Dawning of a New Era: 21st Season Opens With Changes Around the League

When the 2017 WNBA season tips off on May 13, it will mark the beginning of a new era for a number of teams after an offseason filled with player movement, coaching changes, draft selections and franchise-altering transactions.

Here are five teams that have undergone seismic shifts from this time a year ago. With training camps open and preseason games underway, the latest chapter in the history of each franchise is just beginning to be written.

Washington Mystics

Any discussion of offseason moves has to start in the nation’s capital, where the Washington Mystics acquired 2015 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne in a trade with the Chicago Sky.

With their hopes set on drafting Delle Donne back in 2013 – when the Mystics had the best odds to win the Draft Lottery in the “Three To See” Draft – the ping pong balls worked against them and landed them outside the top three of the star-studded draft.

“When she came out of the draft, we were trying to make a deal with Chicago to get her then,” Mystics coach Mike Thibault told WNBA.com.

It took four years longer than they had hoped, but the Mystics finally have the star they have been searching for. Delle Donne joins Tayler Hill and Emma Meesseman – the top two players the Mystics selected in 2013 after missing out on Delle Donne – to form a young core to build upon.

The Mystics didn’t stop at executing the biggest trade of the offseason – and one of the biggest in league history – as they added veteran point guard Kristi Toliver via free agency one week later. Toliver, a DMV native, joins the Mystics having just won her first WNBA title with the Sparks in October. She will provide veteran leadership, championship experience, outstanding floor generalship and 3-point shooting to a team that has all the makings of being explosive offensively.

“[Thibault] has said that we’re building a Golden State type of team, type of offense,” Toliver said. “And I wouldn’t want to play for any other style than that.”

There is a buzz surrounding the Mystics as instant title contenders after the moves they have made. Thibault knows it will take time for these new pieces to fit together and reach their full potential. But for a team that has won just one playoff series in its 19-year history – back in 2002 – the idea of a deep playoff run has excited both the fan base and the franchise.

Chicago Sky

On the other side of the Delle Donne trade is the Chicago Sky, who sent their franchise player to Washington in exchange for center Stefanie Dolson, wing Kahleah Copper and the No. 2 pick in the 2017 Draft, which the Sky used to select center Alaina Coates out of South Carolina.

In addition to losing Delle Donne, the Sky also parted ways with head coach and general manager Pokey Chatman after six seasons of overseeing the team in the front office and the sidelines. In her place, the Sky hired Amber Stocks, who was an assistant under Brian Agler for the 2016 champion Los Angeles Sparks.

“To be successful in any position or profession, you can never stop being a student,” Stocks told WNBA.com. “You can never stop learning. I will continue to learn and gain information from as many resources that I can, both in terms of being a head coach and a general manager. In order for me to position our team to be the best it can be, I need to continue to grow myself.”

Stocks will have to learn on the fly as the Sky begin the post-Delle Donne era in less than two weeks. She will lead a team filled with young talent – Dolson, Copper, second-year center Imani Boyette, rookies Tori Jankoska, Shayla Cooper and eventually Coates (who is still recovering from ankle surgery) – as well as a veteran core that was able to advance to the Semifinals in last year’s playoffs with Delle Donne sidelined with a thumb injury.

The Sky made their first playoff appearance in Delle Donne’s rookie season in 2013, advanced to their first Finals in 2014 and have made the playoffs in four straight seasons. To keep that streak intact, the Sky will need veterans like Cappie Pondexter (who’s scoring has dipped in recent seasons), Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and Tamera Young to carry the success of the old era into the new.

Indiana Fever

The Fever are another team dealing with the loss of a franchise player and a head coach. In this case, the star player was not traded, but rather retired, as Tamika Catchings hung up her sneakers after 15 outstanding seasons.

While Catchings will no longer be on the court, she will continue to be a presence on this team as she joined the front office as the Director of Player Programs and Franchise Development with Pacers Sports & Entertainment (PS&E).

In addition to not having Catchings on the court, the Fever will also have a new voice on the sidelines as Pokey Chatman comes to Indiana after six seasons as head coach and general manager of the Sky. Chatman led the Sky to four straight playoff appearances and comes to an organization with a league-record, 12-year streak of postseason play.

“I have more respect for Tamika than I could put into words,” Chatman said when she was introduced as head coach. “But I also understand the totality of this organization, and how Tamika has infused the players here with a work ethic and confidence. Yes, Catchings is done, but the expectation is not going to change. The way we approach things is not going to change. So there’s an excitement, even though you’re losing a legend. These players have had the privilege of playing with probably the greatest leader in the history of our game.”

When Chatman was hired by Chicago, she inherited a franchise that had not only never made the playoffs in its first five seasons, but had never recorded a winning record. She takes over a Fever franchise that had only two sub-.500 seasons in the last dozen years.

“It will be a welcomed transition for me, having [GM Kelly Krauskopf] as the general manager,” Chatman said. “There’s a reason why Indiana has been so successful. I’m anxious to work alongside someone that’s been here 17 years and created a championship culture.”

Of course, all of that happened with Catchings as the team’s centerpiece. The Fever will turn to veteran point guard Briann January to assume a larger leadership role on the team. They also acquired five-time All-Star forward Candice Dupree to help fill some of Catchings’ contributions on the court.

Indiana also has some promising young players for Chatman to develop, led by guard Tiffany Mitchell, who was an All-WNBA Rookie team selection last year, and 2017 draft pick Erica McCall from Stanford.

Phoenix Mercury

Three members of Phoenix’s championship core from 2014 will not be with the team in 2017.

Prior to the 2016 season, WNBA GMs selected the Mercury as the favorites to win the WNBA title. The returns of Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor to a team that made the playoffs in 2015 without them had everyone’s expectations sky-high heading into the 2016 campaign.

Those expectations were not met, as the Mercury had an up-and-down season before hitting their stride down the stretch. The team was able to secure the final playoff spot and won a pair of single-elimination rounds to advance to the Semifinals before being swept by Minnesota.

The changes to the team began with that final loss to Minnesota, which would be the final game of Taylor’s career; she has moved on to a front office role similar to Catchings in Indiana.

Taylor isn’t the only member of the Mercury core that won’t be a part of the 2017 squad. Phoenix traded forward Candice Dupree to Indiana as part of a three-team deal with Connecticut that brought veteran big Camille Little and rookie Jillian Alleyne to the desert.

Phoenix will also be without three-time Sixth Woman of the Year DeWanna Bonner, who will miss 2017 due to pregnancy. That’s three former All-Stars and starters that will not be on the court this season.

The Mercury still have the dynamic duo of Taurasi and Brittney Griner, who signed a multi-year extension during the offseason. Phoenix also traded its first-round draft pick (No. 5 overall) and young center Isabelle Harrison to San Antonio for veteran point guard Danielle Robinson, a three-time All-Star that missed all of last season due to an Achilles injury.

“There are not a lot of players who immediately improve your team offensively and defensively, but Danielle Robinson is one of those players,” said Mercury general manager Jim Pitman when the Mercury announced the trade. “She is an elite point guard and legitimate All-Star in this league who can create for herself and others, and whose game really compliments Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner.”

San Antonio Stars

The 2017 Stars feature two top-five picks from this year’s draft – Kelsey Plum (center) and Nia Coffey (No. 12, right) – and a new head coach in Vickie Johnson (background).

The turnaround in San Antonio began last season as former head coach and general manager Dan Hughes announced that 2016 would be his last season on the sidelines for the franchise. He relinquished his GM duties to former player Ruth Riley last season and mentored her during her first season as a team executive.

Now that he has departed the sidelines as well, the Stars didn’t look far to find his replacement, hiring Vickie Johnson as the team’s new head coach after she spent the last six seasons as an assistant under Hughes.

“Dan has done so much for my career. In 2006, when I decided to come to San Antonio as a player, he promised me that he would give me my first coaching job and he did,” Johnson told WNBA.com.

Johnson takes over a team that has finished at the bottom of the standings in each of the past two seasons, going 15-53 (0.221) during that time. The one advantage that does come when a team is struggling on the court is high draft picks, with the Stars using the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft to select point guard Moriah Jefferson and the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft to take Kelsey Plum, the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer.

Jefferson had a strong rookie season for San Antonio, which made veteran point guard Danielle Robinson expendable. The Stars traded Robinson for young center Isabelle Harrison and the No. 5 pick in this year’s draft, which they used to select forward Nia Coffey out of Northwestern.

That trio along with fourth-year guard Kayla McBride – the Stars’ leading scorer was in the midst of a breakout year before an injury cut her 2016 season short – gives Johnson a young and talented core to build upon.

The future of the Stars now lies in the hands of a pair of former Stars in Riley and Johnson. The former teammates are ready to build a championship franchise in the Alamo City.

“It’s just a great thing for me to be able to work with her,” Johnson said of Riley. “We have the same vision, we have the same goal, and that’s to bring out the best in these young players, teach them and grow with them. We want to win a championship together and to build something special in San Antonio, just like our men’s team.”