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Sunday, May 11, 2014
Updated: May 15, 2:26 PM ET
Lynx again the WNBA favorite

By Mechelle Voepel
espnW.com

Lindsay Whalen, Janel McCarville, Maya Moore, Rebekkah Brunson, Seimone Augustus
With all five starters back from its 2013 title team, Minnesota opens as the favorite this season.

The champagne was still wet on coach Cheryl Reeve's clothes when her mind took a quick look ahead. Her Minnesota Lynx had just won their second WNBA title last October, so players and coaches were celebrating with some bubbly. But Reeve also had the big picture in sight.

Three consecutive appearances in the WNBA Finals? Winning two of those three series? Great ... but Reeve knows every WNBA team is still measured against a higher standard set long ago.

That's the four consecutive titles won by the Houston Comets from 1997-2000, the WNBA's first four seasons. The Comets, sadly, are no more. But they set the bar for "dynasty" in the WNBA. And considering the core group that has gotten the Lynx to this point is still together and playing well, it's natural to wonder just how many titles Minnesota can win.

Candace Parker
The Phoenix Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks are expected to be vie for the West title -- and challenge Minnesota for the league crown.

The Lynx start the journey for No. 3 on Friday, as the WNBA launches its 18th season. Minnesota opens at Washington, and it's fair to say that the Lynx are again the league's favorite.

Because of the FIBA World Championship in Turkey later this year (Sept. 27-Oct. 5), the WNBA season tips in mid-May. There's not much, if any, turnaround time for players coming off their seasons overseas, but they're almost all very used to that by now.

And for the past three years, everyone has gotten used to the Lynx being the boss of the WNBA. In that time, Minnesota has gone 80-22 during the regular season and 19-5 in the playoffs. The Lynx fell in the 2012 Finals to Indiana, but they avenged that with a 7-0 run through the postseason last season, sweeping Seattle, Phoenix and Atlanta.

With starters Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen, Rebekkah Brunson and Janel McCarville back, what's going to stop the Lynx in 2014?

The Lynx generally don't make many mistakes, don't have sloppy games and won't let their opponents dictate the pace of play.

Game 3 of the 2012 WNBA Finals -- a 76-59 loss at Indiana in which the Lynx players bizarrely seemed to regress almost to their junior-high selves -- was a rare exception. Take away that loss, though, and we might even be looking at Minnesota going for a four-peat.

Alas, Indiana's 3-1 series win in 2012 is the blemish on dynasty mode for the Lynx, but it also was fuel for last year's powerful surge through the postseason. Minnesota's team chemistry, with just a few changes in personnel over the three years, has stayed remarkably consistent.

So this isn't about challengers hoping the Lynx get content and make themselves easier to catch this season. If someone else is going to take the title, they'll have to storm the castle by force. They will have to be better than the Lynx. Good luck.

The main challengers would appear to be fellow Western Conference foes Los Angeles and Phoenix, both of which play the Lynx four times this season. But the first of those matchups -- Minnesota at L.A. -- won't happen until June 8.

Maya Moore
Maya Moore and the Lynx take aim at their third title in four seasons.

However, the first of five meetings between the Sparks and the Mercury will be May 18 in L.A. The Sparks have plenty to celebrate this season under high-powered new ownership.

Last December, William Group Holdings chairwoman Paula Madison made the surprising announcement that her company was relinquishing ownership of the Sparks. Many feared the team -- one of the WNBA's original franchises -- might have to relocate, but Lakers legend Magic Johnson and Mark Walter, CEO of Guggenheim Partners, bought the Sparks. New owners of that stature -- the duo also headed up the group that bought the Dodgers in 2012 -- gave a boost to both the Sparks franchise and the entire WNBA, which also signed a new collective-bargaining agreement with the players' union earlier this year.

The Sparks won back-to-back titles in 2001-02, but their last appearance in the WNBA Finals was 2003. Last season, L.A. lost in the opening round of the playoffs to Phoenix, which has a new coach now in Sandy Brondello.

The Mercury bounced back last season after the franchise took some heat for perceived tanking in 2012. Phoenix looked more like its old self in 2013, but it will need to be even better this season to challenge Minnesota.

What about the rest of the league? A quick team-by-team look:

• Tulsa has a new coach in Fred Williams, a longtime WNBA presence whose most recent stop was with Atlanta. Williams is the fourth coach for the Shock, who begin their fifth season in Tulsa.

• Guard Sue Bird, who sat out last season recuperating from knee surgery, is back in Seattle, but the Storm won't have center Lauren Jackson for the second consecutive season. Jackson missed 2013 after hamstring surgery, and she'll be out for 2014 after surgeries on her knee and Achilles tendon.

• San Antonio, which was devastated by injuries last season, gets back veterans Becky Hammon and Sophia Young-Malcolm, but lost the "Silver" from its nickname. From now on, it's just the Stars.

• Atlanta, which has reached the WNBA Finals three of the past four seasons, is the Eastern Conference favorite. The Dream lost to Seattle in 2010 and to Minnesota both in 2011 and last year. This season, former Sparks coach Michael Cooper takes over in Atlanta, and Swin Cash -- who won WNBA titles with Detroit and Seattle -- also joins the team after pressuring a trade from Chicago.

• In Indiana, Lin Dunn has announced this will be her final season as head coach. Her star, Tamika Catchings, will turn 35 this summer. The Fever lost Katie Douglas as a free agent to Connecticut, a franchise that went from first in the East in 2012 to last in 2013.

• The Sun had the top pick in the draft, Stanford post player Chiney Ogwumike, and overall, Connecticut is a young team. The Sun's former standout, 2012 league MVP Tina Charles, forced a trade to her hometown of New York, giving the Liberty another top player to go along with Cappie Pondexter.

• The other big news for the Liberty is that they are back home in Madison Square Garden. After a three-year exile to the Rock -- OK, that's the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., not Alcatraz -- the Liberty and their fans return to a fully renovated Garden, at which coach/general manager Bill Laimbeer hopes to bring a WNBA championship banner. The Liberty missed the playoffs last season.

• Chicago made its first postseason appearance last season since that franchise launched in 2006. The Sky were swept by Indiana, but they had the WNBA rookie of the year in Elena Delle Donne.

• Washington also made the playoffs in 2013, the Mystics' first season under coach Mike Thibault, who'd previously been with Connecticut. Thibault has made some interesting moves for 2014, including trading Crystal Langhorne -- who had become the Mystics' centerpiece player during the past five years -- to Seattle.

Incidentally, the Mystics have two members of the UConn team that just won that program's ninth NCAA title: Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley. Geno Auriemma's Huskies have been accused of taking the suspense out of the Women's Final Four, but the Lynx did that to the WNBA Finals last year.

Minnesota won the first two games against Atlanta by 25 points. The Lynx polished off the championship with a nine-point victory that didn't feel that close. In the champagne shower afterward, the Lynx celebrated what they'd just done -- but also didn't sound at all satisfied with "just" two WNBA titles.

Now the quest begins again for another. The WNBA championship trophy might not end up in Minneapolis again. But it's likely going to be a big chore for everyone else to keep that from happening.