Inside The W with Michelle Smith: 22 Questions Heading into the WNBA’s 22nd Season

The 2018 WNBA season has arrived with an infusion of fresh talent, record-setting veterans and a new city.

Before a single game is played, all we have are questions. Twenty-two of them, to be exact, to mark the 22nd season of the longest running women’s sports league in history.

The answers are coming, starting Friday night. And we can’t wait.

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1. Can Minnesota finish the Drive for 5? The Lynx would seem to be fighting against the clock, with the oldest roster in the league and key members of its core group inching closer to retirement. But coming off a fourth title in seven years last fall, and with Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles both as MVP candidates back for more, it’s hard to deny that the Lynx will be title favorites yet again. Another title would make Minnesota the winningest team in WNBA history with five championships, breaking a tie with the iconic Houston Comets.

2. Will LA join the four-titles club? This Sparks team, which has taken Minnesota to the brink in two straight seasons and won a title in 2016, is built for another run. Los Angeles has its stars back in Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Odyssey Sims, Alana Beard and Chelsea Gray, and have added veteran scorer Cappie Pondexter to the mix. The Sparks are going to set a pace and force the rest of the league to catch up.

3. Does Liz Cambage turn the Dallas Wings into a title contender? One of this season’s most anticipated comebacks is the return of the 6-foot-8 Australian center, who hasn’t played in the WNBA since 2013 after being drafted into the league in 2011. But she is joining an up-and-coming Wings team that has two of the league’s best backcourt players in point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith and 2017 Rookie of the Year Allisha Gray. Her presence inside makes Dallas immediately competitive with the best teams in the league, all of whom have dominant players in the paint. Dallas made a strong run to the playoffs last year, but they want more, and Cambage may be just the player to deliver.

4. Is Angel McCoughtry’s return going to bring the Dream back to the playoffs? The WNBA’s other big comeback story is that of Dream star McCoughtry, the leading scorer in franchise history. After taking the 2017 season off to rest her body and mind, she is back to assume her spot on a team that has been remade under first-year head coach Nikki Collen and is loaded with backcourt talent and depth all over the floor. Collen is focusing on ball movement, defense and fostering veteran leadership with the return of McCoughtry, the emergence of players like guards Layshia Clarendon and Tiffany Hayes and the addition of impact players Renee Montgomery and Jessica Breland. The Dream, who have never missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons, could make a big jump into the playoff picture a year after they finished 12-22.

5. Will the Seattle Storm thrive under Dan Hughes? The Storm, with anchors Jewell Loyd, Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird, have been on the verge of something great for the past two seasons, and the arrival of new head coach Hughes, a 20-year WNBA veteran, has everyone hopeful in the Emerald City. Seattle hasn’t posted a winning season since 2011. Stewart is in her third WNBA season, Loyd her fourth. They are approaching the peak of their pro careers. Seattle has added backcourt depth, and an heir apparent to Bird in UCLA product Jordin Canada. If they can improve their defense and rebounding, this could be a big season in Seattle.

6. Can Katie Smith keep the Liberty among the elite? The New York Liberty put together great back-to-back regular season finishes in 2016 and 2017 — winning a combined 43 games — before making early playoff exits. Smith, the all-time leading scorer in women’s basketball history, spent four years as an assistant in New York under Bill Laimbeer, is a head coach for the first time in her career with the charge of overseeing the franchise through a tumultuous offseason in which they were nearly sold and have moved to a new venue in White Plains. With Tina Charles back, she needs to make sure that New York can maintain its regular-season prowess, while finding the postseason magic they have been lacking.

7. Will Chicago’s move downtown change the Sky’s fortunes? The Sky had one of the best drafts in the league with the addition of rookies Gabby Williams and Diamond DeShields, not to mention center Alaina Coates, who they took with the No. 2 pick a year ago. Veteran leadership from guards Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley will be a premium, and the young players are going to have to learn to score quickly in order to make sure the Sky can keep up in a league that’s getting more offensively charged by the year.

8. Can the Indiana Fever start a new playoff streak? The addition of rookies Kelsey Mitchell, Stephanie Mavunga and Victoria Vivians to a roster that already is relying on young standouts, such as Tiffany Mitchell, means the Fever may still be a couple of years away from where they want to be. But if Indiana can improve offensively, they could be a surprise.

9. Can the Connecticut Sun maintain their momentum? After last season’s breakout and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2012, the Sun have a lot to live up to, including their own high expectations. The delayed arrival of Jonquel Jones, the young star who set the WNBA single-season rebounding record last season, suddenly becomes a big question mark, but Connecticut will be able to pick up a lot of slack in Jones’ potential absence with the return of Chiney Ogwumike.

10. Is A’ja Wilson the ace in the hole for Las Vegas? The No. 1 draft pick out of South Carolina could be a game-changer in the WNBA with her versatile, athletic game, but first she is going to have to lead a change in fortunes for the relocated Aces, for whom wins have been tough to come by over these past few seasons. A backcourt that includes Kayla McBride, Moriah Jefferson and Kelsey Plum, complemented by Wilson inside is a good start at a new beginning for Bill Laimbeer’s team. But there is a lot of work to do to make this a team that will compete among the best in the WNBA.

11. Which other rookies in this talented class will become impact players? Kelsey Mitchell enters her WNBA career as the second-leading scorer in NCAA history and will look to give Indiana a boost. Jordin Canada has gotten off to a strong start in Seattle as a backup point guard to Sue Bird. Gabby Williams and Diamond DeShields are poised to make a great first impression in Chicago. And then there’s Russian center Maria Vadeeva, an intriguing prospect who has played overseas with Nneka Ogwmuike. The draft class of 2018 has great potential for immediate impact.

12. How quickly can the Phoenix Mercury core group come together and win championship No. 4? Briann January joins the Mercury to be the experienced point guard they have needed. DeWanna Bonner brings her versatile game back on the floor. Diana Taurasi wants to taste another title and Brittney Griner is an MVP favorite. There is no reason to think Phoenix isn’t ready to be back among the league’s best teams and a threat to join the four-title club.

13. Who will catch the league by surprise? Last year it was Connecticut that shocked the league. This year, Chicago looks like a strong candidate after a great draft.

14. Does Washington’s makeover finally manifest into a long playoff run? Last season was the first in the Mystics’ big makeover with the addition of Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver. Position-less basketball was the reason the Mystics went to the playoffs. But they want much more. The Mystics need a healthy Tayler Hill and to make up for the loss of Emma Meesseman, who is missing the season to prepare for the World Championships.

15. Who is the on the short list of MVP candidates? It’s not such a short list after all. 2017 MVP Sylvia Fowles could do it again with another dominant season, so could her teammate Maya Moore, who is always in the MVP discussion. Phoenix’s Brittney Griner might have won last year had an injury late in the season not slowed her. Los Angeles has two candidates in Candace Parker and 2016 MVP Nneka Ogwumike. It could be Elena Delle Donne in Washington, or Tina Charles in New York, or perhaps Diggins-Smith in Dallas could be the first guard to win since Diana Taurasi in 2009. Maybe it could be Taurasi. Or maybe one of the league’s young stars like Breanna Stewart or Jonquel Jones. The race looks wide-open and fascinating.

16. Who could possibly retire at the end of this season? Rebekkah Brunson is 36 years old and became the first player in WNBA history to win five championships last season when the Lynx won the title; Alana Beard, who also just turned 36, is returning for another season after talking about retirement, looking for another title to add to her legacy as one of the league’s best defensive players ever; and it will be interesting to see how Lindsay Whalen, 36, juggles her new responsibilities as the University of Minnesota head coach with her WNBA playing career.

17. Who is poised for a breakout second season? No. 1 pick Kelsey Plum got off to a slow start in San Antonio a year ago, but averaged 12.4 points a game over the final 10 games of the 2017 season, including 18 points vs. New York and a career-best 23 against Seattle. While everyone is paying attention to this year’s No. 1 pick in A’ja Wilson, last year’s No. 1 pick may have herself a breakout season.

18. Which returning player is poised for a career season? Breanna Stewart. In her third WNBA season, the Seattle Storm star has a chance to lead the turnaround of her team and join the ranks of the league’s most dominant post players. Last year, she averaged 19.9 points and 8.7 rebounds. The fact that many think there’s plenty of room for her to raise her game even higher speaks volumes about her talent.

19. Which new coach will find success the fastest? Collen in Atlanta has a team built for a fast turnaround from last year’s finish, but Hughes also has a core of leaders and talent in Seattle that could be poised for a big year.

20. What is the matchup fans will most want to see? Liz Cambage vs. Brittney Griner. Two of the tallest and most talented players in the world, going to battle on two teams looking to emerge as title contenders. Doesn’t get much better than that. And on opening night no less.

21. Could we see the Ogwumike sisters meet in the playoffs? With Chiney back on the floor, and the Sun surging as one of the league’s hot young teams, there is a good chance of a postseason match of the league’s most successful sister act.

22. What records could fall in 2018? Diana Taurasi is 18 points away from overtaking Katie Smith as the all-time leading scorer in women’s basketball history and could also break the record for most field-goals in league history, needing 231 to pass Tina Thompson. The Minnesota Lynx could be the first team in league history to win five titles, should they finish this season with another. After becoming the all-time assists leader last season, Sue Bird is poised to move up to No. 1 in career games played with a healthy season, currently sitting 22 behind DeLisha Milton-Jones’ record 499.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.