Ann Meyers’ 2005 Eastern Conference Preview

Once again, analyst Ann Meyers will be a part of the ESPN broadcast teams for WNBA games this season. Here, she breaks down the Eastern Conference, analyzes each team's offseason moves and chances for the summer ahead and predicts their order of finish.

Meyers
As always, 2005 will be a very difficult WNBA season to predict. We saw last year that just a few games can separate first and last place. Of course it's even harder doing it in the preseason, when rosters aren't set and questions still remain. Last season I wavered on my predictions, going back and forth, so why should this year be any different?

Each WNBA season brings a new wrinkle. We've had expansion, contraction and the influx of ABL talent. Last season it was the rookies and the Olympic break. Whereas the one-month hiatus was a great equalizer in 2004, this season it will be free agency. How teams with new faces come together and gel will be a big question. Because we play a smaller number of games in a shorter period of time, you can expect this season to be another logjam. You can also expect that many of the playoff teams and matchups will not be decided until the last week, or maybe even the last game, of the season. My four playoff teams are Connecticut, Detroit, New York and Indiana, though I'm still a bit unclear as to what that final order will be. Teams will finish 17-17 or 18-16 again. The teams in the Eastern Conference will beat each other up and all of the games can go either way.

Lindsay Whalen and the Sun have what it takes to get back to the Finals in 2005.
Barry Gossage
NBAE/Getty Images
1. Connecticut Sun (2004– 18-16, first place in East)
Let's not forget that the Connecticut Sun were one shot away from winning it all last season. This a team that has really good chemistry and brings back nearly all of their key players. Yet, they always seem to get overlooked. This will be their third season in Connecticut and I picked them to finish in last each of the last two seasons. I talked to Mike Thibault and, of course, he begged me not to pick them. They like being the underdogs. Who would have thought that Connecticut, with as many rookies as they had on their roster, would go to the Finals in 2004? Forward Nykesha Sales is an All-Star and Lindsay Whalen is a smart, durable player with a year under her belt. Katie Douglas is another key to this team, Asjha Jones is a team player and quietly made a big difference for the Sun last season and Brooke Wyckoff is healthy again. After Debbie Black announced her retirement, the team brought in a number of point guards to serve as a back up to Whalen. It will be interesting to see who wins that job. Wendy Palmer signed with San Antonio in the offseason, their only other key loss. But even with that change, they will be a different team. It will be interesting to see the adjustment that Margo Dydek has to make joining a new team and starting in the middle. With her addition, Taj McWilliams-Franklin moves to the forward position. What will her transition be like? She is much more comfortable at center. Time will tell.

2. Detroit Shock (2004– 17-17, third place in East)
Champions just a year ago, the Shock are very much a contender in the Eastern Conference because they have great size and speed. Perhaps more importantly, they have that hunger to bring the title back to Detroit. It really is scary when you look at the players they have. Swin Cash, Cheryl Ford and Ruth Riley from one of the best frontcourts while guards Deanna Nolan and Elaine Powell are always underrated. Last season, they got beat in the first round by New York, but that was without a healthy Cash. In order to get back to where they want to be, the Shock need to play better together and work on their outside game. They need to find another outside shooter. Nolan can't carry them alone on the perimeter and I still think they felt the effects of losing Kedra Holland-Corn. I'm not sure Andrea Stinson is the answer, either. It is too early to say what her impact will be. Other questions: What were Cheryl Ford and Ruth Riley's offseasons like? Ford is very important for this team and needs to have a better season in year three than her second season. And what about the impact of the reserves? The bench is going to be important and I am curious to see who Coach Laimbeer cuts. Rookie center Kara Braxton doesn't have to worry about making the team. She hasn't played competitively for some time, but had she played all four years at Georgia, she would probably have been the first pick in the Draft. The signing of Niele Ivey to play behind Elaine Powell was also big for them. Ivey is a solid guard who will give you minutes off the bench, though she won't change the tempo like a Tamicha Jackson. Barbara Farris and Ayana Walker know the system, but perhaps they'll also keep a rookie like Nikita Bell. I also don't know that Dionnah Jackson is a lock to make the team though I think they will keep her because she is such an athlete.

You can never count out Vickie Johnson and the New York Liberty.
Nathaniel S. Butler
NBAE/Getty Images
3. New York Liberty (2004– 18-16, second place in East)
I think New York will be a good team this season and the team's health will make a world of difference. They did not make any big moves in the offseason, but they are a playoff sleeper again and you cannot overlook this team. Becky Hammon is playing without her knee brace and the return of Ann Wauters gives them more size in the middle. Elena Baranova played well in the offseason in Russia while veterans Crystal Robinson and Vickie Johnson are always consistent, reliable mainstays. They did lose center Tari Phillips (who played sparingly with injuries last season), but La'Keshia Frett is an important player for this team. I think rookie Loree Moore will also surprise people. Last year's rookies will also be improved. DeTrina White will be solid off the bench and Shameka Christon had a great offseason playing in Israel. This is a team that is always steady. They remind me a little of the NBA's Utah Jazz. They are always there (though this is the first year that the Jazz didn't make the playoffs in how many years…). They are like the Little Engine that Could. They have veterans who know what it takes and despite being undermanned last season, they played well and went to the Eastern Conference Finals.

4. Indiana Fever (2004 – 15-19, sixth place in East)
Indiana was very much in the playoff hunt until the final week of the 2004 season, and might have made brought in enough players to get them back to the postseason. They finished in last place, but were only four games behind the first place Sun. In Tamika Catchings, Indiana has a legitimate MVP candidate and one of the best and most exciting players in the entire league and the world. Center Natalie Williams announced that this will be her final season, but she is so strong and still has enough left in the tank. I also think that rookie Tan White is one of the few rookies who will get a real opportunity to play this year and contribute. She is a guard who knows how to score. The Fever also signed free agent point guard Tully Bevilaqua from the champion Seattle Storm. She was a leader for them off the bench, a ball-handler and had the ability to hit big shots. Her leadership and experience will have a positive effect on White and fellow rookie Yolanda Paige. The only real question that remains for the Fever is productivity at the power forward position.

The Mystics are Beard's team in 2005.
Mitchell Layton
NBAE/Getty Images
5. Washington Mystics (2004 – 17-17, fourth place in East)
The Mystics returned to the playoffs last season riding the back of first year guard Alana Beard despite potential obstacles and distractions. They look even better this year. They could also very easily make the playoffs, but I'm not sold on them being among the elite in the Eastern Conference. It will be interesting to see how this team performs. The biggest move of the offseason brought forward DeLisha Milton-Jones, a leader on two championship teams in L.A., to the nation's capitol. This is Beard's team now, but in Tamicha Jackson and rookie Temeka Johnson, the team has two small, super quick guards to join Beard in the backcourt (though first-year coach Richie Adubato has not typically been a proponent of starting rookies). Center Chasity Melvin, who played well down the stretch in 2004, is important to the success of the team. I would also like to see Iciss Tillis develop into a 3. She is 6-5, but she should be playing on the outside like a Kevin Garnett. She loves the outside and is not a banger, but she is long enough and quick enough to stay with a forward. Depending on the coaching styleyes, reuniting Tillis with Beard, her old Duke running mate, could spark her game.

6. Charlotte Sting (2004– 16-18, fifth place in East)
Like the Fever, the Charlotte Sting barely missed out on clinching an Eastern Conference playoff berth last season. That is the difference a few games can make. Looking ahead to 2005, the Sting made a number of moves that could also help them get back to the playoffs, but I'm curious about the chemistry on this team because of the new players they brought in. Even with a great leader in veteran point guard Dawn Staley, one player cannot force a positive chemistry. Also I am not sure how many players they have that can take over a game. Off guard Allison Feaster has been in the league for eight seasons and is one of the best outside shooters in the league. I love her and she is an unbelievable talent, but she doesn't always raise her play in big games. I'm not sure they have a player like that. I am not certain that Sheri Sam or Tangela Smith are the saviors. If one player does make a difference, it will be Smith. Finally, I still have concerns about their inside game and I'm still not sold on them in the middle. The top overall pick, Janel McCarville, will face a difficult adjustment in the WNBA as far as the quickness of the opponents she faces. She was held scoreless and grabbed only four rebounds in a preseason game against the Sparks last week. She does have great hands and sees the floor well, but I think every rookie that has come into the league the last few seasons will tell you just how difficult it was to get used to the speed of the game.

Stay tuned for Western Conference on Tuesday...

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