- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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The Western Conference has been the power center of the WNBA for the past five years. The place where the superstars compete for and win championships.
But it is also now the place where some of the league's best young talents are poised to make their breakouts: Nneka Ogwumike in Los Angeles, Kayla McBride in San Antonio, Skylar Diggins and Odyssey Sims in Tulsa and, of course, the Seattle rookie combination of Jewell Loyd and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.
Can these youngsters change the balance of power in the West? Or is Minnesota, with its roster mostly intact, poised to reclaim its spot as the best team in the WNBA?
Here's a look at the Western Conference heading into the 2015 WNBA season, with teams listed in their projected order of finish.
Who could blame the Lynx for feeling like they have a prime opportunity this season to recapture their spot at the top of this league? Most of the major players for Minnesota are back on the floor this summer, including preseason MVP favorite Maya Moore, who has turned into the spectacular pro we all knew she would be when she came out of Connecticut five years ago. And she has ample support from veteran point guard Lindsay Whalen, shooting partner Seimone Augustus and one of the league's toughest interior players in Rebekkah Brunson. Janel McCarville, who has been the team's center for the past two seasons, will not play in 2015 and that's a spot that coach Cheryl Reeve hopes to shore up with the acquisition of Asjha Jones. Depth is also a factor; the Lynx must be less reliant on a starting lineup that is getting a little older each season. Falling short of the WNBA finals last year has provided the Lynx the chip on the shoulder they probably needed to make another run at a third title in five years.
The Sparks are going to do things very differently this season in pursuit of a title. Coach Brian Agler -- who coached Seattle since 2008 before he was hired by the Sparks in January -- starts his tenure with a talented team missing (at least for a while) its brightest star. Candace Parker is taking some time off to rest and has indicated she might be back in time for the Sparks' run to the postseason. But at this point, there are no guarantees. That leaves the post to third-year forward Nneka Ogwumike and Jantel Lavender, both of whom might be poised for breakout seasons. Kristi Toliver will run the point, but will miss some time while she plays for the Slovakian team in the EuroBasket tournament in early June. But the Sparks have planned for her absence with the addition of veteran guards Erin Phillips, who won a title last year in Phoenix, and Temeka Johnson.
The defending champions face numerous major challenges in their bid to repeat. Diana Taurasi is taking the year off, Brittney Griner will sit out the first seven games because of the suspension related to the domestic-violence incident with now-wife Glory Johnson, and Penny Taylor is not on the roster this season. That leaves the Mercury depending heavily on veterans Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner, and newly acquired forward Monique Currie, who came over from the Mystics in the offseason. Leilani Mitchell will likely run the point for the Mercury, but Taurasi's absence in the backcourt is going to be acutely felt, in the areas of both scoring and tone-setting. Bonner picked up the offensive slack three years ago when Taurasi -- who averaged 16.2 PPG, 5.6 APG and 3.8 RPG in the 2014 regular season -- was out with injury, and she might need to do so again here.
This young team is becoming more talented by the year and is still waiting to make its first playoff appearance. This might be the year. Guard Skylar Diggins was one of the league's breakout players last season, finishing second in scoring (20.1 points per game) and winning the Most Improved Player award. Backcourt mate Odyssey Sims (16.7 PPG, 4.2 APG and 2.8 RPG in 2014) can fill up a score sheet as well. Riquna Williams, who has already established herself as an offensive force, is back after missing most of last season with a knee injury. With that trio, this team can certainly provide offensive punch from the backcourt. But a team needs more than that, particularly in the Western Conference, where the post play is tough. Johnson will miss the first seven games serving her suspension for the incident with Griner, and rookie Amanda Zahui B might get thrown into the fire quickly. Plenette Pierson, Tiffany Jackson-Jones and Courtney Paris need to show her the way.
The Stars are going to have to figure out how to move forward without leader Becky Hammon, who has retired from playing and is an assistant coach for the Spurs. Still, this is a team with a load of experience all over the floor, including point guard Danielle Robinson, shooting guard Kayla McBride -- who is looking for an even better season after proving to be one of the league's best 3-point shooters as a rookie -- forward Sophia Young-Malcolm, and posts Danielle Adams and Jayne Appel. The early play of youngsters Kayla Alexander and Dearica Hamby gives San Antonio reason to be excited about its frontcourt depth. Shoring up the defense will be a priority for the Stars, who proved they could score with teams most nights, but gave up too many points to be a championship contender.
The Storm are putting this franchise back together. Jenny Boucek begins her first season as head coach, replacing Agler. Lauren Jackson will not be returning for the third straight season -- and it's time for the Storm to move forward. Sue Bird is on the floor to provide her usual dose of steady leadership at point, and she's also serving as a mentor to the two young superstar guards Seattle drafted in April. Jewell Loyd, who came out a year early after leading Notre Dame to consecutive national championship game appearances, and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who won three NCAA titles with UConn, will be the most-watched rookies in the league. Both will be learning on the job how to adjust to the pro game, because they are both in line for significant playing time. Making up for Jackson's absence in the frontcourt will be Crystal Langhorne and Japan's Ramu Tokashiki, a 6-foot-3 forward whom the Storm signed in April.