Which WNBA team will make greatest leap?
Question: Which WNBA team will be most improved?
Michelle Smith: It's not hard to envision the Phoenix Mercury as the most improved team in the WNBA if the standard is "improved from last year." The two-time champion Mercury endured a run of injuries to key players last season -- Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor, Candice Dupree -- and finished with the second-worst record in the league at 7-27 and in last place in the Western Conference. All three standouts are back this season. But the biggest news is the addition of No. 1 draft pick Brittney Griner, who comes in as the new face of a franchise that has been among the most-star studded in the league. Do things get a whole lot better for Phoenix in 2013? Without question.
Mechelle Voepel: Indeed, the Mercury may end up with the most improved record from last season. And there's no doubt the Great Wall of Griner would improve any team's interior defense, along with the offensive lift she provides. But we probably have to acknowledge a couple of qualifiers with Phoenix's 7-27 mark of 2012. The Mercury had high-quality personnel, but they were decimated by injuries. And because of that, at some point they seemed to give up on the season, which improved Phoenix's lottery odds.
Meanwhile, it didn't seem that Washington threw in the towel, but regardless, the Mystics were terrible. The 6-28 disaster of 2011 actually got worse, with a 5-29 stinker of a season in 2012. Followed by the "Are they cursed?" fourth-place finish in the draft lottery. But then, the best possible thing happened for Washington: Connecticut cut ties with coach Mike Thibault after 10 years. The Mystics needed an experienced coach who could also be a general manager, and Thibault was suddenly free. I think he can help the Mystics be the most improved team this year.
Smith: I agree Washington will get better under Thibault, but how much better? The Mystics had the serious bad luck of falling to fourth in the "3 To See" draft of Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins, missing the chance to get a player who could have changed the fortunes of a franchise that has been characterized by both misfortune and mismanagement. The Mystics took Ohio State guard Tayler Hill with the fourth pick, but as talented an offensive player as Hill is, it remains to be seen whether she can be a franchise changer.
And the Mystics' roster still is light on marquee talents, though Monique Currie and Crystal Langhorne are two of the league's best young players. Thibault needs more than that for a complete makeover.
I think Tulsa, which came so close in so many games last season, has a better chance to make bigger strides than Washington because of the wholesale roster changes Gary Kloppenburg has made -- including the addition of Diggins to go with veterans Candice Wiggins and Nicole Powell -- even though Australian center Liz Cambage decided not to come back this season.
Voepel: Thibault said he wasn't upset with Connecticut for letting him go, as it's "part of the business." That said, I'd suspect he has something to prove this season. Similarly, Hill may feel the same way as the fourth selection in a draft where the three picks before her got all the attention.
The Mystics desperately needed an atmosphere change. When he took the job, Thibault talked about the team needing to regain the mindset of playing hard all the time. Washington is just two seasons removed from finishing first in the Eastern Conference, something current Mystics Langhorne, Currie and Matee Ajavon were part of. Thibault picked up players like point guard Ivory Latta, who had the best season of her WNBA career last year in Tulsa, and center Kia Vaughn, who may be able to return to her 2011 form.
As for Tulsa, I'm with you on that: I think the Shock can be a playoff team this year. But I think Tulsa was already headed in the right direction last season, whereas Washington wasn't.
Smith: When we talk about teams like Washington and Tulsa, teams with a true uphill climb to become better and relevant in the WNBA, it isn't necessarily fair to put Phoenix in that category. The Mercury were a championship-caliber team decimated by injuries that had the extraordinary good fortune to draft perhaps the most impactful rookie in league history. They will go from the team with the worst record in their conference to a title favorite immediately. That's improvement, no doubt.
Voepel: True, and another difference: In general, WNBA fans will be rooting for underdogs Tulsa and Washington, but probably not so much for Phoenix. The Mercury irritated some league followers last season because they believed Phoenix was tanking for lottery purposes. Mercury brass firmly denies this, and never the twain shall meet. Phoenix may be some fans' favorite team to boo this year, which won't bother Diana Taurasi & Co.
Speaking of favorites, Michelle, I'll wish you a happy George Clooney's birthday this fine Monday, May 6. I believe he's one of your all-time faves ... although perhaps dislodged from your No. 1 spot by Ben Affleck after "Argo." :)