In Dallas, the Wings are starting new with head coach Brian Agler.
In Minnesota, the Lynx are facing new challenges on the heels of one of the best runs in league history.
In Seattle, the Storm are starting in a much different way than they expected to be, even just a couple of weeks ago.
One way or another, with the WNBA starting on May 24, all three of these Western Conference teams will hope to answer some questions and put themselves together quickly enough to be contenders.
Brian Agler has won championships in the WNBA — two of them, in fact. He first won with Seattle in 2010, and again in Los Angeles in 2016. He’s also hardly new to starting over with a new team.
So far, the word he uses to describe his experience in Dallas is “impressed.”
“Now we really need to create a culture that produces improvement and growth and breeds success,” Agler said. “You can’t walk in as a new leader and wave a wand and things just happen. It’s a process. We need to create an identity that everybody gets into and we get to a point where we can say ‘This is who we are’, every single day.”
Agler inherits a team in flux. Star point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith announced on the first day of training camp that she gave birth several weeks ago to a baby boy and will be working her way back on to the court. It is unclear whether Diggins-Smith will be ready before the end of the season.
Dallas knows it might also be moving forward without All-Star center Liz Cambage. Cambage has reportedly requested a trade and it appears unlikely that she will be playing for the Wings this season as Agler and the Wings continue to see if there’s a deal that can be done.
“Our roster is changed, one way or the other,” Agler said. “But I am not changing my approach. My focus will be on the people who are here.”
That includes first-round draft pick Arike Ogunbowale, veterans like Glory Johnson, Allisha Gray, Theresa Plaisance and Tayler Hill and a budding star in Azurá Stevens.
“Everybody is new to me,” Agler said. “We have a core group in, our rookies are here and I’m excited to see what people have to offer.”
Agler said his team will “play to its strengths”, but it’s not a surprise to learn that he will be focusing on shoring up the defense.
“Offensively, we will tweak things to bring out people’s talents and strengths,” Agler said. “Defensively, we are going to build a strong foundation and a strong defensive culture where people take pride in us having success,” he added. “It will be what we talk about a lot.”
This felt like a long offseason for Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve. The months move a lot slower when you have a first-round playoff loss to chew on.
“A lot of stuff has happened, and I just can’t want wait to get on the court and make some new memories,” Reeve said.
Indeed, a lot has happened to the Lynx. Point guard Lindsay Whalen retired. All-Star Maya Moore announced that she would be taking a year off from her WNBA career. Stalwart forward Rebekkah Brunson – the only individual player in league history with five championship rings – has not yet signed and it’s unclear whether she will be re-joining the team as camp gets underway.
Reeve is rebuilding the WNBA’s most successful franchise over the past eight years.
“Look, if I had my choice, all of those guys would still be in their primes and we would keep it rolling,” Reeve said. “It was pretty darn good for a long time. But the newness is exciting too.”
The landscape won’t be completely unfamiliar. Sylvia Fowles will look to play at an MVP level again. Seimone Augustus is back for one final season at shooting guard, announcing at the start of camp that she will retire after the season. Danielle Robinson returns healthy at the point guard spot. The Lynx added guard Odyssey Sims, who comes from Los Angeles, guard Lexie Brown and veteran Karima Christmas-Kelly. There’s also top draft pick Napheesa Collier, a do-it-all college star who will be a Rookie of the Year candidate.
“I started sharing with my veterans last year that this year was going to be different,” Reeve said. “I asked them ‘What do they want?’ They want to win. They are eager to be in a locker room with new energy.”
There is a lot of learning happening on both sides of the ball in these early days of camp.
“I have a vision of what I want,” the coach said. “I know what we did for the last eight years. Some of it remains the same. Any Lynx team, or any team I coach, we are going to have a way we do things and how we treat each other. And I’m hoping we can bring things out of our new players.”
“This a different season now than the one we have been planning for,” said Seattle Storm general manager Alisha Valavanis.
Three weeks ago, an Achilles injury to Breanna Stewart knocked her out for the 2019 season, dealing a devastating blow to the defending champions.
Then came the news that coach Dan Hughes has been diagnosed with cancer and will be undergoing treatment this season, starting with surgery last week. Hughes was in camp on Sunday for opening day. Assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg will be handling coaching duties until Hughes returns.
“We are taking this one step at a time with Dan,” Valavanis said. “Our priority at this point is to support him in every way we can.”
The change is not that much different as it pertains to Stewart, who had surgery to repair her injured Achilles and is beginning her recovery.
“We are going to be supporting Stewie through rehab and through the journey back to the court,” Valavanis said. “You don’t replace Breanna Stewart. The loss of Stewie on the court is something everyone is aware of, but we have a roster of veterans and players that are competitors, starting with Sue Bird. They are going to show up, ready to work. We are fortunate to have strong leadership from our veterans.”
At this point, the Storm are going to calibrate their title-defending expectations.
“I think everybody’s mindset is, let’s just be as competitive as possible night-in and night-out,” Valavanis said. “The team knows this is going to be [more] different than we anticipated, but we are ready to roll.”
Bird and Jewell Loyd will anchor the backcourt. Natasha Howard will be a go-to player in the paint, her athletic and versatile game key to Seattle’s ability to weather the storm without Stewart.
“It was tough for everybody (finding out about Stewart and Hughes) and we are just still trying to get a handle on everything,” Howard said. “We are just going to maneuver around what’s going on and keep an open mind.”
Howard knows that not having Stewart will have an impact, particularly on the offensive end.
“A lot of players are going to have to take on some of that role, everybody is going to be ready and take on some more responsibility.”
Howard is beginning her sixth season. She said she is ready to “step up.”
“When a player goes down, somebody else has to push themselves to the next level,” Howard said. “I’m ready.”
Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.