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Inside The W with Michelle Smith: 2021 Season Storylines

Building on the bubble that changed the WNBA for good – and for the better – in 2020, the league’s 25th season is about to tip off with unprecedented levels of exposure and support.

What’s new in 2021? Jerseys, talent, partnerships and even more team chemistry.

What’s the same as it’s been for the last quarter of a century for a league that’s been defined by the history it creates every year that it exists and thrives? The hope that hard work and commitment will lead to a championship.

Here are the storylines that are poised to dominate the 2021 season.

Leaving Los Angeles

Two of the L.A. Sparks’ biggest stars found new homes this offseason, with no move bigger than Candace Parker’s decision to return home to Chicago to play for James Wade and Sky. Parker adds experience, rebounding and versatility to a team that already includes one of the league’s most productive backcourts with Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, and one of its most exciting young stars in Diamond DeShields.

Chronologically, Parker might be on the back end of her career, but she had a stellar 2020 season and she is going to be hungry to bring a first-ever WNBA title to Chicago. Meanwhile, point guard Chelsea Gray decided to take her dynamic game to Las Vegas to play for the Aces and Bill Laimbeer. Gray doesn’t need to carry a huge load, not on a roster with A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage. And then there’s the team they both left behind, the Los Angeles Sparks, who enter a new era dominated by the Ogwumike sisters – Nneka and Chiney – and a crew of exciting guards including Britney Sykes, Erica Wheeler, Te’a Cooper and new addition Gabby Williams.

Aces or Storm? Storm or Aces? 

Who will set the pace? The Aces look like the preseason title favorite, even as they prepare to start the season without Angel McCoughtry who sustained a season-ending knee injury just a few days ago. But with MVP Wilson and Cambage back together in the post and Chelsea Gray joining Kelsey Plum – also back from last year’s Achilles injury – as well as Jackie Young, and Riquna Williams in the backcourt, Las Vegas looks deep and poised to take another shot at its first title.

Defending champion Seattle, meanwhile, has its core group of Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd and Jordin Canada back and coach Dan Hughes on the sidelines again, but there have also been big changes. Defensive stalwarts Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark have moved on. Free-agent signing Candice Dupree brings experience and support inside and Katie Lou Samuelson, acquired in an offseason trade, will add perimeter offense, but how much time will it take to develop chemistry and rediscover the championship groove they displayed all of last season to become the first team since Los Angeles in 2001 and 2002 to win back-to-back titles?

Comeback Stories

Tina Charles will put on a Washington Mystics jersey and play in her first WNBA game since 2019 for the team that she signed with a year ago before missing the season in the bubble with a medical exemption. The Mystics will need everything that Charles can provide inside as they overcome some early-season adversity, including an injury to new acquisition Alysha Clark and the missing presence of Emma Meesseman, and questions about how quickly Elena Delle Donne, who also missed the 2020 season, will be recovered from her offseason back surgery and ready to play like the perennial MVP candidate she is.

Jonquel Jones also missed the 2020 season for the Connecticut Sun, and while the Sun still put together a run to the WNBA semifinals, they also need their All-Star back on the floor to make up for the loss of Alyssa Thomas, who is out for the season. Jones can be one of the most dominant posts in the WNBA and paired with DeWanna Bonner, Connecticut should be a playoff team.

Making A Move

All four of the teams that failed to make the playoffs last season have improved in 2021. Dallas added two more promising young stars in No. 1 pick Charli Collier and No. 2 pick Awak Kuier to a roster that already includes Arike Ogunbowale, Satou Sabally and a healthy Moriah Jefferson.

Atlanta added No. 3 draft pick Aari McDonald to a backcourt that already included Chennedy Carter and veteran Courtney Williams and now moves forward with a guard-dominated lineup following the abrupt departure of head coach Nikki Collen in the middle of training camp.

Indiana’s rebuild continues with the addition of surprise No. 4 draft pick Kysre Gondrezick to a roster that is hoping that the maturing games of Teaira McCowan, Lauren Cox and Kelsey Mitchell will start to pay off in consistent wins.

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, the New York Liberty, who won just two games a season ago, are thrilled to finally get Sabrina Ionescu back on the court after last year’s injury derailed her rookie season. Are these teams ready to elevate themselves into the playoffs?

 

 

The Darkhorses

Minnesota and Phoenix. The Lynx, who reached the semifinals last season, loaded up with the additions of Kayla McBride, Natalie Achonwa and Aerial Powers to play alongside Napheesa Collier, 2020 Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield and Sylvia Fowles. Cheryl Reeve has been assembling the team she wants for two years now and there’s no reason to think that Minnesota won’t be in the mix at the top of the league standings.

Phoenix has a core group of All-Star level talent in Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Bria Hartley, but also a bad habit of underachieving until the stretch run of the season. A strong start could set up Phoenix for title contention and the plotline of watching the GOAT (yes, we are talking about Taurasi) go for her fourth WNBA Championship.