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Preseason Power Rankings: Can Anyone Catch the Lynx and Sparks?

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.

Over the past two years, the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks have been head and shoulders above the rest of the league. And thanks to the new playoff format implemented in 2016, the two Western Conference powerhouses have been able to meet in the WNBA Finals. The result has been two epic series and a championship for each team.

How good have the Lynx and Sparks been? Take a look at the combined record of every team over the past two years.

Team W L Win%
Minnesota Lynx 55 13 0.809
Los Angeles Sparks 52 16 0.765
New York Liberty 43 25 0.632
Connecticut Sun 35 33 0.515
Phoenix Mercury 34 34 0.500
Washington Mystics 31 37 0.456
Seattle Storm 31 37 0.456
Chicago Sky 30 38 0.441
Atlanta Dream 29 39 0.426
Dallas Wings 27 41 0.397
Indiana Fever 26 42 0.382
S.A. Stars/Las Vegas Aces 15 53 0.221

 

Their domination goes beyond the regular season, as they have combined to go 12-1 in the Semifinals over the past two playoffs, with both teams sweeping their way to the Finals last season. Both teams returned their core pieces and look poised for another championship run.

The question heading into the season is which of the other 10 teams can challenge their dominance; which team or teams can slay the mighty and prevent a third straight Lynx-Sparks Finals? Of course, we have the next three months to watch that question be answered. But as we get ready to tip off the WNBA’s 22nd season, here is a look at how the teams stack up after a busy offseason of player movement, key signings and draft selections.


1. Minnesota Lynx

2017 Season: 27-7, Won WNBA Finals

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The defending champs open the season atop the power rankings, looking to successfully defend their title for the first time in four tries. Minnesota returns it loaded starting five: Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore, Rebekkah Brunson and reigning MVP Sylvia Fowles. But after that, there are some new faces to incorporate into the system, as much of the supporting cast from last season has either joined a new team (Renee Montgomery to Atlanta, Natasha Howard to Seattle) or retired (Jia Perkins, Plenette Pierson).

The Lynx are a veteran squad that will need to manage minutes for its starters, so how quickly the new arrivals — Danielle Robinson, Tanisha Wright and Lynetta Kizer – can assimilate and produce will be imperative for their success.


2. Los Angeles Sparks

2017 Season: 26-8, Lost WNBA Finals

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After feeling the joy of winning the championship in dramatic fashion in 2016, the Sparks felt the crush of losing a championship in a winner-take-all Game 5 last October in Minnesota. There is no better motivation than failure and the Sparks will enter the 2018 season with a chip on their collective shoulder after last fall’s missed opportunity.

The Sparks brought back their entire core from last season — Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Chelsea Gray, Odyssey Sims and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Alana Beard — and made a pair of key acquisitions in veteran guard Cappie Pondexter and rookie center Maria Vadeeva. Both players make an already talented squad even deeper as they look to get back to the Finals for a third straight year and right the wrongs of last year’s Game 5.


3. Connecticut Sun

2017 Season: 21-13, Lost 2nd Round

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The Sun were the surprise breakout team of 2017, rebounding from a 1-5 start to finish 21-13 and earning a playoff berth for the first time since 2012. While their playoff run was short-lived as they lost in the single-elimination second round, 2017 was an important year for the franchise. Curt Miller was named Coach and Executive of the Year, and Jonquel Jones was named Most Improved Player and was joined by Alyssa and Jasmine Thomas at the 2017 All-Star Game.

As the 2018 season begins, it is time for Connecticut to take the next step toward title contention, and they’ll have to do it with elevated expectations. The Sun have two key additions that will help them take that next step. First, Chiney Ogwumike is back after recovering from Achilles surgery last season. Second, in the draft, the Sun added Duke guard Lexie Brown, who gives them another 3-point shooter and an excellent perimeter defender.


4. Phoenix Mercury

2017 Season: 18-16, Lost Semifinals

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Over the past two seasons, Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner have led the Mercury to the Playoffs despite ups and downs throughout the regular season. Once in the postseason, the Mercury have advanced to the Semifinals each year, only to be thwarted just one step away from the WNBA Finals and a chance to win the franchise’s fourth championship.

Last season, Taurasi became the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer while Griner won her first scoring title as her offense rose to the level of her already elite defense. To help Taurasi and Griner get back to the playoffs and make another run at the championship, the Mercury added point guard Briann January from Indiana, forward Sancho Lyttle from Atlanta and welcomed back three-time Sixth Woman of the Year DeWanna Bonner after she missed the 2017 after giving birth to twins. In the draft, the Mercury added Marie Gülich, who will back up Griner at center.

How long it takes for the new pieces to gel with the returning stars will go a long way in determining whether Phoenix can enter the postseason as a top four seed with a first-round bye or near the bottom of the playoff field as they have been the past two seasons.


5. Dallas Wings

2017 Season: 16-18, Lost 1st Round

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The Wings made the biggest splash of the offseason with the signing of Liz Cambage to return to the WNBA after a four-year hiatus. The 6-foot-8 center out of Australia was the No. 2 pick in the 2011 Draft by the then-Tulsa Shock. After playing in Tulsa in 2011 and 2013, she chose to leave the WNBA and return to Australia to play professionally and for her national team.

Adding a player of Cambage’s size and skill can be a game-changer for the Wings on both ends of the floor. And if that wasn’t enough, the Wings also drafted versatile 6-6 forward Azura Stevens out of UConn in the first round of the 2018 Draft to further bolster their frontline. Those moves improve a talented roster that already included All-WNBA First Team point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith and reigning Rookie of the Year Allisha Gray, making the Wings a candidate to make a leap in 2018.


6. New York Liberty

2017 Season: 22-12, Lost 2nd Round

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Over the past three seasons, the Liberty have seen a lot of regular season success (66-36, tied for the second-best record in the league) and postseason frustrations (one playoff series win in 2015, followed by single-game eliminations in 2016 and 2017). As they look for a playoff breakthrough, they will do so with a new head coach as Katie Smith takes over for the departed Bill Laimbeer, now with Las Vegas. The Liberty will also open a new home — the Westchester County Center in White Plains, N.Y. — as the Madison Square Garden Company continues to pursue a sale to a new owner.

While ownership is in flux and the coaching staff has changed, the majority of the roster from last season is back in 2018, including centerpiece Tina Charles. In addition to the veteran core holdovers from last year, the Liberty also signed free agent wing Marissa Coleman and added guard Kia Nurse and center Mercedes Russell in the WNBA Draft in order to add depth to the roster.


7. Seattle Storm

2017 Season: 15-19, Lost 1st Round

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After a roller-coaster season in 2017, the Storm enter 2018 with their third head coach in a 12-month span. Former San Antonio Stars head man Dan Hughes came out of retirement (a brief one-year hiatus) to take the reigns of a talented Storm team looking to make a deeper playoff run after back-to-back first round exits.

Leading the way for the Storm is the incomparable Sue Bird, who last year posted a career-best 6.6 assists in her 15th WNBA season and became the all-time leader in the category. Of course, to get assists you have to have teammates making buckets and Bird has two of the best young scorers in the game to dish to — Breanna Stewart finished as the second-leading scorer in the WNBA (19.9 ppg) in her second season and Jewell Loyd finished ninth (17.7 ppg) in her third season.

The Stewart-Loyd duo is not only the future of the franchise, but is key to the present team making a championship run in Bird’s twilight seasons of her WNBA career. The Storm added Bird’s heir apparent in the 2018 Draft with the selection of Jordin Canada out of UCLA. Canada’s ability to provide a spark and help limit the minutes load on Bird will help Seattle as they push towards the postseason once again.


8. Washington Mystics

2017 Season: 18-16, Lost Semifinals

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It is Year 2 of the Elena Delle Donne era in the nation’s capital as the Mystics look to build on last season’s improvements. Washington went from 13 to 18 wins in the regular season despite a rash of injuries (including nine missed games by Delle Donne) and advanced past the second round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The Mystics were eliminated by the Lynx in the Semifinals, but still took a major step forward with their new-look roster.

The Mystics bring back the majority of their team, but will be missing two key pieces to open the season: center Emma Meesseman will miss the season as she fulfills commitments to the Belgian national team and Tayler Hill will miss the opening month of the seasons as she continues to recover from her ACL tear last July. The team added veterans Monique Currie and Devereaux Peters in free agency and drafted guard Ariel Atkins with their first round pick in the 2018 Draft. The Mystics must stay healthy if they hope for another deep playoff run, especially with Meesseman out for the year.


9. Atlanta Dream

2017 Season: 12-22, Missed Playoffs

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The Dream are not your average team coming off a 12-win season. They return three All-Stars from last season (Tiffany Hayes, Layshia Clarendon and Elizabeth Williams) and added key free agents (Renee Montgomery from Minnesota and Jessica Breland from Chicago). And all of that is before mentioning the return of Angel McCoughtry, a six-time All-WNBA selection who owns the fourth-highest scoring average in WNBA history.

The Dream also have a new voice calling the shots as Nicki Collen replaces Michael Cooper after spending the past two seasons as an assistant in Connecticut. Collen wants the Dream to run and defend and has the talent on the roster to do just that. The question is how long will it take for all of the pieces to come together as a cohesive unit. Atlanta has made the playoffs in seven of its first 10 seasons, has made three Finals appearances and has never missed the postseason in back-to-back years. McCoughtry has only missed the playoffs once in her career and enters 2018 rested and ready to make sure it stays that way.


10. Chicago Sky

2017 Season: 12-22, Missed Playoffs

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Last season was a year of transition for the Sky. Out was franchise star Elena Delle Donne and head coach Pokey Chatman, in was new head coach Amber Stocks with a new system to learn and new faces to incorporate. As a result of the transition along with injuries and players missing games due to overseas commitments, the Sky opened the season 3-12. However, the team went 9-10 the rest of the way to finish the season on a higher note than their 12-22 record would indicate.

The season saw highlights with Courtney Vandersloot setting a record for the highest assists average in league history (8.1 per game) and Stefanie Dolson, who came over in the Delle Donne trade, earning an All-Star selection. While Allie Quigley was not an All-Star, she did win the 3-point contest during the weekend festivities in Seattle.

In addition to the returning veterans, the Sky have a trio of lottery picks set to make their WNBA debuts this season, with Diamond DeShields and Gabby Williams selected Nos. 3 and 4 in this year’s draft and Alaina Coates selected No. 2 in last year’s draft but missing the season due to injury. That influx of talent along with the core group that returns raises the ceiling for the Sky in 2018. They have the potential to not only challenge for a playoff berth this season but make a bit of noise once they get there if the rookies shine in their first year in the WNBA.


11. Las Vegas Aces

2017 Season: 8-26, Missed Playoffs

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Is Las Vegas set to become a sports town? On the heels of the Golden Knights’ playoff run in the NHL, the Aces should see marked improvement from their final three seasons in San Antonio, when they won a combined 23 games. In addition to the new city, new arena and new identity, the Aces also have a new head coach/general manager in Bill Laimbeer, who brings a wealth of experience to the new franchise.

Laimbeer is a two-time WNBA Coach of the Year that has experience in turning around teams. He inherits a team stocked with lottery picks as the team has missed the playoffs in three straight years and four of the last five. In addition to a young, talented backcourt headlined by Kayla McBride (2014 No. 3 overall pick), Moriah Jefferson (2016 No. 2 overall pick) and Kelsey Plum (2017 No. 1 pick), the Aces added A’ja Wilson with the top pick in April’s draft.

Wilson enters the WNBA as one of the most highly-touted prospects in recent years. She swept every national player of the year award as a senior at South Carolina (where they are building a statue in her honor) and was the consensus No. 1 pick in this year’s draft. The 6-4 center has the size and skills to be an impact player in this league from Day 1. The Aces are counting on that as they look to make the playoffs in their inaugural season in Las Vegas and showcase WNBA basketball at its highest level to a brand new audience.


12. Indiana Fever

2017 Season: 9-25, Missed Playoffs

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Last season, the Fever saw their WNBA-record streak of 12 consecutive playoff appearances come to an end in the first year of the post-Tamika Catchings era. While it was disappointing to see the streak come to an end, it did provide the Fever with their first lottery pick since 2005. The Fever entered April’s draft with the Nos. 2, 8 and 14 picks and used those selections to replenish their roster with young talent — guards Kelsey Mitchell and Victoria Vivians and forward Stephanie Mavunga — to complement the veteran holdovers from last season.

With the departure of Briann January (traded to Phoenix), Erlana Larkins is the only remaining player on the roster from Indiana’s 2012 championship team. Larkins and six-time All-Star Candice Dupree will serve as the veteran mentors to this young squad. For the Fever to start a new playoff streak, it will need the rookies to develop quickly and contribute on both ends of the floor as the Fever ranked 11th in offense and 12th in defense a season ago.