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No. 2 overall pick Elizabeth Cambage, 2008 MVP Candace Parker, 2009 MVP Diana Taurasi, No. 1 overall pick Maya Moore and the return of Dan Hughes (with Becky Hammon) to the sidelines make the West tougher than 2010. (NBAE/Getty Images)

2011 Preview: The West Reloads

Kevin Pelton, StormBasketball.com | May 31, 2011

Of all the Seattle Storm's accomplishments during the 2010 championship season, the most difficult to match - for the Storm or any other WNBA team - might be this: The Storm never lost to a Western Conference playoff team all season long. En route to the title, the Storm swept both the Los Angeles Sparks and Phoenix Mercury 7-0, the first time in league history one team had beaten another foe so many times in a single season. The Storm also won all four games against the other playoff team from the West, the San Antonio Silver Stars. Despite losses to both of the West teams that ended up in the lottery (the Minnesota Lynx and Tulsa Shock), the Storm still finished with the best in-conference record in league history at 20-2 in the regular season.

In part, the Storm certainly benefited from what figures to be a short-lived decline in the strength of the rest of the Western Conference. None of the other teams in the West finished above .500, and the East dominated the head-to-head matchup between the two conferences by a 49-23 margin despite the Storm's own 8-4 record in interconference games. That was a major change from 2009, when the East and West won an equal number of games against each other.

SPARKS CAPSULE

Coach: Jennifer Gillom
2010 Record: 13-21
Expected Wins: 13.3
Off. Rating: 101.8 (9th)
Def. Rating: 105.5 (9th)

Returning starters: PG Ticha Penicheiro, G Noelle Quinn, F DeLisha Milton-Jones, F Tina Thompson, F/C Candace Parker
Key newcomers: F/C Ebony Hoffman (FA), C Jantel Lavender (draft)
Key losses: G Betty Lennox (FA)

A season later, the West is likely to bounce back quickly. Teams like Los Angeles and Minnesota that battled injuries are now healthy, and the West benefited from the down campaign by earning the top two picks in the WNBA Draft and four of the top six. Suddenly, the balance of star power appears to have shifted to the West.

Back in Action

The Sparks did not need a draft pick or a trade to add a superstar to their lineup. All it took was rehab time after Candace Parker underwent season-ending surgery on her left shoulder in June. Without Parker, Los Angeles rallied around its veteran core of Ticha Penicheiro, DeLisha Milton-Jones and Tina Thompson to make the playoffs. In a story that sounds familiar in Seattle, the Sparks did not have enough talent without Parker to make a run during the postseason.

Now, Parker is back and healthier than she's been in years. After all, her shoulder problems dated back to her last year at Tennessee, when she first suffered the injury during the NCAA Tournament before leading the Lady Vols to a championship. Parker's 2009 campaign got off to a late start because she gave birth to daughter Lailaa. During Parker's only full WNBA season to date, she won MVP honors.

During the draft, the Sparks added more size. Following Lisa Leslie's retirement, Parker was playing out of position at center early last season. Gillom has another option this year in 6-4 Ohio State product Jantel Lavender, the No. 5 overall pick. Still, down the stretch Los Angeles will likely rely heavily on Parker, Milton-Jones, Penicheiro and Thompson.

LYNX CAPSULE

Coach: Cheryl Reeve
2010 Record: 13-21
Expected Wins: 13.2
Off. Rating: 98.3 (11th)
Def. Rating: 102.8 (8th)

Returning starters: PG Lindsay Whalen, SG Candice Wiggins, SF Seimone Augustus, F/C Rebekkah Brunson
Key newcomers: F/C Amber Harris (draft), C Taj McWilliams (FA), F Maya Moore (draft)
Key losses: C Nicky Anosike (trade)

"That veteran group, they're battle-tested," said Storm Head Coach Brian Agler. "There's a tremendous amount of experience on that team. With Candace Parker healthy - and it looks like she's lively - I think they're going to be a tough opponent."

Besides Ace, Ice is back too. That's the similarly named Candice Wiggins of the Lynx, who ruptured her left Achilles tendon in late June and was lost for the year after just eight games. (Arthroscopic knee surgery had previously caused Wiggins to miss the start of the schedule.) Without Wiggins, Minnesota had to rely more heavily than expected on rookie Monica Wright. The Lynx also had less offensive help for Seimone Augustus, who was returning herself from a torn ACL and surgery to remove painful fibroids from her abdomen. Minnesota enters this season with everyone healthy, as well as an important new piece.

The New Kids

Despite their injuries, the Lynx entered the final week of the season with a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004. The pain of adding another year to the WNBA's longest playoff drought was eased in November, when Minnesota won the WNBA Draft Lottery and the right to make Connecticut star Maya Moore the No. 1 overall pick. Moore, who won a pair of championships in college, became the first player in NCAA history to win the Wade Trophy three times.

Storm guard Sue Bird, who played with Moore on the U.S. team that won the FIBA World Championship last September, thinks the rookie has immense potential.

MERCURY CAPSULE

Coach: Corey Gaines
2010 Record: 15-19
Expected Wins: 17.1
Off. Rating: 111.3 (1st)
Def. Rating: 111.0 (12th)

Returning starters: PG Temeka Johnson, SG Diana Taurasi, SF Penny Taylor, F/C Candice Dupree
Key newcomers: C Nakia Sanford (FA)
Key losses: C Tangela Smith (FA)

"She can be great," said Bird. "She is great, but she has a chance to be really great. Her jump shot from anywhere is as pure as anyone's. You don't look at her the way you do Diana (Taurasi) and Katie Smith with them, you think shooter automatically. Maya's stroke is just as good if not better. She really has one of the best looking jumpers, and it's the same every time. She can virtually get her shot off against anyone, and that's what makes her so tough."

Losing out on Moore was painful for the Shock, which finished with the league's worst record during its first season in Tulsa, but the No. 2 pick provided an impressive consolation in the form of 6-8 Australian Elizabeth Cambage. Cambage is big enough that Storm center Ashley Robinson (6-4 herself) marveled at her height before Sunday's preseason game at KeyArena, yet is also skilled and mobile. The package makes her the most talented Australian product since Lauren Jackson.

Like Jackson, Cambage will have to adjust to the American game. She's also just 19 - more than two years younger than Moore, for one. Sunday's 1-of-7 shooting effort against Jackson, after which Cambage admitted intense nerves, might not be her last learning experience. Agler hopes that expectations are realistic for both Cambage and Moore.

"The bottom line is they're going to be exceptional players," he said. "They're All-Star-caliber players. But when people start trying to compare Liz to Lauren or Maya to Diana, you're really doing those players a disservice. Right now, they're probably not there. Can they get to that level? In their own way, they probably can. They'll be their own players, but they have that kind of potential."

SILVER STARS CAPSULE

Coach: Dan Hughes
2010 Record: 14-20
Expected Wins: 13.4
Off. Rating: 103.1 (5th)
Def. Rating: 107.6 (10th)

Returning starters: G Becky Hammon, SF Roneeka Hodges, PF Sophia Young
Key newcomers: G Tully Bevilaqua (FA), G Jia Perkins (trade), G Danielle Robinson (draft), G Scholanda Robinson (trade)
Key losses: C Michelle Snow (trade)

Coaching Continuity

Part of the explanation for why the West struggled in 2010 can be traced to the high degree of change throughout the conference. Four of the six teams changed coaches. Gillom, Minnesota's Cheryl Reeve and Tulsa's Nolan Richardson all have had a full year to implement their systems. That leaves only a single new face on the sidelines, and he's not really new at all. After a year upstairs in the role of general manager, Dan Hughes returns as San Antonio's head coach with the goal of improving a defense that slipped to an uncharacteristic 10th in the WNBA last season.

"I know that he really enjoys the defensive side of the game," said Agler, who assisted Hughes with the Silver Stars from 2005-07. "They're more athletic on the perimeter. I look for them to really try to pressure the basketball and try to make things happen off their defense in the open court. They've got good depth on the perimeter. I think if they get the game played their way, they've got a chance to be extremely competitive. I think they've got a chance to be better than maybe a lot of people around the league think they're going to be."

Hungry Mercury

For Phoenix, which kicks off the 2011 Saturday at KeyArena (12 noon, ABC, KPTK 1090 AM, ), it's not really about new additions. What makes the 2007 and 2009 WNBA champions so dangerous - besides the fact that it's an odd-numbered year - is Taurasi's attitude. Taurasi, it is no secret, doesn't take kindly to losing - even, possibly especially, to her close friends on the Storm. Taurasi and teammate Penny Taylor are also well rested after a false positive on a drug test conducted while Taurasi was playing in Turkey caused both players to leave Fenerbahce and spend the remainder of the offseason working out in the U.S.

SHOCK CAPSULE

Coach: Nolan Richardson
2010 Record: 6-28
Expected Wins: 3.8
Off. Rating: 95.4 (12th)
Def. Rating: 110.5 (11th)

Returning starters: PG Ivory Latta, PF Tiffany Jackson
Key newcomers: C Elizabeth Cambage (draft), SG Betty Lennox (FA), F Kayla Pedersen (draft), SF Sheryl Swoopes (FA)
Key losses: SG Shanna Crossley (injury), C Nicole Ohlde (retirement),SG Scholanda Robinson (trade)

"Obviously not their choice," said Bird, "but it's still the truth of the matter and they're going to be hungry. I know they didn't like how their season ended. I don't think any of those teams liked how their season ended, so they're going to be very hungry."

Storm guard Tanisha Wright doesn't totally buy the conventional wisdom, however. Wright, who has been guarding Taurasi since both players were in college, contends that Taurasi is always hungry no matter the circumstances. After all, to beat the Mercury in last year's Western Conference Finals, the Storm needed to overcome Taurasi's 28 points and seven three-pointers in Game 2. That hard-fought series reflected that the margin between the two teams was far closer than the regular-season standings indicated. And Agler thinks Phoenix will improve with a full season of Kara Braxton and the addition of reserve post Nakia Sanford.

"Tangela Smith is more of a stretch-the-defense-type post player," said Agler. "Now they've got more physical post players around the rim. They're trying to improve their rebounding situation. They've added Marie Ferdinand-Harris, who's an exceptional one-on-one player and great athlete. Knowing them, they're probably anticipating working to win a championship. I think there are multiple teams in the West that have the potential to do that."

Just like everyone else in the conference, the Mercury's goal is to get where the Storm was last season. With more talent and better health in the West, the Storm is in for a series of tough tests.

"Everyone in the Western Conference got better, from the top team to the bottom team," said Wright. "So it's going to be a dogfight each and every game, especially when you're playing Western Conference teams. They're going to be big games. You've got to come out and be prepared and be focused for those games. It's amazing how much better the Western Conference has gotten."

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