2004 Western Conference Preview

Analyst Ann Meyers will be a part of the ABC and ESPN2 broadcast teams for WNBA games this season. After breaking down the Eastern Conference, Meyers analyzes Western Conference team's offseason moves and their chances for the summer ahead and predicts their order of finish.

Lisa Leslie gets better every year.
Jesse D. Garrabrandt
WNBAE/Getty Images
1. Los Angeles Sparks(2003 � 24-10, first place in West)
Like the team that beat them in the 2003 WNBA Finals, the Los Angeles Sparks have all five starters returning this season, and their roster has a good blend of veterans and new faces. Opposing teams will know what to expect from Los Angeles. Lisa Leslie. If Shaquille O�Neal is the most dominant center in the NBA, Leslie is the most dominant player in the WNBA and the best player in the world. She makes herself better and better every year, working hard in the offseason and doing whatever she needs to keep improving. She takes great pride in her defense, her conditioning is remarkable, and if she did not miss a few games last season, the Sparks could have won even more games and that might have propelled them to a third title. Nikki Teasley is starting at the point. Tamecka Dixon and Mwadi Mabika are set as well. The question mark for the Sparks this year is Delisha Milton-Jones, who suffered a knee injury while training with USAB, but opted out of surgery and is already back playing this preseason. It is a fresh start for Teresa Weatherspoon, whose time is running out and wants to make a difference with a championship team. Some other fresh faces are talented rookies Christi Thomas and Doneeka Hodges and two international players � unknown variables � Laura Macchi and Rafaella Mascadri. With Leslie healthy and the disappointment at having lost out on three in a row, Los Angeles is as hungry as ever.

2. Houston Comets (2003 � 20-14, second place in West)
Despite going three years since winning their last title, Houston is still a dangerous team. They have those four championships in their column, and that�s huge. Sheryl Swoopes is one of the top three players in the league along with Leslie and Catchings. Tina Thompson has been an MVP candidate, can do it all, and is still at the top of her game. The two of them will be Olympians, so they will be playing a lot of minutes this summer, but you can never count out a team that has two players like them on the same time. Cynthia Cooper finally retired due to an injury, so it is no longer the Big Three. As always seems to be the case, the question for coach Van Chancellor is his backcourt. The retirement of Ukari Figgs means that he will be starting yet another point guard this season. Dominique Canty has been in the system and will likely end up starting, and they also picked up Sheila Lambert. Newcomer Gordana Grubin will play shooting guard and Felicia Ragland will come off the bench. Janeth Arcain, who is one of the best players in the world, will not be playing with the Comets this season, opting instead to stay home and train for the Olympics. Coming from the champion Shock, Kedra Holland-Corn will be the first player off the bench as another potential scorer. Michelle Snow, Pollyanna Johns-Kimbrough and Tiffani Johnson round out the front line in the middle. If Snow keeps coming along, she can be a very good player. There are new names and new faces on this team, so a lot of the points will be scored by the big names. But who will step up and be the third name this year?

Diana Taurasi will be the leader of the Mercury this season.
Barry Gossage
WNBAE/Getty Images
3. Phoenix Mercury (2003 � 8-26, seventh place in West)
I think this pick may shock everybody, but I�m making it anyway. I am picking Phoenix to finish in the playoffs because the chemistry on this team could be very special. There is not one dominant player on this team like a Lisa Leslie, but they are all talented players and do not care who scores. Diana Taurasi will control the game for them. She is so strong and smart out there and always knows where to be on the court. She can defend small forwards and both guard positions. I have even seen her defend a power forward. She will be the nucleus of this new team of versatile players. Anna DeForge can shoot the three as well as anyone, Penny Taylor will be a very good player for them and Nikki McCray will bring a veteran presence to the team and will be a good fit with Taurasi. The Mercury also have depth in the post now as well. If Adrian Williams, Kayte Christensen and Lindsay Taylor accept their roles and can rotate at center, they are going to win. They have 18 fouls to give and can keep everyone fresh going up against some very good centers out west. Plenette Pierson is back and she can also help out as a forward or center. But they are not just relying on one person on the inside. They are capable of getting points on the inside, but a majority of their points will still come from the outside. Ultimately, the ball is going to be in Diana Taurasi�s hands. She is the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird-Michael Jordan type player as far as not only being great, but setting everyone else up ad making them great. There will be nights where she will score 20 points, but there could also be games where she only has six points. But the team can still win both those games because she will make everyone else better. Overall, they need to work on their defense, but first year coach Carrie Graf could bw up for the Coach of the Year if things turn around right away.

4. Sacramento Monarchs (2003 � 19-15, third place in West)
Sacramento has been a popular pick to win it all the last few years, but I have a lot of concerns about this team. Specifically, team chemistry, backcourt depth and their age. Ticha Penicheiro and Kara Lawson are good, but I am not so sure that their guard play can bring them a championship. Edna Campbell, Lady Grooms and Ruthie Bolton will not be mistaken for a young backcourt. But Campbell feels as good as she has ever felt and she is healthy and Grooms does a tremendous job coming in off the bench for them. As far as making predictions in the preseason goes, this is where the challenge arises. There is a question about whether Yolanda Griffith will be named as the final Olympian. If she does go to the Olympics, that could tire her out and hurt the team. However, the one month break will also help this veteran team rest its legs. I know they drafted Rebekkah Brunson, who is a very exciting player, but I think they may convert her to small forward. She is unbelievable on the boards and seems to have a toughness in her that Sacramento is missing. I think they are a tough team with Griffith and Tangela Smith, but I am not at all sure about how they all play together. I saw the Monarchs in a preseason game against the Phoenix Mercury and they did not have any points off of the fast-break, but had 22 turnovers. I do not think they will be that off in the regular season, but I still do not feel comfortable with the rotation. This is the first full year coaching for John Whisenant and he really has to develop his up-tempo system. His offensive system is to run and his defensive system is to press. They don�t want to play a zone, but as one of the oldest teams in the league, if not the oldest, I will be interested to see how it works for them.

Margo Dydek can change a game all by herself.
D. Clarke Evans
WNBAE/Getty Images
5. San Antonio Silver Stars (2003 � 12-22, sixth place in West)
This was tough for me because I want to put San Antonio on the same level as Sacramento. I am waffling between these two for the last playoff spot. But because of last year, I will keep the Monarchs as a weaker fourth seed and put San Antonio as a strong fifth place finisher. They will battle down the stretch for that final playoff spot. This is an athletic team that got younger with the retirement of Jennifer Azzi and Sylvia Crawley. Trading for Shannon Johnson brings them an Olympian. I love Marie Ferdinand and Adrienne Goodson has gotten in shape. Dispersal Draft pick-up LaToya Thomas, who was a number one overall pick and up for Rookie of the Year last year, could end up starting. Margo Dydek has proven she can play at the highest level with the Polish National team and her club team in the winter. I think the addition of her countrywoman and Polish club teammate Agnieska Bibrzyka will help Dydek. They know each other's game and will make each other better. This is still a very "American" game in the WNBA, which has made it difficult for Dydek to exceed expectations. The Americans' expectations when they see a 7-2 woman is that she should dominate, but Margo has not dominated yet. She has been good, but she has not dominated. I think this is a year she could step up her game.

6. Minnesota Lynx (2003 � 18-16, tied for fourth place in West)
This was a team that surprised a lot of people and made it to the playoffs last season. The main reason was Katie Smith, who is one of the most consistent players in the WNBA. She does it every night, and not just in terms of scoring. She can defend any position, she can rebound, she can handle the ball, and she is stronger than a bull. She should be mentioned in the same breath as Swoopes, Catchings and Leslie as the best players in the world. In the post, Tamika Williams is one of the most underrated players in the league and that was when she was playing out of her natural position. Williams will have the opportunity to move back and play power forward this season. Shaunzinski Gortman also gives them good size. However, they will have a little bit of a different look this season. Svetlana Abrosimova is staying in Russia to train for the Olympics and will not be with the team this season. The Lynx are now a younger team, bringing in centers Nicole Ohlde and Vanessa Hayden to play center. Both of them will take their lumps and have their lunch handed to them as rookies, at times. It will be a learning process. And Hayden is coming in injured, so how long will it take her to come back. One rookie that not as many people are talking about is Tasha Butts. I really like her a lot because she proved that she can play a number of positions, which makes her extremely valuable on a roster. She hits the three, she can handle pressure, she is a great defensive player and she is aggressive. This could be a team that really benefits from the August break, especially if it gives Hayden some time to rest and heal. They could make a push in September, but the post still remains their biggest question coming in.

7. Seattle Storm (2003 � 18-16, tied for fourth place in West)
I am picking Seattle to finish seventh not because they are the least talented, because they certainly are not, but because they have the most questions surrounding them coming into the season. It is all about this team�s health and injuries can be the ultimate limitation. Last year�s MVP, Lauren Jackson, may be coming into the season with stress fractures in her legs. Also, from what I have heard, Sue Bird�s knee is not completely healed, either. Those are the two key players for Seattle, especially because of the grueling schedule this summer. They will have to play three-quarters of an entire season and then go over and play in the Olympics, then come straight back and finish off the season. When Bird is healthy, she makes everyone else better, but she will need some relief in minutes. Tully Bevilaqua is a solid back up point guard. She is a hard-nosed player who was with them last year and knows the system. Adia Barnes is coming back healthy, which is important more for her defensive skills. Sheri Sam can play both shooting guard and small forward and Betty Lennox is a shooter who came over in the Dispersal Draft. Both are important because Sandy Brondello will not be coming to the U.S. this season in order to train for the Olympics back home in Australia. This is a team with very good size inside. Jackson has the ability to do so many different things, hopefully Kamila Vodichkova will be healthy, and Janell Burse gives them another quick center. They were a team that was in very much in the playoff hunt last year, but finished the middle of the pack both statistically and in the standings last year because of the injuries. But again, this is a team that make we question whether the team chemistry is there. On paper, this is a team that does not seem to be fully there and all of the pieces of the puzzle are not in place for them at the beginning of the season. However, Anne Donovan is a wonderful coach and players love playing for her. She knows and understands the game and personnel, so even if I, as an outsider, am raising questions about chemistry, she is the one that can get it together. She has the innate ability to bring people together and make them understand what they need to do.

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