2016 WNBA Team Previews: Minnesota Lynx

 

PG: Lindsay Whalen/Renee Montgomery

SG: Seimone Augustus/Jia Perkins

SF: Maya Moore/Keisha Hampton

PF: Rebekkah Brunson/Natasha Howard/Bashaara Graves

C: Sylvia Fowles/Janel McCarville

Another team kind enough to cut their roster down to size nice and early. They have absolutely no chance to carry more than 11 players. This is a throughly veteran – and therefore thoroughly expensive – roster.


Significant additions
: Perkins was brought in from San Antonio to help deepen the guard group, while Janel McCarville returns in the post. They’ll be hoping that Howard or Graves can provide minutes inside as well.

Significant losses: Anna Cruz might be seen at some point this season, but not until after the Olympics; Devereaux Peters was signed-and-traded to Indiana in the deal that brought Howard back; and they moved on from both Tricia Liston and Asjha Jones, neither of whom will be particularly missed.


Overview

The champs are back again, trying to do one of the few things this group is yet to achieve – repeating as champions. The roster reflects that they feel their time to win is right now (understandably, considering their aging core and all the winning they’ve done in recent years). The roster is even older than last year, with veteran backups behind the veteran starters. One of these days, this team will get too old (or at some point, presumably, they’ll start retiring). But with Maya Moore still in her absolute prime and leading the way, there’s little reason to believe that the decline will start this year.

In fact, there’s every reason to think that the Lynx could be a little better overall than they were last season. Sylvia Fowles is there from the start this time, so should be more integrated into the offense and more comfortable with the system. Cheryl Reeve always managed to build impressive defenses without a dominant presence in the middle, so with Fowles to work with they should be even better on that end. Lindsay Whalen played through injuries for most of last season, and while she might be a little into the downslope of her career arc, an offseason to recover should mean she’s more effective this season. Seimone Augustus was banged up last year too, but that does seem to be true pretty frequently. She’s still an exceptional player, but expecting her to be in one piece all year is probably optimistic.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Los Angeles Sparks

 

PG: Kristi Toliver/Chelsea Gray

SG: Alana Beard/Ana Dabovic

SF: Candace Parker/Eugeniya Belyakova/Essence Carson

PF: Nneka Ogwumike/Jelena Dubljevic

C: Jantel Lavender/Ann Wauters

At time of writing, LA still officially have 18 freaking players on their roster, so you’ll have to forgive me if Brian Agler makes some unexpected choices and the list above proves inaccurate. If it’s correct, there’s one place left for Crystal Bradford, Brianna Butler, Jennifer Hamson, KK Houser, Whitney Knight, Jasmine Lister and Rebecca Tobin to fight over.


Significant additions
: Chelsea Gray was added in a draft-night trade from Connecticut, Essence Carson in free agency, and then they went international. You may not have heard of Dubljevic or Belyakova, but they’re well-established, veteran performers in Europe. Even more ‘veteran’ is Ann Wauters, returning to the WNBA for the first time since a brief stint with Seattle in 2012. They also signed-and-traded for Riquna Williams, only to see her rupture her Achilles before ever putting on a Sparks uniform. She’ll presumably be suspended for the year.

Significant losses: Despite all those additions, they haven’t lost many people that’ll matter. Marianna Tolo is still recovering from injury in Australia, Temeka Johnson wasn’t re-signed, and Phillips was traded. That’s about it.


Overview

I feel like it’s hard to say anything particularly new about the Sparks. They’ve got the same core that’s been there for years. They’ve got oodles of talent. There is no good reason why they shouldn’t be one of the best teams in the league, and a serious threat to win the championship. But year after year they come up short. Candace Parker is yet to make an appearance in the WNBA Finals, never mind win a title. So here we go again – if Agler can mesh the pieces together, they could be exceptional. But that niggling little feeling remains that they’ll find a way to screw it up.

At least they’ve got Parker from the start this year, after she skipped half of last season to rest. Once she returned in 2015 she was a star, encouraged by Agler into being more of a fulcrum and creator than other coaches had managed in the past. The fit in the frontcourt with Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Jantel Lavender remains a little awkward, because they’re all good enough to demand playing time but none is at their best playing small forward. But we’ve seen it work in the past for extended stretches. They can all score in multiple ways, and with everyone in camp on time this year, Agler has a better chance at creating a solid team defense. They were messy on that end last season, despite his successes in the past.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Dallas Wings

PG: Odyssey Sims/Brianna Kiesel

SG: Skylar Diggins/Erin Phillips

SF: Karima Christmas/Aerial Powers/Jordan Hooper

PF: Glory Johnson/Plenette Pierson

C: Courtney Paris/Theresa Plaisance/Ruth Hamblin

And thanks to the Zahui B trade, that’s it. They’re still young enough to easily carry 12 players, although no longer with the ludicrous amounts of cap space that they had during multiple years in Tulsa.


Significant additions
: Johnson’s back from pregnancy, Phillips arrived in a trade with LA, and Powers was the #5 pick in the draft. Most importantly of all, assuming she’s actually back in one piece, Diggins returns from tearing her ACL early last season. Oh, and they’ve added a new city, name, and hideous colour-scheme, too.

Significant losses: Riquna Williams was sent to LA in the Phillips trade, they gave up on Amanda Zahui B after just one season, and Vicki Baugh was cut as well, placing extra pressure on the remaining post players. The name and city of the Tulsa Shock are also no more, obviously.


Overview

After half a decade in the mire of terrible basketball, the Tulsa Shock finally dragged themselves into the realm of respectability last season. Even after Skylar Diggins blew out her knee after nine games, and with fellow star guard Odyssey Sims battling injury herself all season, they managed to claw their way to enough wins for their first playoff appearance since leaving Detroit. Unfortunately for fans in Oklahoma, all that was accomplished while everyone already knew they were on their was to Dallas. But with a new city and fanbase behind them, this young squad has the chance to continue to grow and develop, and start chasing down the league’s true powers.

Of course, their chances in 2016 are heavily dependent on the health of that scarily talented backcourt. Diggins says her knee is ready, and the Wings reportedly expect her to play from the start of the regular season, but neither she nor Sims appeared in the preseason. If they’re both 100%, Diggins and Sims present a two-headed monster for opposing defenses that’s very hard to handle. Neither is really a point guard, but between them they can run the offense, score from anywhere, and drive at will. Few teams have two backcourt defenders that they’re comfortable assigning to offensive talents like that.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Washington Mystics

 

PG: Ivory Latta/Natasha Cloud

SG: Bria Hartley/Tayler Hill

SF: Tierra Ruffin-Pratt/Kahleah Copper

PF: Emma Meesseman

C: Stefanie Dolson/Kia Vaughn

Plus three out of Tianna Hawkins, LaToya Sanders, Ally Malott and Zoi Dimitrakou. The decision might be made for Mike Thibault if Sanders is staying with the Turkish national team to prepare for the Olympic qualifier. They have the cap room to temporarily suspend Sanders and keep the other 12, if necessary.


Significant additions
: Copper in the draft, and Hawkins back from pregnancy (assuming she makes the roster). Thibault didn’t manage to do much to improve them this offseason.

Significant losses: Kara Lawson is still working for ESPN, and last I heard still thinking about playing at some point this season. But certainly not from the start, and as an unrestricted free agent it wouldn’t have to be for Washington even if she decides to play. Armintie Herrington retired, but did very little for the Mystics last year. Latta had surgery on her knee a few weeks ago, but is expected to return fairly soon.


Overview

And here we have another team that – since Thibault’s arrival – somehow always manages to be more than the sum of its parts. There are no superstars here, although Meesseman is quietly one of the most talented young players in the game, Dolson took a big step forward last season, and Latta can be electric on any given night. They play as a collective group, they battle, they claw out wins you don’t expect them to get, and then every year you look up at the standings and they’re in the thick of the playoff hunt.

With Kia Vaughn injured for much of last season, the post pairing of Meesseman and Dolson had time to gel as the definitive first-choice front line for the Mystics. Meesseman can still be too passive for a player with her level of skill both around the rim and out towards the three-point line, but when they convince her to be aggressive and take everything on offer, she can be a beast. Dolson has grown into a solid and reliable pivot, with a surprising scoring touch. With Vaughn and hopefully Sanders around to back them up, plus whatever Hawkins is capable of returning from pregnancy, Washington have a strong and deep post corps.

The situation on the perimeter is a little dicier. There’s some talent there, but you’re never quite sure who might show up on any given night. Losing Lawson cuts into their shooting, and Latta’s the only one left on the squad that opposition defenses really respect from outside. Hill hasn’t shown anything remotely approaching consistency since entering the league, Cloud was a useful all-purpose guard last year but never showed much scoring ability, and Ruffin-Pratt is a big wing more useful for her defense and physicality than her offense. They’ll be anticipating more from Hartley this year, after she struggled with injuries last season, and hoping that rookie Copper can help out as well. And they’ll be anxious to get Latta back to provide her typical energy and drive at the point of attack. But there’s no one they can truly rely on night-in and night-out.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: New York Liberty

 

PG: Brittany Boyd/Lindsey Harding/Shoni Schimmel

SG: Tanisha Wright/Sugar Rodgers/Ameryst Alston/(Epiphanny Prince)

SF: Shavonte Zellous

PF: Tina Charles/Adut Bulgak

C: Kiah Stokes/Amanda Zahui B./Carolyn Swords

Presumably, Prince will be temporarily suspended, allowing the Liberty to carry 12 players plus her. They have the cap space to manage that, thanks to the youth of much of the roster.


Significant additions
: Zellous as a free agent from Indiana, Harding as a vet option to help at the point, and both Schimmel and Zahui B in trades for minimal cost during training camp.

Significant losses: Prince tore her ACL overseas and is far and away the most meaningful loss. Essence Carson left for LA and Candice Wiggins retired, but neither will be hugely missed. Swin Cash was a late cut when the roster crowding forced a tough decision.


Overview

The Liberty were a surprise last season. After a couple of years in the lottery, then an offseason of turmoil where head coach Bill Laimbeer was fired and re-hired, and Isiah Thomas joined the front office, few were expecting such a dramatic turnaround. But Laimbeer finally got his squad playing as a unit, hit a shock home run in the draft with Kiah Stokes to help knit together a league-leading defense, and somehow they finished with the best record in the entire WNBA. It all ended in disappointment when Indiana upset them in the Eastern Conference Finals, but overall it was a dramatic step forward from where they’d been. Now the question is whether they can repeat the trick, and how much damage Prince’s injury will do to their prospects.

Tina Charles remains the fulcrum for everything New York does offensively, and while she still had her moments of drifting too far away from the basket and firing bad shots last season, it was better than in the previous couple. But the loss of Prince could hurt her, allowing defenses to pay even more attention to collapsing around her and forcing her teammates to make shots. Zellous was the best replacement they could’ve hoped for in free agency, with players of her calibre rarely available on the open market in this league, but they’ll need the Zellous of a couple of years ago to return. Last season she was limited by injuries and an aborted trip overseas, and never really got going.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Indiana Fever

 

PG: Briann January/Erica Wheeler/Brene Moseley

SG: Shenise Johnson/Tiffany Mitchell/Maggie Lucas

SF: Marissa Coleman

PF: Tamika Catchings/Devereaux Peters/Lynetta Kizer

C: Erlana Larkins/Natalie Achonwa

And that’s it. Thank you Indiana for being the rare team that makes their cuts early enough for me to preview the actual roster. Unless they cut one of the guards to save cash and preserve some extra flexibility.


Significant additions
: Mitchell adds to the guard corps, Peters to the posts. That’s it.

Significant losses: Shavonte Zellous left for nothing in free agency (and I’m still not really sure why they didn’t core her and extract some value in a trade); they gave up on Natasha Howard to acquire Peters; and Layshia Clarendon was traded to Atlanta after three years of trying to convert her into something resembling a point guard.


Overview

While she won’t really want it to be, this season will likely be all about Tamika Catchings for the Indiana Fever. When one of the greats announces their retirement with over a season to go, it inevitably becomes something of a farewell tour. But Catch has always been the ultimate competitor and she won’t be fading away with a whimper, or with a trainwreck season like Kobe Bryant and the Lakers (although based on last year, her shooting percentage might not be that much better than Kobe’s). While Catchings remained the leader of this squad last season, for the first time they looked capable of surviving and winning games without her always being at the controls. It looked like the pieces were starting to move into place for when she’s gone. So one last hurrah while she’s still part of the equation is certainly in play.

The Fever haven’t always been the prettiest team to watch in action. While they were one of the first WNBA teams to embrace ‘smallball’ when Catchings slid down to power forward full-time a few years ago, they’ve always been more about guts than glitz. The approach changed a little last year when Stephanie White took over from Lin Dunn, and demanded that her team speed things up a little. They won games with depth, and with contributions from a variety of different places on different nights. Shenise Johnson looked more comfortable and effective than she ever did in three years in San Antonio. Marissa Coleman had her best season in the WNBA in her seventh year. They pieced together a post rotation with the likes of Kizer, Achonwa and Howard helping out a limited Catchings and a beaten up Larkins. It felt like there was smoke and mirrors involved at times, but as the Fever have been doing for over a decade under Catchings’s leadership, they battled through and won games. Then tossed in a playoff run that came up just one game short of another title.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Chicago Sky

 

PG: Courtney Vandersloot/Jamierra Faulkner

SG: Cappie Pondexter/Allie Quigley

SF: Elena Delle Donne/Tamera Young/Betnijah Laney

PF: Jessica Breland/Cheyenne Parker

C: Erika de Souza/Imani Boyette/Clarissa Dos Santos

Guard Yvonne Turner is still in camp, but seems unlikely to beat out any of the 12 above.


Significant additions
: Boyette, they hope. That’s literally it.

Significant losses: Also virtually nothing. This is a rinse-and-repeat squad, hoping for internal growth and a little more luck than last year.


Overview

The Sky haven’t changed much from last year because they didn’t feel like they had to. And that’s understandable. Elena Delle Donne made that extra leap from star to MVP, stayed largely healthy over the course of the season, and if that repeats they’ve got every chance to be one of the best teams in the league once again. Courtney Vandersloot has developed into one of the better point guards in the WNBA, both as the manager of Chicago’s offense and as a shooter willing to fire away when the opportunity presents itself. Cappie Pondexter fit in nicely last year as Delle Donne’s second-banana, looking happy to have the weight taken off her shoulders rather than annoyed at no longer being her team’s star. And when they need more perimeter scoring, Allie Quigley’s still there coming off the bench.

The questions for Chicago come on the interior, and at the defensive end. Delle Donne will play plenty of power forward, so they don’t need 80 minutes from their collection of posts, but they do need some modicum of rim protection and an attention to detail that was lacking at times last year. They don’t have the distraction of Sylvia Fowles’s holdout hanging over their heads this year, but they also don’t have anything resembling the interior presence she used to provide. Erika de Souza is back, but looked a shadow of her former self even before being acquired by the Sky midway through last season. Jessica Breland offers some range with her elbow jumper and some hard-nosed play at the 4, but in some ways is an awkward fit with Delle Donne. The superstar’s most effective position, at both ends of the floor, is probably also power forward, so matching up the defensive assignments can be awkward with Delle Donne, Breland and a big all on the floor. Beyond that, you’re hoping for the young bucks to step forward and demand time. Cheyenne Parker showed occasional flashes as a rookie, but little that looked deserving of being the #5 overall pick. Boyette is long and athletic, but looked raw even in college. As in various previous years, Pokey Chatman is going into the season not knowing quite what she’ll get from several pieces, and hoping they add up to enough to get the job done.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Connecticut Sun

 

PG: Jasmine Thomas/Rachel Banham

SG: Alex Bentley

SF: Alyssa Thomas/Shekinna Stricklen

PF: Chiney Ogwumike/Camille Little/Morgan Tuck

C: Kelsey Bone/Jonquel Jones/Aneika Henry-Morello

Plus one of the Jamie Weisner, Kelly Faris and Jennifer O’Neill guard trio that are still hanging around in camp.


Significant additions
: The return of Ogwumike from microfracture knee surgery, assuming she’s actually healthy; yet more promising kids in top-six picks Banham, Tuck and Jones; and a new head coach in Curt Miller, replacing the somnolent and unsuccessful Anne Donovan.

Significant losses: They gave up on Chelsea Gray and Elizabeth Williams after only one season, trading them for draft picks. But that’s about it.


Overview

After a great start to last season, the wheels fell off for Connecticut and they regressed back to the messy team we’d been watching ever since the franchise dumped Mike Thibault and handed the reins over to Donovan. But there was positive growth. In the absence of Ogwumike, Kelsey Bone had room to flourish as the main low-post threat, while Alex Bentley had another strong year as the primary scorer on the perimeter. Now with Ogwumike back and yet more young talent piled on what they already had, there are reasons for legitimate optimism around this franchise for the first time in years.

Ogwumike was a star in the making before her knee injury, and if she’s back at anything like 100% she’ll be a big piece of the puzzle for the Sun in the paint. It’s worrying that she hasn’t appeared at all in the preseason, even if the Sun claim they’re just being careful, so it’s a case of waiting to see what she can do. There should be less of a load for her to carry than in her rookie year in 2014, with Bone a distinctly improved player, veteran options like Little and Henry-Morello, and fresh youngsters Tuck and Jones. This could be a deep, powerful rotation inside, health permitting.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Atlanta Dream

 

Yes, I’m back, hopefully with more content this year. We’re kicking off with the usual team-by-team previews, in the traditional Eastern Conference first, alphabetical order (even though the WNBA essentially destroyed conferences this offseason – more on that later). Enjoy, and as always feel free to comment underneath or contact me at @RichardCohen1

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PG: Matee Ajavon/Carla Cortijo

SG: Tiffany Hayes/Layshia Clarendon/Meighan Simmons

SF: Angel McCoughtry/Bria Holmes

PF: Sancho Lyttle/Reshanda Gray/Cierra Burdick

C: Elizabeth Williams/Rachel Hollivay


Significant additions
: Williams and Clarendon, to be generous. Cortijo is virtually new after playing two games last year. Holmes was their first-round pick. But nothing much to get excited about.

Significant losses: Shoni Schimmel’s gone, after head coach Michael Cooper finally grew tired of her issues with staying in shape. Damiris Dantas has been suspended for the season, presumably after choosing to stay with the Brazilian national team rather than show up in Atlanta. They also chose not to match the restricted free agent offer sheet Connecticut handed Aneika Henry-Morello.


Overview

The Dream were a mess last year, and there aren’t many signs that they’re likely to drag themselves out of it in 2016. McCoughtry’s a star, Hayes and Lyttle are two very good pieces, and there are some youngsters dotted around that might make progress, but you need to be a distinct optimist to be hopeful about their upcoming season. The revolving door at point guard remains a gaping question mark, with no one quite sure how Cooper’s going to try to fill it. In recent days they waived a couple of drafted options in Niya Johnson and Ariel Massengale, picked up another off waivers in Jordan Jones (before waiving her as well), and traded for a pseudo-point in Layshia Clarendon. All after dumping Schimmel for a second-round pick to New York. Ajavon isn’t a point guard, Cortijo’s a virtual unknown, and if they’ve signed a couple more options by the time you’re reading this it wouldn’t be a surprise. It’s a shambles.

In an Olympic year they’re also likely to lose Lyttle for several games midseason to help Spain qualify, assuming she shows up in the first place (having already lost fellow post Damiris Dantas to Brazil). They sent the 4th overall pick in the draft, who could’ve provided some hope and excitement for the fan-base, to Connecticut for Elizabeth Williams. After giving up on the deteriorating Erika de Souza last season, the Dream needed a new option at center, but Williams looked pretty ordinary in her rookie year with the Sun last season. She’ll probably fill the hole well enough, but dumping the #4 pick for her was a high price to pay.

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Last-Minute 2015 WNBA Predictions: Awards and Standings and Playoffs, Oh My!

 

Most Valuable Player

 

In trying to come up with a shortlist of MVP candidates, I only ended up with eight names that seemed plausible. Obviously injuries can push certain players to the fore, or take them out of the running entirely, but with so many players sitting out or taking time off this year it cuts down on the candidates. And if you think anyone on the rosters in Washington, Connecticut, Seattle or San Antonio have a realistic MVP shot then you’re more positive about their chances than I am.

That left me with, in alphabetical order, Tamika Catchings, Tina Charles, Elena Delle Donne, Skylar Diggins, Brittney Griner, Angel McCoughtry, Maya Moore and Nneka Ogwumike. I don’t trust Catchings to stay healthy and play close enough to 34 games. It’s probably too soon for Diggins, plus the Shock may not be good enough (it takes something extraordinary to win an MVP on a poor, or even mediocre, team). Charles’s focus and intensity has been too inconsistent in recent years, although she should pile up raw stats this year in New York. Ogwumike may take a little time to settle in as a more central offensive figure in Los Angeles without Candace Parker around, and Parker’s possible return could affect her as well.

That leaves four. Moore will inevitably be a strong candidate again, and her history suggests breaking down due to injury is unlikely. Oddly, winning consecutive MVP awards is very rare in the WNBA – despite multiple multi-time winners, no one’s won two in a row since Cynthia Cooper in the league’s first two seasons. But breaking records and accomplishing unusual feats is nothing new for Moore. McCoughtry is apparently more settled and focussed this year, according to media reports, after talking openly about her sexuality. She should be as impressive as ever on the floor, although her base shooting percentages can count against her. Griner will be more in the spotlight than ever this season, with Diana Taurasi out of the picture and her marriage splashed across the news. Missing seven games due to suspension at the start of the season will make it difficult for her to win MVP though, even if she’s exceptional for the rest of the year. That’s 21% of the season she’s missing, right off the bat. Delle Donne will have to take on more of the load in Chicago this year with Sylvia Fowles out, and looks a strong contender – assuming she stays healthy. That has obviously been a significant concern in previous years.

So, boringly, I’ll take Maya Moore to repeat. Delle Donne second, McCoughtry third, for what that’s worth. It should be fun seeing them all fight it out.

 

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All-WNBA

 

Well I made most of the arguments for this in the MVP discussion above, so let’s just skip to the picks:

 

First Team

Skylar Diggins
Angel McCoughtry (yes, I fully expect them to fudge the positional requirements)
Maya Moore
Elena Delle Donne
Brittney Griner

 

Second Team

Lindsay Whalen
Seimone Augustus
Candice Dupree
Nneka Ogwumike
Tina Charles

 

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