Ann Meyers� 2005 Western Conference Preview

Analyst Ann Meyers will be a part of the ESPN broadcast team 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.

Unlike the Eastern Conference, the West was much more wide open and spread out last season. We had a team that won 25 games and team that lost 25 games, which is a world of difference considering that the entire East was separated by just three games. That said, I do think that the Western Conference will be much tighter this year, which makes things tougher to call. This league is young and there are no magic words that we can use to predict just who will win the championship. However, the two things that a team needs in order to win are chemistry and health. Seattle had it last year, so who will it be in 2005?

Lisa Leslie was the MVP in 2004.
Jesse D. Garrabrandt
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1. Los Angeles Sparks (2004� 25-9, first place in West)
Another year, another round of predictions and I still think the Sparks are the team to beat. A solid team all the way through, they showed flashes of what we can expect out of them in the preseason going 3-0. They always have the targets on the backs just because they are Los Angeles, but I think the key for L.A. will be their chemistry. How do they adjust to a new coach and a new marquee player in the lineup? I really think Chamique Holdsclaw is going to rejuvenate this team. She takes a lot of pressure off of Lisa Leslie, but her being in Los Angeles also takes pressure off of herself. She does not have to be the go-to player with others who can chip and can produce. Leslie, Tamecka Dixon and Mwadi Mabika are veteran players who have been in the league since Day One, so she doesn't necessarily need to be the leader. She has come out openly about her depression, though her illness isn't something that can be cured overnight. So what will the media say when she has an off night? And how will she react? The Sparks are also a team that needs to stay healthy. Lisa Leslie is going to be 33 years older, but she has proven that she is still the best player in the world. A lot of players in the WNBA have nagging injuries because they go overseas to supplement their income and don't get enough rest or give their bodies a break when they get back. I don't think Lisa's offseason was as intense as far as working out. The Sparks had a short bench down the stretch last season and that ultimately affected them. That is why I think Tamika Whitmore could be the difference. She is getting preseason minutes and played well. If she can step up, it takes pressure off of the other frontcourt players. I think the interesting thing will be their backcourt. Nikki Teasley really needs to be consistent. This is her fourth season and she needs to change her mindset and think to score a bit more. She is so talented and her name is great because she can tease you with her ability. Can she be a leader on this team? They will miss the leadership and camaraderie of DeLisha-Milton Jones, who was traded for Holdsclaw in March.

2. Phoenix Mercury (2004 � 17-17, fifth place in West)
After making tremendous strides in 2004, the Phoenix Mercury will be a strong team to contend with. They had a very good chance of making the playoffs last year, but they were so young and inexperienced that they lost a lot of close games down the stretch. They lost five or six games because they did not know how to close the out. What we've seen, however, is that you can't discount any team with Diana Taurasi. She makes everyone better. Taurasi had a great offseason as far as resting her body goes and went back to school. Rest is key because this is a team that wants to get out and run. Anna DeForge and Penny Taylor also had very good seasons last year. Their biggest weakness last season was in the middle, so who are the centers that they are going to keep on their roster? Kamila Vodichkova is resting after her offseason playing in Moscow. She comes over from a championship team, so she knows how to win. But is she enough to put them over the top? I'm not sure. If Russian center Maria Stepanova ends up joining the team, I'd be completely sold on them. Their owners are still optimistic that she might come to play this season, but I'll believe it when I see it. At 6-8, she has the ability to go up against Lisa Leslie and Lauren Jackson. When she came into the league as a teenager, she was young and didn't quite understand the American game or the language. The Mercury also drafted Sandora Irvin, who is a great raw athlete. She is an impact player. She gives them a defensive presence inside who can run the floor, grab rebounds and block shots. She has the ability, but all of the rookies coming in learn that this is a much faster league. The bottom line is that Diana Taurasi cannot be expected to do it all. She needs her Scottie Pippen. Diana was at the top of the league in minutes played and while Carrie Graf tried to get her rest, with someone that good, they don't want to come out and it's hard to take them off the court and lose their productivity. To be successful in 2005, they need to find players on their bench who can rotate in and give their starters rest.

To what extent will Katie Smith's knee be a factor for the Lynx?
Barry Gossage
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3. Minnesota Lynx (2004 � 18-16, third place in West)
Under the leadership of Coach Suzie McConnell Serio, the Minnesota Lynx have been a very good team. I don't expect that to change. The key to the equation will be the health of guard Katie Smith. I don't know that she is 100% healthy yet after injuring her knee last season, and they need her to be. Center Nicole Ohlde was one of the great surprises of last season. As good as she was at Kansas State, nobody really knew what to expect our of her. She talked about wanting to improve her outside game and work on facing up in the offseason. That shows you the impact that players like Lauren Jackson and Lisa Leslie have had on the game. Ohlde has great footwork, great hands and is just a solid player. She can rebound, plays good defense and definitely surprised a lot of people. I don't think the point guard position will be a question at all. Despite losing Teresa Edwards and Helen Darling, they will not miss a beat with starting Australian national point guard Kristi Harrower back with the club. She was a prot�g� of Michele Timms and comes with daggers. She'll hit big-time three-pointers and she can blow by defenders. Amber Jacobs had a solid year last year as a rookie and will back up Harrower. Svetlana Abrosimova returns healthy and Vanessa Hayden gives them more size inside off the bench. Another key component is the leadership of post player Tamika Williams. She is such a team player, the kind of player that will do anything. She is an underrated player who doesn't always get the recognition, but does the little things so well. They also drafted Kristen Mann and Jacqueline Batteast. Batteast was a Big East Player of the Year, was an All-American even with a lot of high expectations. Mann is more of a power forward. She is a banger, but she'll have to improve her outside shooting as well.

4. Seattle Storm (2004 � 20-14, second place in West)
How can you pick against the defending champions? A lot of people aren't picking this team because of personnel changes, but I still look at them as one of the top teams in the West. How can you not be with a player like Lauren Jackson? Lisa Leslie and Lauren Jackson are still the top two players in the league. That is why you have to look at them as a contender, though it will be tough for any team to repeat just because the league has gotten so tough. The Storm will have the targets on their backs. Everyone wants to beat the champions. Jackson had her ankle surgery in the offseason, which enabled her to get some much-needed rest and spend time with her family. She and Sue Bird play so well together. But as much as they have Jackson, Bird and 2004 WNBA Finals MVP Betty Lennox, where do they go from there? They have been disbanded a bit from last season, losing two starters in Kamila Vodichkova and Sheri Sam, as well as reserve guard Tully Bevilaqua. Tully was a leader off the bench, a ball-handler and could hit big shots, giving Bird that rest she needed to get healthy again. Who are the other players that will step up as role players and help take pressure off the stars? They will be in the hunt because of their great chemistry, but it is so hard when you lose three key players. Anne Donovan is a wonderful coach and players love playing for her. She knows and understands the game and personnel and is a master at bringing people together and make them understand what they need to do.

Yolanda Griffith consistently filled up all of the stat columns.
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5. Sacramento Monarchs (2004 � 18-16, fourth place in West)
With all of the experiences that this team has been through, I don't think you can overlook the Sacramento Monarchs. I like them because they have gotten younger, which will help Yolanda Griffith, the team's best player. They finally figured out the Sparks last season and beat them in the first round of the playoffs, which shows what happens if you play a team enough times. Coach Whisenant is very traditional and staunch in the way he coaches, but this could be a different team. I think Nicole Powell will help them a lot. She will get a chance to play more this year as a second year player and she feels more comfortable on the west coast. I'm guessing she'll play forward, though I'd play her at the one spot. The starting point guard, Ticha Penicheiro, has always been a great leader who gets assists. Kara Lawson is really focused as she steps into the starting role this season. DeMya Walker is so solid at the three, and, along with Griffith, Rebekkah Brunson, Hamchetou Maiga and Chantelle Anderson, the Monarchs have great size. They did trade away Tangela Smith, who was such a good player and took a lot of pressure off of Griffith, but they also helped themselves on the perimeter to sure-up their weakness from last year. Help arrives in the form of two Chinese players, both of whom are three-point shooters. I am curious to see what kind of adjustments they have to make just playing basketball in a new country and learning a new language. Rookie point guard Kristin Haynie also adds depth in the backcourt, which is a nice addition for them. She is nursing a sore ankle, and in such a quick season, players have to get healthy fast.

6. Houston Comets (2004� 13-21, sixth place in West)
After failing to make the playoffs for the first time in WNBA history last year, I think Houston will be a lot better this season. I think they could even make a playoff push. But this is an older team, so health and fatigue will be a question all season long. There are other questions. Michelle Snow has talked about how exhausted she is, but how much can they rest her? What about the guard situation? Felicia Ragland, Dominique Canty and Sheila Lambert all have a chance at being the starting point guard, but hopefully coach Van Chancellor will let Lambert run the show. Ragland and Canty are not true point guards. At least they get Janeth Arcain back, who despite her age, is still one of the top players in the world. This Energizer Bunny just keeps going and going. I also think rookie Roneeka Hodges is a keeper. She is a scorer and can hit the three. I think she is a sleeper that got through. I think Sheryl Swoopes is really on a mission as well. At 35, I just hope her foot is okay. She said that the trade talks only motivated her more to play well this season. But now that that is over, she can't worry about what might have been or could have been. I love the way she always comes in every year and is so determined. Another player I love is Tina Thompson, who I think is one of the top three or five players in the league. She has been an MVP candidate several times, but because Leslie and Jackson are in the league, she doesn't get it. She is sitting out the beginning of the season after giving birth to her son, and they will miss her. She can shoot the three, bang inside, defend the other team's best post player, rebound, put the ball on the floor and be a vocal leader. The Comets did pick up Adrienne Goodson to fill the void and drafted a very raw, athletic rookie in Sancho Lyttle. I'm curious to see what she does. They still don't have the bangers, though. This is still a slight team.

7. San Antonio Silver Stars (2004 � 9-25, seventh place in West)
With nowhere to go but up for the Silver Stars, San Antonio will be a better team in 2005. I still don't think they are a playoff team just yet, but they have some talent on this team. I am just curious about their chemistry. They will win more than the nine games they won last year, but I don't think they are a team that will crack the top four. I think Dan Hughes is a terrific coach and it is good to see him back in the league. Also having Marie Ferdinand back from injury will be huge. She is one of the top players in the league. Rookie forward Kendra Wecker might be another player who gets minutes because of her strength and skill, one of the few rookies this season who will get a real opportunity. Running the point is Shannon Johnson, who was an Olympian, but the team will have a new look in the middle. The Silver Stars traded center Margo Dydek for rookie Katie Feenstra on Draft Day. Feenstra has good footwork but will have to get stronger to compete inside.