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Inside the W with Michelle Smith

Two decades ago, when it was announced the WNBA would begin play in the summer of 1997, I was pregnant with my son. He is now finishing up his freshman year in college.

As the league moved toward its opening tip, I got a call from a friend who worked for the league asking if I would be willing to do media guide bios for those first players who would make up the WNBA’s inaugural rosters. I remember working on those bios for players whose names I’d never seen, women with substantial years of international experience and myriad other accomplishments.

I remember that I typed up Cynthia Cooper’s bio that year. And Jennifer Gillom.

I remember buying a Rebecca Lobo doll and then worked up the nerve to approach Lobo during the season to tell her that I bought it for my then three-year-old daughter. I think it’s still around the house somewhere.

Throughout the years, I have covered the WNBA for everyone from the San Francisco Chronicle, to The Washington Post, to Sports Illustrated for Kids, The New York Times, AOL and ESPN.com.

I wrote four children’s books on WNBA players that you can still find online, if you searched hard enough.

The players I covered in those first years are long retired. The next generation is getting pretty close. All the while, beloved college stars have both excelled on our game’s biggest stage or struggled to make rosters in the world’s most competitive women’s basketball league.

Dominant teams came and went. Cities like Miami, Orlando, Cleveland, Houston, Sacramento and Charlotte were in and then they were out – and for what it’s worth, I’m still waiting for my team in the Bay Area.

I’m not afraid to compromise any journalistic integrity to say that for 20 years, the WNBA has earned my love, my respect and a stout defense when it’s called for. The players have always been some of the most gracious and gifted athletes I’ve ever covered. When I travel to places like Phoenix, Seattle, Minnesota and Connecticut and see how those communities support their teams, I feel proud of what’s been built over 20 years.

But in order to respect women’s basketball, you have to cover it. Really cover it. Not just personalities and personal stories. Not just unicorns and rainbows.

You have to tell stories. Basketball stories. Injury stories. Stories that are true to the effort and passion that these remarkable players have given for 20 years.

That’s what we will do here, in this space every week.

Let’s tip it off, already.

CHANGES

The biggest change in the WNBA this year will be in the postseason format with the top eight teams in the league making the postseason regardless of conference, offering up the possibility that two teams from the same conference could play for the WNBA title.

On paper, this is an important change. Western Conference teams have won 15 of the 19 league titles. An Eastern Conference team hasn’t won a title since Indiana knocked off Minnesota in 2012. In four of the last six Finals series, the West has won in a 3-0 sweep.

Does this change make the hill to climb even higher for the Eastern Conference? Does it mean that the WNBA Finals is going to turn into a Western Conference showcase? Maybe. But remember, it was the New York Liberty who won more games than any team in the league last season at 23-11. The Eastern Conference had three teams with at least 20 wins (New York, Chicago and Indiana), compared with two in the Western Conference.

The bottom line is that the league is looking to create the most competitive championship series it can. Sweeps get old, great games never do.

COMEBACKS

The return of Diana Taurasi might prove to be the comeback story of the year in WNBA, particularly if the Mercury star comes back energized and refreshed after her year away from the league. But Taurasi’s return won’t be the only one of interest.

Penny Taylor is also back for the Mercury after taking last season off. The Australian star has been a catalyst for Phoenix over the years. At 34, can she stay healthy and be that calming presence for a team with title aspirations? …

Chiney Ogwumike, the 2014 Rookie of the Year, is back in Connecticut after missing the 2015 season following microfracture surgery on her right knee. Ogwumike averaged 15.5 points and 8.5 rebounds a game in her debut campaign. Her presence on the low block should be a significant boost for the Sun, who were decimated by injuries last year and are looking to build their team with young talent, such as Ogwumike, a trio of 2016 first-round picks in Morgan Tuck, Rachel Banham and Jonquel Jones, along with third-year players like Alex Bentley and Kelsey Bone, who both made their first All-Star team last year. …

As the Dallas Wings settle into their new city, they are pretty happy to welcome back a pair of players that should go a long way toward dictating their fortunes. Skylar Diggins was having a stellar start to the season last year — leading the team to a blistering 8-1 start — before she was felled by a right ACL injury in the team’s ninth game. The WNBA’s 2014 Most Improved Player is looking for more sustained success after signing a multi-year contract extension in March.

“I’m just ready to play basketball,” Diggins said last week at Wings’ media day. “All this rehab and all this stuff just to get to this point. It’s time.”

It is also almost time for super-athletic forward Glory Johnson to get back on the floor after missing the 2015 season because of her pregnancy. It was a difficult year off for Johnson who went through her well-publicized marriage, and divorce, from Mercury center Brittney Griner and gave birth to twins prematurely. She will miss the first seven games of the season serving her suspension stemming from a domestic violence incident with Griner prior to last season.

Johnson averaged 14.7 points and a career-best 9.2 rebounds in 2014.

SIGNINGS

Janel McCarville is back in Minnesota, signing a contract after taking the 2015 season off. McCarville’s role will pretty clearly be as a backup tocenter Sylvia Fowles, whom the Lynx will be working hard to further integrate into their offense after Fowles came to them in the second half of the 2015 season and helped to lead them to a title. In fact, Fowles was the X-factor for the Lynx against the Fever in the WNBA Finals as she won Finals MVP.

McCarville, who played in Turkey this past overseas season, said she is good to play a backup role.

“I’m just trying to find a little niche in there where I can be a piece and a part of it,” McCarville said to the Twin Cities Pioneer Press earlier this week. “And hopefully get another trophy. That’s what it’s all about.”

TRADES

Two of the most interesting moves of the past few weeks have been made by the New York Liberty.

First, the team made a deal with Atlanta to acquire Shoni Schimmel, giving the third-year guard another chance to get her young career back together in New York.

Then, on Wednesday, the Liberty made a deal to bring last year’s No. 2 pick, Amanda Zahui B, to New York from Dallas in exchange for a 2017 first-round pick.

Schimmel came out of the University of Louisville two years ago as a star in the making. But the issue seems to be Schimmel’s ability to stay in top playing condition. For the second season, Schimmel reportedly arrived in Atlanta out of shape. And she has yet to play overseas in the winter.

Atlanta head coach Michael Cooper made no bones about his frustration with Schimmel when she reported to camp earlier this month, which makes her trade not very surprising.

Schimmel said in an interview with the Indian Country Today Network that she views the move as a “new opportunity.”

“This is a start of something new, everything happens for a reason,” Schimmel said. “I am just excited to be here.”

But can head coach Bill Laimbeer and his staff get through to Schimmel? Or is he willing to wait until she gets herself into playing shape, even if that takes the better half of a season, figuring that she can be a productive player for his team by season’s end when it’s time to make a postseason run?

Laimbeer has to be hoping that assistant coach – and Liberty legend – Teresa Weatherspoon can inspire Schimmel to reach the potential she showed two years ago when, as a rookie, she was the MVP of the WNBA All-Star Game.

As for Zahui B, she did not have a breakout rookie season in Tulsa. But she is a player with a lot of upside and international experience and Laimbeer has to think he can work with that. He has a great mentor for Zahui B in Tina Charles. …

Phoenix got what it needed from Monique Currie last season when Taurasi and Taylor were taking the year off. Currie averaged 8.4 points and 3.2 rebounds a game last year for the Mercury, starting all 34 games.

But with Taurasi and Taylor back on the floor, Currie became dispensable for the Mercury. So last week, Phoenix traded Currie to San Antonio for a 2017 second-round pick. The Stars could use an infusion of high-level talent, not to mention a marquee name. …

Atlanta picked up guard Layshia Clarendon from Indiana in a trade this week. Clarendon, the Cal product, averaged 6.7 points per game for the Fever last season and is known for her tough defense.

ROSTER CUTS

It’s no secret that the WNBA is a tough league in which to land a roster spot and some established veteran players have found themselves waived in this last week of tough cuts leading up to the regular season.

The biggest name to be waived this week was Swin Cash, who has been in the league for 14 years, winning a pair of titles in Detroit and another in Seattle. Cash, a four-time All-Star and two-time All-Star Game MVP, started 28 games in New York last season, averaging 4.5 points per game, matching her career-low for scoring average. …

Indiana waved guard Jeanette Pohlen on Saturday. Pohlen has been with the Fever since they drafted her out of Stanford in 2011.

Pohlen endured injuries with Indiana and hasn’t played a full season since 2012. Pohlen played 26 games last season, averaging 9.9 minutes per game, averaging 2.4 points. …

Danielle Adams was waived by San Antonio. Like Pohlen, Adams – the Texas A&M product to led the Aggies to their first NCAA title in 2011 – has been a big part of what the Stars did for the past five years, but she had her lowest scoring and rebounding season as a pro in 2015, averaging 7.4 points and 3.3 rebounds per game off the bench. …

Another notable name on the waiver wire was Jacki Gemelos, who was waived by the Chicago Sky.

Gemelos is the USC product who has one of the toughest roads in all of women’s basketball over recent years, with five ACL injuries, surgeries and rehabs. Gemelos played 17 games for the Sky last season, seeing limited minutes. …

And finally, San Antonio cut Kelsey Minato earlier this week. Minato was a standout guard from Army, who will return to the military to fulfill her post-graduation service requirement. Minato was signed by the Stars as an undrafted free agent and brought into camp. She received special permission from the Army to try-out for the Stars because of her military commitment.


Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the 2016 season.

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