- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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Cappie Pondexter looks around and there's a whole lot of different in every direction.
New coach. New teammates. New plays.
What she's hoping is most different are the New York Liberty becoming a championship-caliber team in the WNBA again.
Eleven years have passed since the Liberty reached the WNBA Finals.
"Every day is a different challenge," Pondexter said as New York prepares to open the season Saturday at Connecticut. "Coach is challenging us to get better and I think we are starting to jell."
"Coach" is Bill Laimbeer, the Liberty's fourth head coach since 2009. Laimbeer coached the Detroit Shock to three WNBA titles from 2002-2009 and has gotten the gang back together in New York, piecing together a roster of former Shock players that includes Katie Smith, Cheryl Ford and Kara Braxton.
So Pondexter, the Liberty's centerpiece player, is the new girl, in a way. Laimbeer has talked about high expectations for a player who has had little trouble living up to them for most of her career. Pondexter is a four-time All-Star with two WNBA titles under her belt in Phoenix. She's a tone-setter playing for a coach who is all about setting a tone for his team.
"[Laimbeer] wants me to be the best leader I can be," Pondexter said. "He expects me to lead the league in scoring and assists. I've been getting ready, shooting extra, knocking down the shots he draws up for me."
Pondexter has long been one of the league's best scorers, averaging 19.5 points in her career. But Laimbeer is challenging her with a new playbook with new terminology.
"You have to have a high basketball IQ," Pondexter said. "There are a ton of plays, a lot of counters to them and a lot of memory going on. As the season goes, I'm sure it will be more firsthand. But it's still just playing basketball."
Pondexter said she lost 10 pounds during the WNBA offseason, spending time in the weight room, getting stronger and faster. She said she hasn't felt this much excitement about the league since it was founded in 1996.
"It is a reboot and it's great," Pondexter said. "If you look at everybody's teams, there's a lot of depth out there. I think it's going to be a matter of who comes out with the least amount of injuries. If you can stay strong, you can win a title and for us, that's our goal. I'm looking forward to being on a championship team again."
Pondexter is often a candidate for the league's MVP award, but has never won. Could a big season for the Liberty mark the year that she finally breaks through?
Here's a look at the rest of the top candidates for WNBA MVP:
Candace Parker, Los Angeles
2012 stats: 17.4 ppg, 9.7 rpg
Parker was healthy from beginning to end last season in Los Angeles and showed what she is fully capable of when at the height of her athletic powers. Parker had some huge games last season; her scoring jumped to 28.8 points in the playoffs.
Diana Taurasi, Phoenix
2012 stats: 14.0 ppg in 8 games
Anyone doubt that Taurasi is still one of the top two or three players in the world? Ready to play a full season again in Phoenix after last year's injuries, Taurasi will still be the go-to scorer in a Phoenix offense that has more options than ever. Taking away last year's eight-game season, Taurasi hasn't averaged fewer than than 20 points a game since 2007.
Maya Moore, Minnesota
2012 stats: 16.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg
Moore went to China to play during the winter season and did nothing less than average nearly 39 points a game on the way to a championship. Moore, in her third year in the WNBA, looks poised to break out and truly establish herself as one of its best players. She has already won a title in Minnesota, a great start to her pro career. But she's not nearly finished.
Tina Charles, Connecticut
2012 stats: 18.0 ppg, 10.5 rpg
It's going to be a bit harder for Charles this year, with Mike Thibault gone and Asjha Jones taking the year off. But Charles is the most productive center in the WNBA over the past three years, and if the Sun are making a run at a title out of the East, it's because Charles leads the way.
Tamika Catchings, Indiana
2012 stats: 17.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg
Catchings got her title, and she'd love a repeat. But she might have to do more than ever to get it, particularly with the spate of early-season injuries that has descended on Indiana. Catch is going to have to carry a big load once again on both ends of the floor.
Angel McCoughtry, Atlanta
2012 stats: 21.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg
We know that McCoughtry is the leading actress in the Dream's constant state of drama. She is among the WNBA's most dynamic players when she's on the floor and has twice led the Dream to the verge of a title.