (temporarily) or Olympia Scott, who signed with Indiana.
Last year, Whisenant went 10 or 11 players deep every night. No player played more than 30 minutes a night, keeping his players with fresh legs to execute his suffocating defense. This year, with the 24-second shot clock adding several possessions to each game, getting contributions from the bench seems even more critical, and it's unclear who will step up.
Griffith, a perennial MVP candidate, carried the team on her back in the postseason, playing her usual stifling defense while averaging 17.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game and shooting 49 percent. She has been rested frequently during the preseason to ease the pain of a balky knee, but she'll be there when the ball drops - she hasn't missed a game in three seasons.
Penicheiro is still one of the game's top distributors despite a career-low 4.4 assists last season. Her turnovers, it should be noted, were also at a career low (1.97). She takes care of the ball, defends and keeps her teammates involved. Now, if she'd only resist taking threes (8-for-41 last year).
Powell proved to be a great acquisition for Sacramento, after a quiet rookie season with the Charlotte Sting. Acquired in the trade that sent Tangela Smith to Charlotte, Powell blossomed in her new environment, leading the league in three-pointers made (66) and earning Most Improved Player honors after averaging 10.7 points and 3.7 rebounds while shooting 41.5 percent from downtown.
The Monarchs will find the going a little tougher with a target on their backs, but still have plenty of talent, and the stifling defense, to be among the class of the West when all is said and done.