The best of the WNBA's best
RANKING THE WNBA CHAMPIONS
As the WNBA celebrates its 15th anniversary and closes in on crowning its 15th champion, we debate how the 14 former champions stack up. And of course, SportsNation wants you to rank the teams, too.
|Mechelle Voepel, ESPN.com||Michelle Smith, espnW|
1. 1998 Houston Comets (27-3)
We judge athletes and teams from the past in two ways: We can overestimate their skill and success because of the nostalgia factor. We can underestimate them because we know, like everything else, sports are evolutionary and each generation gets better.
So why rank a team from the WNBA's second season as the best of all 14 league champions? Because I tried to split the difference between those two views. And because the '98 Comets perfectly fit a formula for a successful team as described by legendary former Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore: "You give me three who can score, and I'm going to win a whole lot of basketball games." Or as former Comets coach Van Chancellor put it: "Thank God for great players."
Chancellor had three future Hall of Famers from 1997 to 2000: Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson. The other member of "The Big Four" -- Brazilian Janeth Arcain -- actually came off the bench most of the 1998 season. The other starters were the point guard who blended the talent so well, Kim Perrot, and center Monica Lamb, who had her only productive WNBA season that year.
At 35, Cooper was still in the extended prime of her career in 1998, averaging a league-best 22.7 points and being named MVP for the second season in a row. Swoopes, who gave birth in the summer of 1997, played in nine regular-season games during that first Comets title run but was back at superstar level in '98 at age 27, averaging 15.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.5 steals.
Thompson, a post in her second year out of college, averaged 12.7 points and 7.1 rebounds; Perrot averaged 8.5 points and 4.7 assists and led the way in steals, with 84.
The 1998 Comets outscored their foes by an average of nearly 13 points per game. It was the first year of playoff series in the WNBA, which in '98 seeded the top four teams by record. Houston and Phoenix, both Western Conference teams, were in the WNBA Finals. Houston lost Game 1 in Phoenix, then closed out the title with two victories at home.
In 1998, some of the talent in women's basketball was still dispersed to another league, the ABL, whose players came to the WNBA in 1999. And the Houston bench wasn't deep with impact players. But if you put the '98 Comets team in a time machine and advanced it to now, it would be a strong title contender. Consider that Swoopes returned to the league this season at age 40. Thompson, 36, has never left and just finished her 15th season. Cooper, Swoopes and Thompson were honored this summer as part of the top 15 players in WNBA history.
There is a sadness, though, in remembering the 1998 Comets. The four-time championship franchise folded after the 2008 season. And Perrot was actually in the last year of her life in 1998. The following February, she was diagnosed with cancer and died Aug. 19, 1999.
1. 2010 Seattle Storm (28-6)
What more could Seattle have done in 2010 in posting one of the most dominant seasons in league history?
The conventional wisdom is that today's WNBA is a stronger, deeper league with more talent than it had in its early days. Eleven-player rosters have left plenty of talented, capable players on the outside looking in. Making a roster in the world's best league is as difficult as it has ever been.
And yet Seattle was the best team in 2010 by a wide margin. The Storm set the league record for regular-season victories with their 28-6 finish. They finished 21-0 at Key Arena (including the postseason), playing impeccably in front of what can be argued is the league's most supportive fan base.
"It's a rare thing," guard Sue Bird said of the 2010 season. "I just think that season was extremely unique for any WNBA team. Your memory changes over time. You look back at it and you think that it was easy. But it wasn't."
The Storm were a complete team with stars on the inside and the outside in Lauren Jackson and Bird, a front-line No. 3 in Swin Cash and strong play off the bench from veterans Le'Coe Willingham and Svetlana Abrosimova. They were resilient -- winning 13 of their 28 regular-season games despite trailing after three quarters. And, perhaps most importantly, they stayed healthy.
The Western Conference admittedly didn't put up much of a fight, with five of the six teams finishing with a losing record. But the fact that a Phoenix team with Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor and Candice Dupree couldn't beat Seattle all season speaks volumes.
It was a start-to-finish run for the Storm, who opened 9-1, the franchise's best start, and sported a 13-game winning streak at midseason. With five games left in the regular season, the Storm had their home-court advantage sewn up.
But this was a team with a tough postseason history over the previous five seasons -- a run of five straight first-round losses -- and it made a 180-degree turn, sweeping the postseason with a 7-0 record -- the first team to sweep the postseason since Los Angeles did it in 2002.
The Storm made the postseason a continuation of what they had accomplished all year, running through the playoffs without losing a game and playing in one of the most compelling sweeps in WNBA Finals history.
While the Storm were able to claim what was starting to look like their rightful title in just three games against the talented Atlanta Dream, they were all nail-biters, three games decided by a total of eight points.
Bird propelled the team to a Game 1 victory with jumper with 2.6 seconds to go. In Game 3, Seattle needed a fourth-quarter comeback, led by Finals MVP Jackson, to win the clincher in Atlanta.
|2. 2006 Detroit Shock (23-11)
Led by guards Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith, posts Cheryl Ford and Swin Cash, and supersub Plenette Pierson, the Shock had to go the distance against defending champ Sacramento in the Finals. They won Game 5 in Joe Louis Arena (a Mariah Carey concert had the Palace at Auburn Hills booked), but the Shock could have won on a schoolyard blacktop: They were just that kind of gritty, hard-nosed, perfect-for-Detroit team.
|2. 2009 Phoenix Mercury (23-11)
The Mercury were the winner in the most exciting Finals series in WNBA history against the Fever. The Mercury played to the limit in every postseason series in 2009 and fittingly won their second title in five games, including a 120-116 overtime victory that became the highest-scoring game in league history.
|3. 2009 Phoenix Mercury (23-11)
This might have been the best overall WNBA Finals. Phoenix and Indiana intensely battled back and forth, with star players and reserves stepping up at key moments. The Mercury won Game 5 at home in the last contest in which Cappie Pondexter, who requested a trade to New York for the next season, would form the Terrific Trinity with Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor. In what was a difficult year for her off the court personally, Taurasi was the league MVP.
|3. 1998 Houston Comets (27-3)
The Comets were nearly unbeatable that season, posting a regular-season record that still stands as the best single-season winning percentage in league history. The run to the franchise's second consecutive championship included a 15-game winning streak and ended with a 2-1 Finals series win over Phoenix.
|4. 2010 Seattle Storm (28-6)
Am I shortchanging the Storm, who dominated 2010 and had the fewest regular-season losses of any league champ since L.A. in 2001? Perhaps. Maybe that's because the Storm ended up making it look easier than it actually was. Seattle dominated 2010, sweeping through the playoffs for its second WNBA title. And it fit the mold of having three very capable scorers, in league MVP Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird and Swin Cash. Plus, the Storm's so-called role players, like Tanisha Wright and Camille Little, were exceptional.
|4. 2002 Los Angeles Sparks (25-7)
The Sparks capped a perfect postseason run, the first in league history, with a two-game sweep of New York for the franchise's second consecutive title.
|5. 2002 Los Angeles Sparks (25-7)
Lisa Leslie (16.9 ppg) led the Sparks' repeat championship season, but do you know who was just a tenth of a point behind her in scoring average? Mwadi Mabika, who had the best season statistically of her career that year. DeLisha Milton-Jones and Tamecka Dixon also averaged in double figures, Nikki Teasley was the rookie point guard, and Latasha Byears was the enforcer off the bench. This was not a group you wanted to tangle with, and in the WNBA Finals the Sparks swept a determined but ultimately disappointed New York team.
|5. 2001 Los Angeles Sparks (28-4)
The Sparks assembled an 18-game winning streak and closed out the franchise's first title run by beating a Charlotte Sting team that was the lowest seed to ever reach the Finals.
|6. 2008 Detroit Shock (22-12)
It was sort of the last hurrah for the Shock, who got Taj McWilliams-Franklin via trade late in the season to help shore up an injury-depleted inside game. She ended up with the first WNBA title of her long career. In the Finals, the Shock swept a San Antonio team that had the best record of the regular season that year. In 2009, the Shock would fall in the East finals, and then the franchise moved to Tulsa for 2010.
|6. 2003 Detroit Shock (25-9)
The Shock were in last place in 2002. And in 2003, they were WNBA champions for the first time, beating Los Angeles 2-1 in a three-game series.
|7. 1999 Houston Comets (26-6)
The Comets won their third consecutive title with heavy hearts, as point guard Kim Perrot had succumbed to cancer in August. With the rallying cry, "No. 3 for No. 10," Houston -- with Sonja Henning as starting point guard -- looked on the verge of a Finals sweep over New York, but Teresa Weatherspoon hit what remains the most famous shot in WNBA history. Her half-court heave at the buzzer of Game 2 gave the Liberty the win and extended the series. It might have broken another foe, but not Houston. The unfazed Comets took Game 3 and another title.
|7. 2005 Sacramento Monarchs (25-9)
Led by Yolanda Griffith and new addition Nicole Powell, the Monarchs won the battle of the No. 2 seeds in their Finals series against Connecticut, securing the city's second championship in a major sport. It was the first time that a No. 1 seed did not reach the Finals.
|8. 2005 Sacramento Monarchs (25-9)
Yolanda Griffith and the Monarchs had been knocking on the door for a while, and this was finally their year. That season, DeMya Walker led the team in scoring (14.1 ppg). Griffith was the top rebounder (6.6 rpg). Those two and Nicole Powell -- with a fresh start after a rocky rookie season in Charlotte -- joined Ticha Penicheiro and Chelsea Newton in the starting lineup as the defense-first Monarchs handed Connecticut its second straight runner-up finish in the Finals.
|8. 2008 Detroit Shock (22-12)
The Shock pulled off the first sweep in a five-game series in league history, beating San Antonio for the franchise's third title. It marked the team's third consecutive Finals appearance.
|9. 2007 Phoenix Mercury (23-11)
Coach Paul Westhead's style -- "Paul-ball" -- fit this team like a glove. Speaking of such, the Mercury and Shock practically needed boxing gloves in a Finals that got pretty contentious. The Mercury's Terrific Trinity (mentioned above) averaged at least 17 points per game apiece during the regular season and was outstanding in the playoffs, led by Pondexter's 23.9 ppg and 5.8 apg. The series went five games and Phoenix had to win the title on the road at Detroit.
|9. 2007 Phoenix Mercury (23-11)
The Mercury set a league record in averaging 89.0 points per game under second-year coach Paul Westhead. Phoenix also became the first team to win a WNBA title on the road when they defeated Detroit 3-2 in the five-game Finals series.
|10. 2000 Houston Comets (27-5)
This would be the Comets' fourth and final title, and the season was Cynthia Cooper's swan song. Houston didn't win the Western Conference regular-season title; Los Angeles did at 28-4. But the Comets beat the Sparks in the conference finals before going on to sweep New York in the Finals. Swoopes (20.7 ppg), Cooper (17.7) and Thompson (16.9) led the way once again.
|10. 2000 Houston Comets (27-5)
Houston finished second in the conference race, but closed the season with the franchise's fourth and final WNBA championship, defeating New York 2-0. Sheryl Swoopes was both the league MVP and the defensive player of the year that season.
|11. 2001 Los Angeles Sparks (28-4)
The Sparks lost just four games in the regular season for the second year in a row. But after being disappointed in the 2000 playoffs, this time they got the franchise's first title. Their toughest fight of the playoffs was in the Western Conference finals versus Sacramento. Then they defeated Charlotte 2-0 in the WNBA Finals. This team was similar to the one that would repeat as champion in 2002, other than Nikki Teasley, who would join the Sparks as a rookie.
|11. 2004 Seattle Storm (20-14)
A team with 14 losses put it together at the end of the season, making Anne Donovan the first female coach in league history to win a WNBA title. She remains the only one for a few more days -- until a winner is crowned at the end of the 2011 Finals.
|12. 2003 Detroit Shock (25-9)
At the start of the year, Los Angeles was favored to three-peat, while Detroit was coming off a 2002 season in which the Shock had the worst record in the league at 9-23. But coach Bill Laimbeer, who'd taken over the team during the summer of 2002, lifted Detroit all the way to a worst-to-first championship. The Shock had the best regular-season record and, led by Swin Cash and Deanna Nolan, beat the Sparks 2-1 in the WNBA Finals.
|12. 1999 Houston Comets (26-6)
The Comets' third straight WNBA title was one full of meaning after the death of guard Kim Perrot, who lost her battle with cancer right before the end of the regular season. Houston went on to beat New York in the three-game series, recovering after a half-court shot by Teresa Weatherspoon lifted the Liberty to a victory in Game 2.
|13. 1997 Houston Comets (18-10)
They weren't the "best" champion, but they were the first. When the league launched in June 1997, there was no certainty how long it would be around. Not all the top players were even involved in the WNBA; many were with the short-lived ABL. Sheryl Swoopes would miss most of that '97 WNBA season after giving birth. Still, the Comets had the best record in the eight-team inaugural season, beat Phoenix in a one-game semifinal, and then topped New York in a championship game. (Playoff series would start the next year.) An enduring image: Cynthia Cooper, raising the roof, with confetti falling from the ceiling, celebrating a pro championship in her home country after more than a decade of playing overseas.
|13. 2006 Detroit Shock (23-11)
The Shock's 3-2 Final series win over Sacramento marked first time a team won multiple titles -- but not consecutively -- and also was the start of three straight WNBA Finals appearances for Detroit.
|14. 2004 Seattle Storm (20-14)
OK, look: Some team had to be last. This isn't bad, you know. It's like ranking Academy Award winners: Each one still put on an amazing performance and received the exact same Oscar. This Storm team, which finished second in the West regular season to Los Angeles, had Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird just coming into their pro primes. And one of the classic streaky scorers in WNBA history, Betty Lennox, kept tossing sevens versus Connecticut in the Finals, during which she lived up to her nickname, "B-Money."
|14. 1997 Houston Comets (18-10)
A one-game championship format makes it tough to judge this team against the others that won titles, but there was no doubt that the Cynthia Cooper-led Comets really were the first class of the WNBA at the time.