Western Conference Midseason Update

Through the first half of this year’s two-part WNBA season, the Western Conference has shown that the path to the title will likely go through one of three teams: defending champions Minnesota Lynx, a rejuvenated Los Angeles Sparks, or perhaps the hottest team in the league, the San Antonio Silver Stars. The Olympic break in this unique season might well be an equalizer; it’s a do-over for teams such as Tulsa (3-15) who get a chance to regroup while others, such as San Antonio (nine-game winning streak), will likely rue the day it came. And with former MVP Diana Taurasi set to rejoin Phoenix and Liz Cambage returning to Tulsa, the West, top to bottom, will be much more of a dog fight than previously thought.

After a sizzling 10-0 start, the Lynx are suddenly looking beatable. Minnesota fell into a temporary free fall in early July, losing three straight before closing out the first half with a pair of blow-outs over Tulsa. But the reigning champs are still tied with Connecticut for the best record in the league (15-4), own a remarkable 8-1 record on the road, and boast an average win margin of 11.3 points per game. Despite a minor setback to starter Rebekkah Brunson, who sat at two games due to a calf strain but will return to start the second half, Minnesota has been relatively injury free. Their threesome of Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, and Lindsey Whalen – who all stayed sharp as members of the U.S. Women’s National Team in London – should continue to anchor a team primed for another title run.

At the level San Antonio is performing, however, the Silver Stars could challenge the Lynx. Led by Sophia Young’s 17.7 points per game during a nine-game win streak, San Antonio hasn’t lost since June 22. Point guard Becky Hammon will return to the squad fresh out of London where she is representing the Russians for her second Olympic go-around. As long as the aging Stars remain injury-free, they’ll be a threat come September.

Los Angeles is an in enviable position, having won 15 games behind an emerging young trio of Candace Parker, Kristi Toliver and rookie phenom Nneka Ogwumike. The Sparks played 21 games in the first half – most in the league – and will look to take advantage of the extra rest between just 13 remaining contests the remainder of the season. L.A. is easily on pace toward its first winning season in three years and poised to make a deep run in the playoffs.

Seattle, on the other hand, has been troubled by injuries and players on leave due to outside commitments. The Storm (9-10) recently began practice with just six players in the fold. Starting center Ann Wauters, who’s been out with an Achilles injury since July 13, is rehabbing in Belgium while Katie Smith (Achilles) and Tina Thompson (knee) are questionable for the Storm’s first game on Aug. 16. Star forward Lauren Jackson has been absent the entire season as she trained with her Australian national team. She and star point guard Sue Bird, who’s representing the U.S. in London, are both expected to return to Seattle in mid-August.

Similarly, Phoenix has been without its own MVP, Diana Taurasi, thanks to a hip flexor suffered just two games into the season. Taurasi healed in time to play for Team USA, however, and her strong play at the Olympics indicates she’ll be ready to go by Aug. 16. The Mercury were already facing an uphill battle when three-time All-Star Penny Taylor tore her ACL before the season began. Former Sky player and Phoenix’s second-leading scorer, Candice Dupree, underwent knee surgery on July 24 and is expected to miss six to eight weeks. Fellow starting forward Charde Houston (knee) is also out indefinitely since she went down on July 10. Rookie sensation Samantha Prahalis and Most Improved Player candidate DeWanna Bonner (20.7 points per game) have given Mercury fans something to cheer about. Taurasi’s return will help them make some noise, but it might be too little, too late.

As one of the youngest team in the league, Tulsa is still a work in progress. To date, the Shock have won three games out of 18, but some of that futility can be written off to injuries as well. Scholanda Dorrell and Jennifer Lacy are each expected to miss four to six weeks to knee injuries, but both should return in August. A huge boost will soon be joining the team in the form of 6-foot-8 Elizabeth Cambage, who’s been with the Australian Olympics team all season, and looked particularly strong against Team USA in the semifinal game. As a rookie last year, Cambage averaged 11.5 points and 4.7 rebounds and played in the 2011 WNBA All-Star Game. With a pair of solid rookies in Glory Johnson and Riquna Williams, who are both averaging double digits in scoring, things are looking up for the Shock.