- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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The WNBA is at its best in the West again in 2014.
There can be little argument that the power in this league continues to lie in the Western Conference, but there might be some argument about which West team reigns supreme.
Minnesota -- its star-studded roster largely intact -- is coming off another impressive title run, a sweep in the WNBA Finals against Atlanta last fall that sets up the Lynx as the early favorites to repeat.
But Los Angeles seems poised again to turn the Western Conference into a competitive, compelling race. Candace Parker's hunger to win a title has to be reaching a peak after last year's first-round playoff exit and the franchise's near demise over the winter when ownership relinquished control before a new group, led by Magic Johnson, took over.
Here's a quick look at the West for 2014, with teams listed in their projected order of finish.
1. Minnesota Lynx: Despite some early injury issues that are going to impact the roster in the first half of the season, the Lynx are still going to be most people's favorite to repeat as WNBA champions thanks to an experienced, talented roster led by MVP candidate Maya Moore. She had her best season in the league last year, and though L.A.'s Parker won the honor, Moore made a strong case for regular-season MVP honors. Moore has plenty of company at the top of the marquee, including point guard Lindsay Whalen, veteran shooter Seimone Augustus, power forward Rebekkah Brunson and reborn center Janel McCarville, who was re-signed in the offseason along with Monica Wright. But knee injuries will force Brunson and Wright to sit out a large chunk of the first half of the season, and those absences could put the Lynx behind in the competitive West. Still, Minnesota simply knows how to win games, and there's no reason to think the Lynx won't win a lot of them.
2. Los Angeles Sparks: The Sparks, who survived a tumultuous offseason in which the franchise faced the possibility of folding or relocating to the Bay Area, have plenty to play for in their resurrection season. The Sparks have as much talent on their roster as any team in the league and might be more hungry than anyone because reigning MVP Parker desperately wants to win a title. The pieces are there with Nneka Ogwumike, Lindsey Harding, Alana Beard and Kristi Toliver, and Los Angeles strengthened its bench by adding veteran Candice Wiggins and French star Sandrine Gruda. The Sparks look poised to take the Lynx to the wire in the West race and to go far beyond, perhaps even to the championship.
3. Phoenix Mercury: With Diana Taurasi presumably closing in on the end of her stellar career and Brittney Griner really just starting hers, the Mercury are looking for something of a reboot under new coach Sandy Brondello. A former Australian Olympian, Brondello will likely slow the run-and-gun that the Mercury played for years under Paul Westhead and then Corey Gaines. Brondello will also likely build an offense around getting the ball inside to Griner, whose rookie season was something a little less than everyone hoped, thanks to injury issues and the time she needed to adjust to the pro game. Taurasi is still the centerpiece, the team's most reliable scorer, while Candice Dupree remains one of the game's most dynamic frontcourt talents. It remains to be seen whether Penny Taylor can contribute the way she has in the past, and how free-agent point guard Erin Phillips can impact the Mercury. But if Griner gets going, things will heat up in Phoenix and the West will be even more competitive.
4. Seattle Storm: Seattle was a surprise playoff team last year without two All-Stars, center Lauren Jackson and point guard Sue Bird. While three-time MVP Jackson is out another season (she had February surgeries on her right knee and left Achilles), Bird is back as the Storm try to return to being a mover and shaker at the top of the conference standings. Seattle traded for Crystal Langhorne on draft day, and coach Brian Agler hopes the two-time All-Star provides the presence in the paint the Storm need (Seattle is also missing Tina Thompson, who retired after last season). Seattle has stalwarts in Camille Little and Tanisha Wright, a third-year standout-in-waiting in Shekinna Stricklen, and plenty of experience.
5. Tulsa Shock: Another round of wholesale change greets the Shock as they start the new season, including a new coach (WNBA regular Fred Williams) and one of the league's most intriguing young backcourts (Skylar Diggins and Odyssey Sims). Last year, Diggins struggled through her first professional season and finished the year coming off the bench. But Sims will push Diggins to raise the level of her game. And forward Glory Johnson is fast becoming one of the league's most exciting young players.
6. San Antonio Stars: The Stars are short on superstars and need a change of fortune from last season, when ACL injuries to Becky Hammon and Sophia Young-Malcolm derailed their postseason aspirations. Hammon is on the downside of her career but will make a great mentor for rookie Kayla McBride. Young-Malcolm will help bolster an inside game that can't quite compete -- at least on the offensive end -- with some of the formidable frontcourts in the Western Conference.