Select Team

Inside the W with Michelle Smith: Storylines For 2019 Season

What’s your story?

It’s the question that all 12 WNBA teams will be asking themselves by Friday, when the league’s 23rd season tips off.

Each team has a distinct narrative heading into the next 34 games. Some are driven by change, others by injury, others by a big pickup or a huge loss. Some teams’ stories are still to be written, perhaps following a breakout performance, or an impact rookie.

One way or the other, the most compelling storylines will come to the surface as play begins and will last all the way until the fall.

Let’s take a look at the 12 storylines for the 2019 season.

Atlanta Dream

Storyline: In need of a guardian Angel. The Dream made huge strides a season ago in Nikki Collen’s first season as a head coach, jumping back into the playoff picture after a one-year absence by combining the explosiveness of Tiffany Hayes and the veteran leadership of Angel McCoughtry, who returned after taking a season off. But that Angel-ic impact was short-lived. McCoughtry was injured in the 2018 Playoffs and is still working her way back to the court. It may be later this season; it may not, but no McCoughtry means that Hayes and point guard Renee Montgomery are running the show.

Big moves: The Dream made all their moves with young players in the paint, completing a draft-day deal to obtain Marie Gulich from Phoenix in exchange for Brianna Turner. The team also sent Imani McGee-Stafford to Dallas for a draft pick to clear roster space.

Focus on: Elizabeth Williams. Williams is going to have to balance the experienced backcourt with game-in, game-out production inside for the Dream to thrive.

What happens next: Without McCoughtry two years ago, the Dream missed the playoffs. Atlanta must hope that it has solidified its roster now to the point where an Angel-less season doesn’t keep them out again. Opening the season with four of five games at home will help Atlanta settle quickly.

Chicago Sky

Storyline: Meeting you in the middle. A new head coach in James Wade has the Sky hoping for a new era in which they figure more prominently in the league’s playoff picture, with a veteran backcourt in Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley and a seasoned inside duo of Stefanie Dolson and Cheyenne Parker. The most interesting stuff is happening in the middle with the young, supremely talented trio of Diamond DeShields, Gabby Williams and rookie Katie Lou Samuelson. This group is one that might vault this team into the postseason.

Big moves: Signing both Vandersloot and Quigley in the offseason not only kept the newly married couple together, but also keeps together a foundational backcourt that will bring experience and poise to a team that is building around its young talent.

Focus on: Diamond DeShields. Talent, athleticism, upside abound. She is on the verge of becoming a big star in the league.

What happens next: The Sky’s opening stretch includes games against a championship gauntlet featuring Minnesota, Seattle (twice) and Phoenix.

Connecticut Sun

Storyline: A change is gonna come. Two straight years at 21-13. Two straight years losing in the second round to the Phoenix Mercury. Something’s gotta change for this talent-rich, deep team that is looking for its first postseason win since 2012. This is still a young team, with no single starter over 30 years old. Connecticut features do-everything Alyssa Thomas at power forward, and a backcourt of Jasmine Thomas, Layshia Clarendon and Courtney Williams. While the Sun lack size, they are deep and experienced in playing together and very hungry to take the next step forward in the posteason.

Big moves: Dealing Chiney Ogwumike to Los Angeles may cost the Sun’s interior game (or it may not), depending on whether the tandem of Jonquel Jones and rookie Kristine Anigwe can be the ridiculous rebounding tandem that they certainly appear to be on paper.

Focus on: Shekinna Stricklen. This is the forward’s eighth-season in the league and her 5th in Connecticut. She has started 59 games in the last two seasons and is a glue player for this Sun team.

What happens next: Two games in the first five against the Los Angeles Sparks, and another against the Las Vegas Aces means that the Sun will be tested out of the gate.

Dallas Wings

Storyline: Extreme home-team makeover. Few teams have experienced as much change in the offseason as the Dallas Wings: a new head coach in Brian Agler, the news that All-Star point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith will miss at least a chunk of the season after giving birth to a son last month, the much-publicized departure of Liz Cambage and the arrival of rookie Arike Ogunbonwale. The Wings will be a team molded in Agler’s image – focused on defense, offense efficiency, and prepared to compete right away. The Wings will be fighting hard for a playoff spot in year one of Agler’s tenure, but his most important job will be building a lasting identity.

Big moves: The departure of Cambage is the biggest offseason news in the league. But the acquisition of Moriah Jefferson and Tayler Hill deepens the backcourt. The additions of Isabelle Harrison and Imani McGee-Stafford provides frontcourt help to Azura Stevens and Glory Johnson.

Focus on: Arike Ogunbowale. The rookie is an all-time clutch performer. Let’s see if she can work her magic in the WNBA.

What happens next: The Wings open with three of four on the road to get a great sense of whether Agler’s style is setting in.

Indiana Fever

Storyline: Things are looking up. Way up. The Fever have gone from a perennial playoff team to a rebuilding one. The rebuild is taking longer than Pokey Chatman would certainly like, particularly after last year’s 6-28 finish. But things seem to be moving in the right direction for Indiana, who have young talent like Kelsey Mitchell, who scored 26 points in the Fever’s preseason finale, combined with veteran leadership (Candice Dupree and Shenise Johnson) and a big rookie infusion. The loss of Victoria Vivians for the season is a setback.

Big moves: The biggest move of the Fever’s offseason was drafting 6-foot-7 Teaira McCowan from Mississippi State to be the franchise’s centerpiece player. Her presence will change many game-plans against the Fever, and that alone is a reason for excitement.

Focus on: Kelsey Mitchell. One of the most prolific scorers in the history of the college game, she can take the heat off McCowan inside if she can put up big numbers.

What happens next: After opening the season in New York and Connecticut, the Fever will get to play four in a row at home.

Las Vegas Aces

Storyline: Going all in. It’s a whole new day for the second-year Aces after a No. 1 draft pick for the third straight season and a trade for one of the world’s best players. Now with a vaunted lineup that includes Liz Cambage, Rookie of the year A’ja Wilson, All-Star Kayla McBride, and former No. 1 pick Kelsey Plum, this team is arguably the one to beat for the 2019 title. All that’s left now is figuring out some team chemistry and handling expectations.

Big moves: First a No. 1 draft pick in Jackie Young of Notre Dame and then the biggest trade of the offseason brings Liz Cambage to Sin City. Biggest offseason in the league with the potential for the biggest impact.

Focus on: Kelsey Plum. With Moriah Jefferson gone, Plum will need to step up as a floor leader and mentor to Jackie Young while providing scoring punch.

What happens next: The sudden preseason favorites open with a tough trio – Los Angeles, Phoenix and Connecticut. It will be quick check on the new chemistry of this loaded team.

Los Angeles Sparks

Storyline: We’re in the big time now. New head coach Derek Fisher is going big in his first WNBA season. Fisher will try to get the Sparks back to the top of the title contention list with an All-Star frontcourt and a backcourt anchored by Chelsea Gray and Alana Beard. Fisher is going to go with size in his debut season as a WNBA coach with depth, athleticism, experience and matchup problems in the paint for most of the rest of the league to handle. After three straight trips to the WNBA Finals and a championship in 2016, the Sparks are ready to win big.

Big moves: The addition of Chiney Ogwumike to the frontcourt in a grouping that already included her sister Nneka, Candace Parker, Jantel Lavender and top draft pick Kalani Brown is going to make the Sparks a difficult defensive matchup inside for most teams in the league.

Focus on: Candace Parker. Starting the season without Parker as a result of a hamstring injury that will keep her out a few weeks will be hard, but the depth inside will keep the Sparks afloat. That said, a healthy Parker is still one of the best players in the world and the Sparks could go on a tear if she returns in a good physical place.

What happens next: A lot of road games to start the season. The Sparks will play five of six games away from Staples Center to open the 2019 schedule, including very interesting matchups against Las Vegas, Connecticut, Minnesota and Phoenix.

Minnesota Lynx

Storyline: Different can be good. The Lynx look much different than they did just two years. There is no more Lindsay Whalen. No Maya Moore this season. It’s unclear if Rebekkah Brunson will be back. But Cheryl Reeve is excited for a future that includes former MVP Sylvia Fowles, veteran guard Seimone Augustus, point guard Danielle Robinson and the addition of young talent like Odyssey Sims and rookie draft pick Napheesa Collier, a versatile talent with immediate star potential. After last year’s first-round exit (following one of the greatest runs of success in league history), it’s time for something new in Minneapolis.

Big moves: Without Maya Moore on the floor this season, Minnesota needed some offensive punch in the backcourt and got Odyssey Sims from LA. Sims has proven that she can be a dangerous scorer. Karima Christmas-Kelly, another veteran who missed the 2018 season with injury, brings experience and presence.

Focus on: Danielle Robinson. Whalen is gone, so it’s Robinson’s team to run on the floor. She likes to push. She and Reeve will need to get on the same page.

What happens next: The Lynx open with four of six, and seven of 10 games at home, at a place with perhaps the best home court advantage in the WNBA.

New York Liberty

Storyline: New ownership, new era.  Stability has returned to the Liberty franchise, allowing them to focus not on what’s new, but on an old, familiar place – the playoffs – with Tina Charles and talented rookie Asia Durr. Kia Nurse, Kiah Stokes and Brittany Boyd bring much-needed experience to the floor. This team, which won a franchise-low seven games a season ago, hasn’t played in the WNBA Finals in 16 years, and Katie Smith is going to look to spend this season getting the pieces in place for the future.

Big moves: Getting Charles signed for the season was the big move here, but so was signing 19-year-old Chinese sensation Han Xu, who happens to be 6-foot-9. Getting Tanisha Wright in a four-team trade helps with experience.

Focus on: Kia Nurse. Nurse is also poised for a breakout as a scoring point guard. Nurse put up 25 points in the Liberty’s preseason finale.

What happens next: The Liberty open with five of six games at home, the only road game in the group in Indiana.

Phoenix Mercury

Storyline: Playing the waiting game. The Mercury want to make a run at another title, and will be waiting for Diana Taurasi to return from her back surgery, but in the meantime, Brittney Griner, DeWanna Bonner and Briann January will hold down the fort. Griner has been putting up MVP-quality numbers for the past few years, Bonner is one of the toughest one-on-one defensive matchups in the league and when Tarausi arrives in time for the second half of the season, there’s every reason to expect that the Mercury will be poised for a long postseason run.

Big moves: The addition of Essence Carson provides depth and toughness, and the Mercury’s top two draft picks, Alanna Smith from Stanford and Sophie Cunningham of Missouri, have the opportunity to contribute immediately.

Focus on: Brittney Griner. Her game keeps maturing and at this rate, she will be among the MVP favorites to start the season.

What happens next: It’s a tough start for the Mercury, who go on the road for four of their first five games in a stretch includes matchups against Seattle, Las Vegas, and Minnesota.

Seattle Storm

Storyline: Making lemonade out of lemons. This isn’t the title defense that the Storm thought they would have, with MVP Breanna Stewart sitting out the season due to an Achilles injury, and without head coach Dan Hughes for the start of the season as he undergoes cancer treatment. This is still a team anchored by Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd, heading into her fourth WNBA season. Mercedes Russell and Crystal Langhorne are back inside, and Natasha Howard might be poised for her breakout season in the frontcourt.

Big moves: Veteran Shavonte Zellous was the biggest pickup of the offseason for a team that didn’t think it needed much before Stewart’s injury changed the equation.

Focus on: Jordin Canada. The second-year guard showed herself to be a very capable backup for Bird and Loyd. They will lean on her even harder this year.

What happens next: The Storm will play the first three home games of the season in Everett, Washington before moving to the University of Washington’s Alaska Airlines Arena for the remainder of the schedule. Seven of their first nine games will be on the road, including a season-opener rematch of last year’s epic semifinal against Phoenix.

Washington Mystics

Storyline: Hungry for more. The Mystics made their first-ever trip to the WNBA Finals last season and that has left this group with a craving for more. Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver lead the way for a team that is balanced, experienced (all five starters returning) and features the return of 6-foot-4 forward Emma Meesseman. Ariel Atkins will look to build on a strong rookie season and coach Mike Thibault will play a forward-heavy lineup in his continued noble quest for a team that can play ‘position-less’ basketball.

Big moves: Getting Meeseeman, who averaged 14.1 points a game in 2017 before missing the 2018 season with the Belgian National Team, back on the floor is the best thing that could happen to the Mystics this season.

Focus on: Shatori Walker-Kimbrough. The shooting guard from Maryland put up 18 points in the preseason finale. She averaged 3.5 points a game in 2018.

What happens next: The Mystics, playing their home games this season at the new Entertainment and Sports Arena in southeastern D.C., play seven of their first 11 games on the road to open the schedule.