Coming into the 17th WNBA season there was great anticipation that the influx of exciting new talent, coupled with the continuing emergence of already established top players -- including the 2012 U.S. Olympic Gold Medalists -- would drive the league to new heights on and off the court. As the Minnesota Lynx and their fans bask in the glow of a second championship in three years, it's fair to say this did indeed happen, with the quality of play on the court and general buzz around the league registering at an all-time high. Below, in no particular order, are some of the top highlights of the 2013 WNBA season.
It all starts with the Minnesota Lynx, who for the third straight season posted the best regular season record in the league and reached the WNBA Finals. This year, like in 2011, the Lynx topped the last team standing in the East, the Atlanta Dream. Minnesota's loss to the Indiana Fever in the 2012 WNBA Finals is the only true blemish in what is indisputably the top collection of players in the WNBA.
The Big Three (or "Three to Fear" as they've been referred to in Minnesota) of Maya Moore (2013 Finals MVP), Seimone Augustus (2011 Finals MVP) and Lindsay Whalen are deservedly now household names to fans of the W, and were the top contributors on the 2013 title team. But we'd be remiss if we didn't mention key off-season acquisition Janel McCarville, X-Factor Monica Wright, perennially under-the-radar stud Rebekkah Brunson, and emerging energy player Devereaux Peters.
Led by Head Coach Cheryl Reeve, the Lynx closed the deal again this season with Moore's power and athleticism, Augustus' silky smooth moves and Whalen's old school, point-guard-as-floor-leader skills. But with McCarville, Wright, Brunson and Peters as capable supporting players, an argument can be made that the 2013 Minnesota Lynx were the most talented and deep team in the history of the league, and they are showing no signs of slowing down.
Although the Atlanta Dream ultimately fell to the aforementioned Lynx in the Finals, there is plenty of reason for optimism in A-Town. The league's leading scorer for the second straight season, Angel McCoughtry, had arguably her best campaign ever in 2013, adding significant playmaking ability to her already impressive arsenal of offensive weapons. Brazilian post-player Erika de Souza's contributions were recognized with a 2013 All-Star appearance.
Despite the three-game Finals sweep, Game 3 may be a key indicator of big things to come in Atlanta as two young players, second-year southpaw Tiffany Hayes (out of UConn) and rookie guard Alex Bentley (Penn State) both demonstrated fighting spirit against Minnesota. Hayes scored 20 points, including 4-of-6 from three, grabbed five rebounds and dished out three assists, while Bentley had 18 points, 3-of-5 from three, six assists and three steals.
Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury came up short in 2013, as nothing less than a WNBA championship is acceptable to the fiery, title-driven Taurasi. That said, 2013 was a tumultuous season for Phoenix, with the addition of much-heralded rookie center Brittney Griner and the return of the injury-slowed Taurasi and Penny Taylor, coupled with a mid-season coaching change resulting in a topsy-turvy run that didn't end until the Mercury ran into the significant roadblock of the Lynx.
Perhaps the season's biggest highlight was Griner's clutch game-winning shot against the star-studded L.A. Sparks in the playoffs, a snapshot of the things-to-come in Phoenix, particularly if Griner can overcome the nagging injuries which slowed her progress in 2013.
HEART OF A CHAMPION
Tamika Catchings and the Fever harbored high hopes of defending their hard-earned 2012 WNBA crown at the start of 2013, as evidenced by the raucous reception they received at the White House as the season tipped.
Injuries took their toll, however, but true to form, Catchings and the Lin Dunn-led Fever made a passionate late-season run to the playoffs and managed one of the upsets of the year by knocking off the Chicago Sky in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
EDD, SKY'S THE LIMIT
There is a new team in town in the East and it's the Chicago Sky. The debut of rookie sensation Elena Delle Donne was nothing short of spectacular, with the 6-5 newcomer unveiling a dizzying display of skills: long-range shooting, sick handle and mid-range game resulting in landslide Rookie of the Year acclaim. EDD's abilities exceed the box score, as her intangibles, from her veteran-like calm in the clutch, to her savvy court-awareness, were just as impressive as her league-best percentage from the free-throw line.
Toss in an All-WNBA Team and Defensive Player of the Year performance by Sylvia Fowles and the Sky were the class of the East in 2013 before succumbing to the defending champs in their first taste of the WNBA postseason. Look for EDD and Fowles to make the Sky a perennial contender, and a legit threat for the title in 2014.
PARKER COMES OF AGE
Candace Parker made a big leap in 2013, taking MVP honors in her first All-Star Game appearance (injuries and Team USA duties prevented previous potential trips) and then earning her second league MVP crown after a stellar campaign, memorably exemplified by an overzealous celebration forever captured in this video. Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver also had strong individual campaigns, each joining Parker on the West All-Star squad. Unfortunately L.A. drew Phoenix in the highly-competitive Western Conference playoffs and in a first-round matchup of the ages, fell short to a rampant Taurasi and emerging Griner.
MR. THIBAULT GOES TO WASHINGTON
After two straight playoff-less seasons in 2011 and 2012, the Mystics opted for regime chnage in 2013 and with one broad stroke -- the hiring of proven WNBA winner Mike Thibault -- Washington enjoyed a remarkable turnaround, winning more games (17) than in the two previous seasons combined. In retrospect, bringing in Thibault was a no-brainer, as he passed legendary Houston Comets coach Van Chancellor as the winningest coach in WNBA history in his inaugural season in D.C., in addition to leading the Mystics to the playoffs, where they succumbed to the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Atlanta Dream.
Thibault relied on a mix of established veterans (Crystal Langhorne, Monique Currie and Matee Ajavon), key acquisitions (Ivory Latta and Kia Vaughn) and draft picks (Tayler Hill, Emma Meesseman and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt) to rebuild the Mystics, who can now build on the post-season experience gained in 2013 when preparing for what could be a promising 2014.
FAREWELL TO THE QUEEN
With two of the top players in the history of the game, Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, unavailable due to injury, many expected a stormy season in Seattle, but a stellar swansong by another all-time great, Tina Thompson, and gritty performances by veterans Tanisha Wright, Camille Little and Temeka Johnson resulted in a solid year for the Storm, including an impressive 10th straight postseason appearance.
Thompson, the only W player to compete in all 17 seasons, the first No. 1 pick in league history and the leading points scorer in league history, turned back the clock in her final season, leading the Storm in both scoring (14.1 ppg) and rebounding (5.8 rpg), in addition to earning a well-deserved All-Star game nod. With the recovering Bird and Jackson slated for a return in 2014, Brian Agler's Storm are on course to keep their playoff streak alive.
Riquna Williams made history on Sept. 8 2013, scoring more points in a single WNBA game than any player in the history league when she exploded for 51-points in the Shock's 98-65 win over the Silver Stars in San Antonio. The second-year guard out of the University of Miami, broke the record of 47 points, previously held by Phoenix's Diana Taurasi (in 2006) and Lauren Jackson (in 2007).
Other highlights for the Shock include the development of a promising nucleus of young players, including 2013 All-Star Glory Johnson, Aussie center Liz Cambage and much-heralded No. 3 pick Skylar Diggins.
KATIE SAYS GOODBYE
When Bill Laimbeer returned to the W for the 2013 season as Head Coach/GM of the New York Liberty, one of the first things he did was acquire the rights to one of his former Detroit Shock players, Katie Smith, for her leadership and on-court skills.
While the Liberty had a challenging 2013, Smith, a two-time WNBA champ and three-time Olympic Gold Medalist, didn't disappoint, becoming the second leading scorer in WNBA history, surpassing her former Olympic teammate Lisa Leslie, before hanging up her sneakers for the last time as a WNBA player.
With Becky Hammon and Sophia Young unavailable due to injury, several players stepped up and grabbed the additional minutes and responsibility for the San Antonio Silver Stars, particularly guards Danielle Robinson and Jia Perkins and post-presence Danielle Adams. Robinson, perhaps the speediest player in the W, not only led the league in assists, averaging 6.7 per game, but earned a Second Team All-Defense nod, as did Perkins, who averaged 13.9 ppg for San Antonio. Adams posted a team-high 14.4 ppg. Robinson also made some noise in her first WNBA All-Star game.
CHARLES IN CHARGE
Tina Charles averaged a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds per game for the Sun in a difficult transition year for Connecticut. One year after landing WNBA MVP honors, Charles was her consistent self in 2013 and also served as a hometown ambassador at the 2013 WNBA All-Star Game at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn.