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Power Rankings: Getting Ready For Tip-Off

Note: WNBA.com’s Power Rankings, released every Tuesday during the season, are the opinion of this writer and do not reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.

One point and 3.1 seconds. That is all that separated the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx in last year’s epic WNBA Finals.

It’s been nearly seven months since Nneka Ogwumike hit the game-winning and championship-clinching putback over the outstretched arm of Sylvia Fowles. Even after an offseason filled with player movement, coaching changes and one particular blockbuster trade, there is still very little that separates the two teams as the 2017 season approaches.

The preseason power rankings begin with the last two teams standing from last season, with the defending champion Sparks holding the ever-so-slight edge over the Lynx.

Click here to view this week’s AP Power Poll

1. Los Angeles Sparks

Last Season: 26-8; Won WNBA Finals

The defending champs return much of their roster from last season with the notable exception of point guard Kristi Toliver, who joined Washington as a free agent. To help fill the void left by Toliver, the Sparks acquired Odyssey Sims from Dallas and get Riquna Williams back from injury. L.A. still has defensive standout Alana Beard on the perimeter and the MVP duo of Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike on the frontline. After winning their first title in 14 years last October, the Sparks will look to be the first WNBA team to repeat since the Lisa Leslie era Sparks did back in 2002.

2. Minnesota Lynx

Last Season: 28-6; Lost WNBA Finals

Since the 2011 season, the Lynx have played in five of six WNBA Finals and won three championships. They have been the gold standard for the WNBA over that period of time – a championship threat every time they step on the court. A team like that doesn’t need any added motivation, but the heartbreaking fashion in which they fell short of title No. 4 last October should give the Lynx more fuel to add to their ever-burning fire. Minnesota brings back its entire core from last year – a team that finished with a league-best 28-6 record and featured the top offense (107.2 OffRtg) and top defense (96.4 DefRtg) in the WNBA. An added benefit for the Lynx is that most of their core group opted not to play overseas during the offseason, giving them added time to recover and prepare for the 2017 WNBA season. While many teams are still waiting for key players to return to the U.S., the Lynx have had nearly their full complement of players (Rebekkah Brunson and Natasha Howard still had commitments at the start of training camp) available.

3. Washington Mystics

Last Season: 13-21; Missed Playoffs

The biggest headline of the WNBA offseason was the January trade of Elena Delle Donne from the Chicago Sky to the Washington Mystics. In addition to adding the 2015 WNBA MVP in her prime, the Mystics also signed Kristi Toliver as a free agent, giving them a veteran guard with championship experience to lead Mike Thibault’s system. Those additions have turned a team that finished with the third-worst record (13-21) in the league last season into contenders to challenge the New York Liberty in the Eastern Conference. While it will take time for these new additions to jell with Washington’s returning players, the ceiling for this team is extremely high.

4. New York Liberty

Last Season: 21-13; Lost in 2nd Round

New York has been the best team in the Eastern Conference the last two years, but has not been able to translate that regular season success into a deep playoff run. Tina Charles was unbelievable last season, becoming the third player in WNBA history to lead the league in both scoring (21.5 ppg) and rebounding (9.9 rpg) in the same season. However, the Liberty need more offense to surround their MVP caliber center. Last season, Sugar Rodgers was the only other Liberty player to average double figures in scoring (14.5) as New York had the second-worst offensive rating in the league (100.3). Acquiring Bria Hartley and getting Epiphanny Prince back for a full season will definitely help, but will it be enough? Armed with an outstanding defense (third-best 99.5 DefRtg), the Liberty don’t have to become a league-leading offense, but getting to league average would give them much better balance.

5. Seattle Storm

Last Season: 16-18; Lost in 1st Round

On her way to winning Rookie of the Year honors, Breanna Stewart finished sixth in the WNBA in scoring (18.3 ppg), second in rebounds (9.3) and third in blocks (1.88). What will she do for an encore in 2017? Behind Stewart’s outstanding debut, a strong sophomore season from Jewell Loyd and a resurgent season from veteran point guard Sue Bird, the Storm returned to the playoffs after a two-year absence last season. The Storm hit their stride down the stretch of last season – going 7-3 after the Olympic break – and should build on that momentum this season. Two questions to keep in mind: how soon will Bird return from knee surgery and how will newly acquired center Carolyn Swords fit into the mix?

6. Phoenix Mercury

Last Season: 16-18; Lost in Semifinals

As evidence of how up and down the 2016 season was for Phoenix, the team was pegged by the league’s GMs as title favorites in the preseason, snuck into the final playoff spot in the closing week of the regular season, then went on to win a pair of single-elimination playoff rounds on the road to make the semifinals before being swept by Minnesota. Since then, much has changed in the desert with Penny Taylor retiring, Candice Dupree traded and DeWanna Bonner pregnant. That leaves Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner as the core players for Phoenix and a lot of new pieces to fit in around them. That new group includes three-time All-Star point guard Danielle Robinson, who comes over from San Antonio after missing all of last season due to injury, as well as veteran forward Camille Little to replace Dupree.

7. Indiana Fever

Last Season: 17-17; Lost in 1st Round

This is the first season of the Indiana Fever, A.C. … After Catchings. The legendary forward had been a stalwart for the Fever for 15 seasons before retiring at the end of the 2016 season. In addition to losing their veteran leader on the court, the Fever also have a new head coach in Pokey Chatman, who joins the Fever after a six-year run with the Chicago Sky. Can the Fever extend their record playoff streak for a 13th season without Catchings and under new leadership? While Briann January and Erlana Larkins are the only holdovers from Indiana’s 2012 championship team, the Fever have plenty of veterans to lean on, including newly acquired forward Candice Dupree. They also have promising young talent to develop, led by last year’s All-Rookie selection Tiffany Mitchell and 2017 top draft pick Erica McCall.

8. Dallas Wings

Last Season: 11-23; Missed Playoffs

The Wings enter their second season in Dallas looking to rebound from last year’s 11-23 debut. While the 2016 season showed some signs of promise, it was overshadowed by an 11-game losing streak that doomed any playoff hopes and sent the Wings to the draft lottery. Dallas had three of the top 10 picks in the draft – acquiring one pick in exchange for leading scorer Odyssey Sims – and selected Evelyn Akhator, Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis to add to their young core led by Skylar Diggins-Smith, Aerial Powers and Glory Johnson. The Wings have a lot of talent on this team, but will need to come together quickly to make a playoff push.

9. Atlanta Dream

Last Season: 17-17; Lost in 2nd Round

The Dream enter the 2017 season without six-time All-WNBA selection Angel McCoughtry, who will sit out the season to rest after eight years of non-stop basketball. McCoughtry is one of the top two-way players in the league; she finished 2016 ranked fourth in the league in both scoring (19.5 ppg) and steals (1.6 spg) while earning her seventh All-Defensive First Team selection. Head coach Michael Cooper has the challenge of finding the right lineups to help replace that production on a nightly basis. It starts with the core of Tiffany Hayes (15.4 ppg), Layshia Clarendon (10.4) and last year’s Most Improved Player Elizabeth Williams (11.9 ppg, 8.1 rpg). But which other players will step up to continue to pick up the slack and provide the depth needed to return to the playoffs?

10. Chicago Sky

Last Season: 18-16, Lost in Semifinals

How do you replace Elena Delle Donne? That’s the question the Sky will try to answer this season. And they will do so with a rookie head coach – Amber Stocks, who comes to Chicago after being part of Brian Agler’s championship staff in L.A. last season. In return for Delle Donne, the Sky received center Stefanie Dolson and wing Kahleah Copper, who should be able to help the squad immediately. They also acquired the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft, which they used to select center Alaina Coates, who will miss part of the WNBA season after an ankle injury that cut her senior season at South Carolina short required surgery. Much of the load of replacing Delle Donne will fall on the veteran core of Cappie Pondexter, Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and Tamera Young – a group that helped the Sky win a pair of playoff games while Delle Donne was sidelined with a thumb injury last season. The development of second-year center Imani Boyette will also be key for the Sky. Boyette finished seventh in the league in blocks (1.35 bpg) while playing under 19 minutes per game as a rookie.

11. Connecticut Sun

Last Season: 14-20; Missed Playoffs

Chiney Ogwumike won Rookie of the Year honors and was named an All-Star in 2014, missed the 2015 season after microfracture knee surgery, returned in 2016 to average 12.6 points and 6.7 rebounds, but will be out again for 2017 after suffering a torn Achilles’ while playing overseas. Losing a franchise player for the second time in three years will once again be difficult to overcome as the Sun try to make it back to the postseason for the first time since 2012. The team is stocked with young talent – last year’s trio of first round picks Morgan Tuck, Rachel Banham and Jonquel Jones as well as this year’s selection Brionna Jones – for coach Curt Miller to develop. For the Sun to challenge for a playoff berth, one of those young players needs a breakout season to complement veterans Alex Bentley (12.9 ppg), Jasmine Thomas (11.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and newly acquired Lynetta Kizer (9.6 ppg and 3.2 rpg in just 17.2 mpg last year in Indiana).

12. San Antonio Stars

Last Season: 7-27; Missed Playoffs

The Stars won just 15 games over the past two seasons combined, but in return have a talented group of young players to build upon. In the backcourt, the Stars have a trio of top three picks from the past four WNBA Drafts – Kelsey Plum (No. 1, 2017), Moriah Jefferson (No. 2, 2016) and Kayla McBride (No. 3, 2014). Jefferson’s promising rookie campaign led to the trade of Danielle Robinson, which landed the Stars the No. 5 pick in the draft, which they used on Nia Coffey, a versatile forward to develop. That development will come under new head coach Vickie Johnson, a former Stars player that served as an assistant under former coach Dan Hughes for the past six seasons. How quickly the Stars’ young talent develops along with Johnson’s transition from an assistant to the lead voice of the team will help determine San Antonio’s future.


ASSOCIATED PRESS POWER POLL

1. Los Angeles
2. Minnesota
3. New York
4. Washington
5. Seattle
6. Phoenix
7. Indiana
8. Atlanta
9. Dallas
10. Chicago
11. Connecticut
12. San Antonio

Click here to view the full rankings on AP.org