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Is defending WNBA champion Indiana the predicted favorite in the East division?
|Michelle Smith||Mechelle Voepel|
Many WNBA followers might say that Phoenix, Minnesota and Los Angeles are the three best teams in the league, not just the Western Conference.
So where does that leave the East, particularly defending WNBA champion Indiana? Scrambling for the top spot in what should be a very competitive Eastern conference race might be an extended exercise in playing for second.
The Fever have all the big pieces back from the team that defeated the Lynx to win the franchise's first championship. Tamika Catchings is still one of the league's most complete players. Katie Douglas is back and healthy. And most of Indiana's key role players return. But the Fever are going to get pushed in their bid to repeat, because while the East doesn't have the same star power as the West, there's plenty of talent to go around.
Atlanta has been a power in the division for the past few years, but will drama sink the Dream? No one in the league is more dynamic than Angel McCoughtry, but nobody comes with more issues, either. Fred Williams is an experienced WNBA coach, but people will be watching to see who is actually running this team.
Connecticut made a coaching change because nearly getting to the Finals wasn't good enough. Anne Donovan's transition back to the WNBA is certainly easier with MVP candidate Tina Charles on the floor.
Chicago adds Elena Delle Donne and the Sky finally look like a team that can make the playoffs for the first time. As much as Delle Donne will help support Sylvia Fowles in the frontcourt, the Sky will go as guards Epiphanny Prince and Courtney Vandersloot go this season.
New York gets a makeover with Bill Laimbeer and the reunion of Cheryl Ford, Kara Braxton, Katie Smith and Plenette Pierson to give Cappie Pondexter the support she hasn't seen in a few years.
Washington still appears to be bringing up the rear in this conference horse race. Mike Thibault is going to push the Mystics to take steps in the right direction, but it won't happen all at once.
Indiana is still the class of the East, but it won't be easy to win a conference title, much less repeat.
Indiana Fever veteran Katie Douglas jokes that she wouldn't know anything about how long it has been since a WNBA team won back-to-back titles if the media didn't always bring it up. Well, it's good we have some purpose.
Seriously, yes, it has been since the Los Angeles Sparks did it in 2001 and '02. It's hard to do for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the sheer amount of talent there is in the league.
Will Indiana repeat? That I'm not so sure of, but I do think the Fever will finish first in the Eastern Conference. Last year, they were second to Connecticut, but then took over in the postseason.
While a lot is new (or new-ish) in the East -- including coaches Bill Laimbeer (New York) and Anne Donovan (Connecticut), who are back in the league -- the Fever's roster is staying mostly the same.
Led by Tamika Catchings, Indy clicked perfectly at the right time against fairly long odds in the 2012 WNBA Finals, when the Fever didn't have Katie Douglas (ankle). But they did have the likes of Erin Phillips, Shavonte Zellous and Erlana Larkins all playing at their best. Even a role player such as Jeanette Pohlen, who suffered an ACL injury in Game 2 of the Finals, made needed contributions in the postseason.
It's difficult to repeat that on-court chemistry exactly the same way, but I don't think it will be hard for the Fever to maintain their hunger. After all, Catchings and Douglas played a very long time in the WNBA before finally getting that first title. It's not likely they're now content. Both are 34 this year (Douglas last week, Catchings in July), and they know the window will be open only so much longer.
The 2012 championship was also a major career milestone for Indiana coach Lin Dunn. She got the player the Fever wanted in the draft (Cal guard Layshia Clarendon at No. 9), and has the returning pieces she needs to finish atop the East.