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Los Angeles-Phoenix Preview

Before opening the 2008 season, the Phoenix Mercury will receive their championship rings and raise their title banner to the rafters of the US Airways Center.

The Los Angeles Sparks, meanwhile, are just one year removed from finishing with the worst record in the WNBA, but have their sights set on a championship run of their own this season.

With the return of three-time league MVP Lisa Leslie and the addition of No. 1 overall pick Candace Parker, the Sparks begin their quest to go from worst to first when they visit the defending champion Mercury on Saturday.

Los Angeles went a franchise-worst 10-24 last season, missed the playoffs for the first time since 1998 and was forced to deal with a number of setbacks.

Leslie missed all of 2007 on maternity leave and six-time All-Star Chamique Holdsclaw retired just five games into the season. Point guard Temeka Johnson, the 2005 WNBA Rookie of the Year, also missed 23 games because of offseason knee surgery.

Leslie and Johnson are both back and healthy for 2008, but the Sparks' biggest offseason addition was the selection of Parker in the draft.

Parker, one of the most celebrated women's basketball players ever, was named the 2008 AP women's college basketball player of the year after leading Tennessee to a second straight NCAA title. She is a three-time collegiate All-American, and is expected to make an immediate impact in the WNBA.

Los Angeles also reacquired two-time Olympian and two-time All-Star DeLisha Milton-Jones, who was on the Sparks' championship teams in 2001 and '02, from Washington last month.

"The team went 10-24 last year, but this year's team isn't a 10-24 team," Parker said.

A survey of general managers on WNBA.com predicted the Sparks will win the 2008 title, Leslie will win the league MVP and Parker will be named rookie of the year.

Despite being away from the game for a year, Leslie didn't show any rust in three preseason games, averaging 16.0 points and 6.7 rebounds to help lead Los Angeles to a perfect record in exhibition play.

"You kind of take her greatness for granted," Sparks coach Michael Cooper said. "And it is a true joy to watch (Parker) play and the way she plays. The exciting thing about it is she plays the game above the rim. Both of these do, so it's fun to watch and it's fun to coach."

While everything seems to be lining up for a Los Angeles playoff run, its early schedule could present some problems. The Sparks play their first five games on the road before their home opener versus the Mercury on June 6.

Phoenix, which went 23-11 last season en route to the franchise's first title, will recognize the 2007 championship team Saturday, but the 2008 squad will have a new look.

Penny Taylor, who averaged 17.8 points and 6.3 rebounds in 2007, is skipping this season so she can play for Australia at the Beijing Olympics. There is a chance she could return for the Mercury's final seven games, though.

"Last year is over. Penny's not coming back," first-year Phoenix coach Corey Gaines said. "So that may give us an incentive to play even harder, and now we can do it without Penny."

Gaines was an assistant under former coach Paul Westhead each of the last two seasons and played for him at Loyola Marymount in 1987-88.

In spite of the coaching change and the absence of Taylor, the Mercury return a solid core led by Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter.

Taurasi averaged a team-high 19.2 points last season, while Pondexter was named finals MVP after averaging 22.0 points in the five-game series against Detroit.

The Mercury took two of three from the Sparks last season with Pondexter averaging 20.3 points in those games.

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