Sparks, Storm, Sun look like teams to beat

The Los Angeles Sparks made the biggest offseason deal,
acquiring three-time All-Star Chamique Holdsclaw, and once again
look like the team to beat in the WNBA.

Los Angeles' biggest challengers when the league opens its ninth
season Saturday would appear to be the defending champion Seattle
Storm, who lost several key players, and the Connecticut Sun.

The Sparks were a league-best 25-9 last year, including an 11-3
record after coach Michael Cooper left to become an assistant with
the NBA's Denver Nuggets. However, Los Angeles, which won two
titles while appearing in the previous three WNBA Finals, lost in
three games to Sacramento in the first round.

Looking for a return to the top, the Sparks hired former
Southern California coach Henry Bibby last month and acquired
Holdsclaw from Washington to form a formidable duo with reigning
MVP Lisa Leslie.

"They vastly improved themselves with Holdsclaw,'' Detroit
coach Bill Laimbeer said. "I think they are going to be determined
to try to get back to the championship round.''

Holdsclaw missed Washington's last 10 regular-season games last
year due to what she later disclosed was depression. She then asked
for a trade, and was dealt to the Sparks in March.

"Sometimes, change is power. And I feel right now the change
I've made is a great thing for me as a person,'' Holdsclaw said.
"Chamique Holdsclaw the person needed change, and it's great. L.A.
has been great for me.''

Although Seattle still has its top two players – Lauren Jackson
and Sue Bird – and finals MVP Betty Lennox, the Storm lost two
starters. Sheri Sam – a key acquisition last offseason – signed
with Charlotte, and Kamila Vodichkova went to Phoenix. Also, backup
point guard Tully Bevilaqua joined Indiana.

"I was saying we would lose one starter, and worst case
scenario lose two, which is what came to fruition,'' Seattle coach
Anne Donovan said. "What caught me by surprise is the challenge to
keep Tully Bevilaqua. I didn't anticipate teams would come after
our bench. All three players went on to what they perceive to be
bigger roles on the teams they've gone to.''

Diana Taurasi helped the Mercury make a nine-game turnaround
from a league-worst 8-26 mark in 2003, and the club missed a
playoff berth by just one game. Phoenix addressed its glaring
shortcoming in the middle by signing Vodichkova and selecting
Sandora Irvin, the NCAA's career blocks leader at TCU, with the
third overall pick in last month's draft.

In the East, three games separated first and last place, and the
Sun return nearly the same team that came within one shot of
winning the championship.

"I don't know how easy it is to pick anyone in our conference
from year to year,'' Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said. "If we
can play like we did at the end of last year, we have the chance to
be as good as anybody.''

The Sun also bolstered their lineup in the middle, getting
7-foot-2 center Margo Dydek in a trade with San Antonio.

Laimbeer expects every team to be better, but is also confident
his team will bounce back after faltering in defense of its title
last year.

"Obviously, I'm going to pick the Shock to finish first (in the
East),'' he said. "I think Connecticut and Indiana will beat each
other up to see who comes in second and third. Our team is very
focused to get our championship back. What happened to us last year
is that we were just too young to realize how hard we had to play
every night.''

Charlotte made the most changes in hopes of winning a title for
veteran guard Dawn Staley, who signed a one-year deal to come back
this season. In addition to signing Sam, the Sting acquired forward
Tangela Smith and guard Helen Darling, and selected the University
of Minnesota's Janel McCarville with the top pick in last month's

"There is perhaps a little sense of urgency, not knowing how
long Dawn will continue to play,'' Sting coach Trudi Lacey said.
"At the same time, we recognize that we have a new team and it's
going to take us some time to jell and for it to come together.''

Washington, which made a surprising run to the playoffs last
season, has its eighth coach in eight years in Richie Adubato and
is now building its team around second-year guard Alana Beard. The
Mystics added veteran forward DeLisha Milton-Jones as part of the
Holdsclaw trade, and acquired Beard's former Duke teammate.

"I just think that there's a tremendous amount of excitement
about the competition this year and the level of play that we're
going to see,'' first-year WNBA president Donna Orender said.

The average attendance for regular-season games was less than 8,600
last year, slightly lower than the previous season, and more than
2,200 below the 10,869 the league averaged in 1998.

Eight teams saw a dropoff, with New York falling nearly 2,900
from 2003. However, the Liberty played six home games at Radio City
Music Hall because of the Republican Convention at Madison Square
Garden. The Liberty drew the maximum 5,945 at the famed concert
hall, while averaging 11,638 at the Garden – about 800 fewer than
the previous year.

The Mystics averaged a league-best 12,615 despite a dropoff of
about 1,400. Detroit, Los Angeles, Seattle and Connecticut all had
increases of at least 10 percent, and the WNBA Finals between Seattle
and Connecticut was sold out for the first time in league history.

After having three franchises fold and two others move in the
previous two winters, the new season features the same number of
teams in the same locations as the previous season. And the league
has an eye toward expansion once again, having announced plans for
a new team to begin play in Chicago in 2006 and considering more
additions after that.

The traditional All-Star game will return this year, at
Uncasville, Conn., on July 9. Last season, the U.S. national team
played an All-Star team of WNBA players at Radio City Music Hall at
the start of the league's month-long break for the Olympics.

The league is entering the third year of its five-year
collective bargaining agreement, and the third year of a six-year
TV contract with ABC, ESPN and the Oxygen Network.