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Inside The W with Michelle Smith: 10 Storylines to Follow This Season

Here we go. Season No. 21. It has the promise to be one of the most interesting and competitive in league history. The talent is dispersed across all 12 teams and with the new playoff format from 2016 having proven to be a success, more teams look positioned to jockey for the league’s eight postseasons spots.

Let’s take a look at the 10 Storylines to Watch:

Defending a title. The Los Angeles Sparks needed a buzzer-beating putback by Nneka Ogwumike in Game 5 of arguably the best WNBA Finals series in league history to win the WNBA’s 20th Championship. And Ogwumike – the 2016 WNBA MVP – and Candace Parker – the 2016 WNBA Finals MVP – would like to pull off the encore. The Sparks, who also return veterans Jantel Lavender, Alana Beard, Essence Carson and Chelsea Gray, aren’t quite the same team they were a year ago. Gone is guard Kristi Tolliver, the team’s best perimeter shooter and one of the best shooters in the league. But the Sparks acquired Odyssey Sims in a trade with Dallas to run the point and provide scoring from the backcourt. And Riquna Williams is healthy after sitting out the 2016 season with an injury. This is a talent-loaded team that has a taste of a championship and looks positioned to come back for more.

A Plum Opportunity. The latest in a line of game-changing rookies to come out of the college ranks, none is more individually decorated than San Antonio sensation Kelsey Plum. Plum enters the league with a ridiculous resume – the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer in Division I women’s basketball and the NCAA’s all-time leading single-season scorer. With a new head coach in Vickie Johnson and a new general manager in Ruth Riley, the questions about the Stars are many, but the biggest question is how Plum will fit into a backcourt already loaded with talent in Moriah Jefferson and Kayla McBride, back after missing much of last season with a foot injury. But this is a team that needs offense after finishing 2016 with the lowest field-goal percentage in the WNBA. And if Plum’s first pro effort – 19 points in an exhibition win over Dallas on Sunday – is any indication, she is certainly bringing that to the heart of Texas.

Washington Remodel. There was not a bigger move in the WNBA offseason than Elena Delle Donne’s move to the Washington Mystics from the Chicago Sky. Delle Donne is a franchise-changer for the Mystics, who have been waiting a very long time for one. Delle Donne, the league MVP in 2015, averaged 21.5 points a game last season. Her addition, along with the addition of Toliver from Los Angeles and the existing presence of Emma Meesseman – one of the most underrated players in the WNBA – immediately puts Washington in a position to win the Eastern Conference.

Last Chance Lynx? The Minnesota Lynx aren’t getting any younger. But they are happy to prove to the WNBA that they are still getting better. The Lynx core of Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson and Sylvia Fowles is back and motivated after last fall’s devastating WNBA Finals loss to L.A.. Brunson and Whalen are beginning their 14th season in the WNBA. Augustus is beginning her 12th. Even Moore is in her 7th year. Augustus, Whalen and Brunson did not play overseas this past winter. Moore played a shortened season in China. The Lynx are largely refreshed and ready to go. On Monday, Whalen and Moore confessed that for both of them, the Finals defeat was the worst loss of their careers. What better incentive could there be to come back and win the franchise’s fourth WNBA title in the last seven seasons? With improving teams across the league, can the Lynx still set a standard, coming off a franchise-best 28 regular-season wins a year ago? You can bet they will certainly try.

New start in Indiana. Gone (from the floor, anyway) is Tamika Catchings, who retired at the end of 2016. Gone is Stephanie White, now coaching in the college ranks. These two losses alone necessitate a new era in Indiana. Pokey Chatman moves from Chicago to coach her longtime Eastern Conference rival. Briann January becomes the team’s heart-and-soul player, and the addition of Candice Dupree gives the Fever a player with championship credentials. The Fever look forward to another big year from second-year guard Tiffany Mitchell. They expect veteran play from Erlana Larkins and Marissa Coleman and they might get a big spark from rookie Erica McCall out of Stanford. The Fever might not be picked to win the East, but this franchise knows how to be a factor. Year after year.

Seconds in Seattle. There wasn’t any doubt that Breanna Stewart was going to be a star in the WNBA, and she put the Seattle Storm in a position to become a force in the Western Conference in her rookie season, leading the team to their first playoff berth since 2013. She averaged 18.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.9 blocks per game. And she is complemented by the backcourt duo of Sue Bird, perhaps the greatest point guard in league history who is missing training camp after an arthroscopic procedure on her left knee, and third-year guard Jewell Loyd, who is looking for a breakout season. This is a team with the potential to challenge Minnesota and Los Angeles at the top of the Western Conference.

New York State of Mind. The Liberty have been the class of the Eastern Conference for a few seasons now – finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference two years in a row – but somehow have been left to ponder postseason disappointments. Can Bill Laimbeer’s team, led by the the sublime Tina Charles, finally make a deep run and threaten to challenge the Western Conference powerhouses in a title run? Kia Vaughn and Bria Hartley have been added to the mix, giving New York some inside-outside support. Kiah Stokes can be counted on as one of the WNBA’s best defenders, and Epiphanny Prince could push this team to even greater heights with some big offensive nights. But what the Liberty want to do is push past another strong regular-season and play their best when the days start to get shorter and a chill is in the air. That will be their only measure of success.

Can Phoenix Rise? This is not a position we are used to seeing the Phoenix Mercury in – looking vulnerable. Penny Taylor is retired. Dupree is gone to Indiana. DeWanna Bonner will miss the season because of pregnancy. Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner will be left to hold down the fort and try to make up for last year’s disappointing regular season, in which the Mercury – the 2014 WNBA Champions – struggled to find any momentum before sneaking into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed and rebounding to reach the WNBA Semifinals. Taurasi will get to play alongside a veteran guard in Danielle Robinson, who comes to the Mercury from San Antonio after missing last season with an injury. But expectations are considerably lower than they were a year ago and that gives the Mercury a little room to breathe. And plenty of room to pull off a postseason run.

A Guardian Angel in Atlanta? The news that Angel McCoughtry will be sitting out the 2017 WNBA season is a huge blow to Atlanta and their hopes to be one of the powers in the Eastern Conference. It will be worth watching to see how the Dream make this work without one of the most reliable scorers in the WNBA. Layshia Clarendon was re-signed in the offseason, giving the Dream a veteran presence in the backcourt alongside Tiffany Hayes, the team’s second-leading scorer last season. And Elizabeth Williams, the WNBA’s Most Improved Player in 2016, will have the opportunity to make another big jump and complement veteran Sancho Lyttle inside. But Michael Cooper has a big challenge here to keep the Dream in playoff contention and the community in Atlanta will have rally to support a team without their marquee talent.

Chicago Revival. No, not the musical kind. The Sky move forward following the loss of Delle Donne to Washington and the end of Chatman’s tenure as the head coach. Veteran guard Cappie Pondexter, whose scoring has diminished over the past few years, will need an offensive resurgence, while new center Stefanie Dolson will need to settle in quickly inside alongside second-year talent Imani Boyette.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on throughout the 2017 season.

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