Commentary

No clear favorite in the East

Originally Published: May 17, 2012
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW

Angel McCoughtryAP Photo/Jessica HillDespite back-to-back WNBA Finals, Angel McCoughtry's Dream aren't the favorite in 2012.

During the 2010 WNBA season, Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault talked about his team a little like it was a crop that couldn't be rushed, as frustrating as that was. The Sun were growing, and there was a clear plan in place. But it didn't result in a playoff berth that year, making the second consecutive postseason that the franchise missed.

Fast-forward to 2011. This time the Sun did make the playoffs but were swept in the Eastern Conference semifinals by Atlanta. The crop was closer to harvest but still not quite there.

Could this be the season Connecticut makes it back to the WNBA Finals, to which it last advanced in 2005?

"I hope so," Thibault said. "I mean, they have kind of a quiet confidence about them. They've earned some of it. Some of it they still have to go."

Welcome to the Eastern Conference, where every team has some definite positives but it's unclear who really might be the best. We used a "Dark Shadows" theme while meandering through a look at the Western Conference, but the East is more like "The Five-Year Engagement." Except it's even longer than that.

In the WNBA's 15 seasons, two teams from the East have won the league championship. One of them was now-defunct Houston, which was in the East for only the WNBA's first season in 1997. Houston's other three titles came when the Comets competed in the West.

Then there's Detroit, which won three titles in the East before the franchise moved to Tulsa and became the anchor of the West the past two seasons.

New York, Connecticut, Indiana, Atlanta and now-defunct Charlotte all have been to the Finals but came up short, including the Dream the past two seasons when they were swept by Seattle and Minnesota.

Washington has been to the playoffs six times in the franchise's 14 seasons but advanced as far as the conference finals only once. Chicago, which debuted in the league in 2006, has never been to the postseason.

Who is favored -- to the degree that any team can be -- as regular-season East champ? Who'll make the playoffs? After tossing and turning over this one (seriously), here's a tour through the East, with teams listed in projected order of finish.

Connecticut Sun

The Sun went 21-13 last season, tied for the best record in the East with Indiana. Playing at the Mohegan Sun Casino's arena, they were all aces, tying Seattle for the best home record at 15-2. But on the road, they also were like the Storm, and that wasn't good: 6-11.

"We struggled with leads late in games on the road," Thibault said. "We had leads, but we couldn't hold them, and I think that's the next level in our maturity: to do that."

[+] EnlargeBriann January
David Sherman/Getty ImagesThe Fever get guard Briann January back after she missed most of last year with a torn ACL.

This is a team that's built for maturity, actually. Center Tina Charles is recovering from a groin injury entering the season, but she's an MVP-level talent, averaging 17.6 points and 11 rebounds per game last season.

Guards Renee Montgomery and Kara Lawson are at a little different stages of their careers, but both are proven winners who are very hungry to get a championship. Lawson played in the 2008 Olympics but isn't on the U.S. team this year; look for her to have a very strong WNBA season.

Wing player Danielle McCray should have an improved second season in the league, and the same goes for third-year guard Allison Hightower.

This is a squad that ought to be able to score well on the inside and from the perimeter, and should defend well against everyone in the league. It really could be the Sun's turn to get another shot at the Finals.

Indiana Fever

Everything seemed to be lining up well for the Fever last season, with Tamika Catchings winning the MVP for the first time and the team taking a 1-0 lead over Atlanta in the Eastern Conference finals.

Then Catchings suffered a torn plantar fascia in her right foot late in the second game of the series and was limited in what she could do in Game 3. The Fever just didn't have enough firepower with a hobbled Catchings to stick with the Dream.

So what is different this season? Not much, really. The margin for error if Catchings is not healthy is still slim. But the good news is that she seems fairly well on the mend, guard Briann January is back after missing most of last season with a torn ACL and the new faces on the Fever should help.

They will be role players, but that's OK. One of them is forward Erlana Larkins, who played for New York in 2008 and '09 but was cut during training camp by the Liberty in 2010 and Phoenix in 2011. Larkins has played overseas since, where she has maintained her rebounding prowess. Bringing that and her physicality could help Indiana.

Speaking of those qualities, rookie Sasha Goodlett also could give the Fever more muscle inside where they need it. Veteran do-it-all player Katie Douglas is also back to try to win that elusive title for her home-city team.

Chicago Sky

The Sky tried to knock on the door of the playoffs last season, but it just didn't open. The moves coach Pokey Chatman made during the offseason were all designed to push the Sky that last step forward.

[+] EnlargeSwin Cash
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesSwin Cash has won WNBA titles with Detroit and Seattle. The Sky are counting on her winning pedigree and veteran leadership.

The Sky are built around Olympic center and MVP candidate Sylvia Fowles, and she needed more people around her with a similar winning mentality. That might sound pretty cliché, but it's something tangible. Chatman added players with WNBA championship experience. And she got them at positions where the Sky needed to be stronger.

Most observers seem to be in agreement that no team had a better offseason than Chicago, and now we'll see whether that pays off. The trade that brought Swin Cash and Le'coe Willingham from Seattle doesn't seem to have any downside for the Sky. Cash, an Olympian this summer yet again, is eager to win another championship in a different city, as is Willingham. Cash got titles in Detroit and Seattle; Willingham got hers in Phoenix and Seattle.

Second-year point guard Courtney Vandersloot now has 14-year vet Ticha Penicheiro -- who helped Sacramento win the 2005 WNBA title and spent the past two seasons in Los Angeles -- to learn from. And in terms of having a classy attitude and just doing her job, center Ruth Riley also is a positive addition for the Sky.

Atlanta Dream

Angel McCoughtry says that not only do the Dream believe they can make a title run in 2012, so do all other teams.

"Everybody thinks it's their year," McCoughtry said. "Everybody sort of has a mindset that they can win a championship each year. If you didn't, then you have a problem."

Maybe so, but not everybody has made it to the WNBA Finals the past two seasons and played well but not well enough. That has been the Dream's issue, although McCoughtry did everything she could last season against the Lynx, scoring 33 points in the first game of the Finals, 38 in the second and 22 in the third.

Can the Dream find a reliable scorer from the perimeter to complement McCoughtry? That's one of the reasons 3-point specialist Laurie Koehn -- who last played in the WNBA in 2008 for Washington -- made the Dream roster this season.

Iziane Castro Marques isn't with the Dream this season, and her fellow Brazilian Erika de Souza won't join the team until after the Olympics.

There was a report Sancho Lyttle might have to be gone for part of June and July to play with the Spanish national team, but she might not actually be needed for that. The reason such things seem uncertain is that players often have fluctuating relationships with their national teams. For the Dream's sake, it would be best if Lyttle remained in Atlanta all summer.

[+] EnlargeCappie Pondexter
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesCappie Pondexter is one of the best players in the world. But the Liberty need for her to not have to carry so much of the load.

Most of the weight in terms of running the Dream will be on point guard Lindsey Harding. With assistant Carol Ross having moved on to take over in Los Angeles, longtime Auburn coach Joe Ciampi has been added to the Dream's staff. He brings defensive expertise.

New York Liberty

In 2011, the Liberty made it into the playoffs at 19-15 in coach John Whisenant's first season in New York. In the offseason, the Liberty weren't very busy making moves. Then on draft day, Whisenant surprised almost everybody by taking former Tennessee center Kelley Cain -- whose career seemed nearly finished last summer because of injuries -- with his first-round pick. Now it's time to see whether Whiz's strategy worked.

"I think she's a prospect," Whisenant said of Cain. "I don't see her as a difference-maker in her first year in the league, but somebody that can play some and will improve. And you don't grow 6-6 players with good hands every day."

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement for a first-round pick. Then again, at least she made the opening-day roster … and it was lackluster draft.

The Liberty still revolve around star guard Cappie Pondexter, who will not be on the U.S. Olympic team after winning a gold medal in the Beijing Games in 2008. Pondexter can do a whole lot; she's one of the best players in the world. But the Liberty need for her to not have to carry so much of the load if they are to have a chance of being a postseason team.

Last season's most improved player in the WNBA, center Kia Vaughn, needs to show she can be even more of a threat this season. Essence Carson had a very solid 2011 season after a drop-off in 2010. And the Liberty need Nicole Powell to hit from the outside. In her two seasons in New York, she hasn't been able to match her best seasons in Sacramento.

Does New York really have enough players who consistently produce?

"You've just got to do the best with what you have," Pondexter said. "My wish is to bring a championship to New York. That's the only thing that I think about."

It seems unlikely that will happen this season, though. But a playoff appearance would be a success for the Lib.

Washington Mystics

If not for Tulsa, the Mystics would have been the dregs of the WNBA last season, as they went 6-28.

Quite a comedown from 2010, when they finished first in the East. Of course, D.C. management then deconstructed what it had built with general manager Angela Taylor and coach Julie Plank, who both were let go/quit/chased off or whatever you want to call it.

Trudi Lacey took over the Mystics for 2011, and what she'll tell you over and over is how close Washington came in so many games last season. That's true, but finishing out victories is the biggest difference between becoming a playoff team and not making the postseason. Close really isn't enough.

Will the Mystics be any better at closing out potential wins this season? It's really not a bad group of players that Lacey has put together, retaining some from last season and then adding others through trades and free agency. But it's also likely not a group good enough to climb into playoff contention.

The Mystics are led by post player Crystal Langhorne, who averaged 18.2 points and 7.6 rebounds last season. She has improved all four seasons she has been in the league. But there is no other outstanding post on the roster. Against teams better and deeper on the interior, the Mystics definitely could struggle.

Monique Currie missed most of last season with an ACL injury, returning for four games at the end of the season. She's back, which helps the Mystics. But the "ghost" of Alana Beard -- she was with the team the past two seasons but didn't play due to a lingering ankle injury -- is no longer in D.C., as she has moved on to Los Angeles.

The Mystics kind of feel like the remake of a movie that viewers were pretty lukewarm about the first time.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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