W.N.B.A. Season Preview: New Talent Is Here, but an Absence Looms

The longest W.N.B.A. season in league history will begin on Friday. For the first time, teams will each play 36 regular-season games as the next step in the league’s plan for incremental growth — a plan stifled for the past two seasons by the coronavirus pandemic.

As the league enters its 26th season, new sponsors and some increased engagement from team ownership is inspiring some optimism about the state of the W.N.B.A. Growth in viewership at the college level means more buzz for graduating players aiming to become professionals, while new broadcast deals and a heavier emphasis from the league’s primary partner, ESPN, have made games more accessible.

Looming over all that optimism, though, is the continued absence of one of the league’s best players, Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, who has been detained in Russia — where she also plays professionally — since February on drug charges. An image of Griner and her jersey number No. 42 will be on each team’s court throughout the season.

“We are keeping Brittney at the forefront of what we do through the game of basketball,” W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement.

Here’s what to expect from the 12 W.N.B.A. teams this season.

No matter what happens, this season will likely mark the end of an era for the Storm and for women’s basketball. After contemplating retirement last season, Sue Bird announced in January that she would return and with the hashtag #1moreyear suggested this season would be her last. When she was drafted No. 1 overall by Seattle in 2002, the franchise had played only two seasons; four championships later, won in part by Bird’s consistency, the Storm have become one of the most dominant teams in W.N.B.A. history.

The 41-year-old’s farewell tour will inevitably include many teary tributes and gaudy highlight reels, but the Storm will aim for its final stop to be a champions’ parade. The team is playing its first season in the new Climate Pledge Arena, which the Storm are sharing with the N.H.L.’s Kraken. The Storm will still have Breanna Stewart, who met with the Liberty in the off-season before signing a one-year deal, and Jewell Loyd, who also met with the Liberty before re-signing for two years. Bird, Stewart and Loyd form the team’s core, and the likelihood of playing without them in the near future makes the team’s quest for a league-leading fifth title more urgent than ever.

A host of new faces crowd the Sparks roster, as Los Angeles looks to reignite this season. The team struggled last year in the wake of Candace Parker’s departure and the fallout from a legal battle with Penny Toler, the team’s former general manager.

The Sparks had an excellent season defensively in 2021 but fell short of the playoffs for the first time since 2011 because of their woeful offense. This year, they’ve added starpower designed to boost their scoring with the flashy young guards Chennedy Carter and Jordin Canada and center Liz Cambage, who owns the single-game scoring record and is looking for a fresh start after promising seasons in Las Vegas that still ended short of titles. The question is how all those talents will fit together under Coach Derek Fisher: There aren’t many role players on this Los Angeles team, so sorting out responsibilities could prove challenging.

Those players will join Nneka Ogwumike, still the team’s best chance at filling that Parker-size hole, as well as the veterans Brittney Sykes and Kristi Toliver as they chase a new kind of chemistry befitting the franchise’s storied legacy.

For the sixth year in a row, the Fever will try to return to the playoffs — or at least not be the worst team in the league yet again. Without a modicum of success to show for years of high draft picks, Indiana was compelled to nearly start from scratch this year. The team amassed four picks in the first round alone after cutting Kysre Gondrezick, their top pick in the 2021 draft at No. 4 overall.

A gaggle of rookies, then, will join the veterans Danielle Robinson, Bria Hartley, Tiffany Mitchell and Kelsey Mitchell, as Lin Dunn, the interim general manager, tries to right the ship.

NaLyssa Smith, Indiana’s top 2022 draft pick at No. 2 overall, was dominant at Baylor and enters the W.N.B.A. with something to prove after an underwhelming senior postseason. She’s been clamoring to compete at the professional level and, at 6-foot-4 with impressive athleticism, Smith could well prove to be the difference-maker the Fever desperately need.

Last season, the Wings had one of the youngest rosters in the league. Though they seem to have found some stability, having made only one non-draft addition, the 6-foot-7 center Teaira McCowan, there’s still some uncertainty about how the team will balance all that potential. Dallas has a lot of depth but few clear front-runners who can define the team’s core.

Arike Ogunbowale is one exception to that rule. The sharpshooting All-Star has been the centerpiece of Dallas’s offense, and she signed a multiyear extension in the off-season. She had help from guard Marina Mabrey, her former Notre Dame teammate; they work together so well they have earned the moniker Marike.

This season, the second-year Wings Coach Vickie Johnson, will try to take the team past the first round in the playoffs for the first time since 2015 by finding consistency in the frontcourt. Forward Satou Sabally, with her refined footwork inside and ability to find high-percentage shots, seems like the perfect balance for Ogunbowale’s pull-up-from-anywhere mentality — the Wings just have to make sure she’s touching the ball.

The four-time champion Lynx will lose the final piece of their last two title-winning squads at the end of this season with the retirement of the 6-foot-6 center Sylvia Fowles, who was playing at a near-M.V.P. level last season despite being 35 years old then.

Fowles’s continuing dominance could push Minnesota back into position to win in the postseason. However, she and Coach Cheryl Reeve will face the added challenge of competing without forward Napheesa Collier, the team’s leading scorer last season, who is pregnant and likely to miss most or all of the season.

The five-time All-Star Angel McCoughtry, who injured her knee last season, will join Fowles in the effort to push the Lynx back to the playoffs for the 12th consecutive year. The veterans Kayla McBride and Aerial Powers round out a Lynx roster that could, once again, outperform expectations, thanks to Reeve’s consistent coaching and the team’s experience.

The story of the Aces centers on one crucial off-season move: the introduction of Becky Hammon as the highest-paid head coach in the W.N.B.A. Combined with the construction of a shiny, new Aces-specific practice facility in Henderson, Nev., Hammon’s hiring was part of owner Mark Davis’s efforts to flaunt his investments in the team so far. All that’s left is for the team to finally win its first title.

Hammon will undoubtedly be in the spotlight — perhaps even more so than her players — after returning to the W.N.B.A., where she first flourished as a player, and passing up what many saw as a likely shot to become the first female head coach in N.B.A. history.

In her first head coaching role, the longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant will try to retool the Aces following the departure of center Liz Cambage and forward Angel McCoughtry, veteran talents who accounted for much of the team’s production. Last season ended with an ugly upset loss to the Mercury in the playoffs, one game away from the championship series. This year, Hammon will work with A’ja Wilson, the 2020 M.V.P., to take the talented team to the next level, relying on guards Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum to amp up the Aces’ offense.

The Liberty’s 2021 season was a surprise: It was Betnijah Laney who took the reins to lead the team back to the playoffs for the first time since 2017 and not Natasha Howard, the former defensive player of the year who missed most of the season with a knee injury or the highly-touted guard Sabrina Ionescu.

This season, they’ve added Stefanie Dolson from the reigning champion Sky and hired a new coach, Sandy Brondello, to put all the pieces together. The team is full of potential but a complete mystery as far as chemistry. Despite losing 10 of their last 12 games at the end of the 2021 regular season, the Liberty were two points shy of upsetting the Phoenix Mercury in the first round of the playoffs — a confusing outcome consistent with their unpredictability last season.

If Brondello, who led the Mercury to a championship in 2014, can find consistency among a group of veterans who have found a lot of success on other teams, the Liberty might be able to make a deeper run in the playoffs.

The Mercury begin the season under a particularly large shadow: the continued detention of their star center, Brittney Griner, in Russia, where she has been held since February. Her indefinite absence leaves a huge hole in the team and league, on and off the court. Until she returns, the Mercury will have to figure out how to play without one of the most dominant centers in W.N.B.A. history for the first extended period in nearly a decade.

An esteemed group of veterans will also be fighting for another title. Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi were joined by Tina Charles in the off-season, sparking much discussion about so-called superteams in the W.N.B.A. Coach Vanessa Nygaard, in her first year, has been charged with getting the team into shape to try to claim the franchise’s fourth championship. Phoenix made it to last season’s championship series before losing in four games to the underdog Chicago Sky.

Taurasi, who will turn 40 years old in June, insists that she’s not planning on retiring anytime soon. But she — the league’s career leading scorer — has had nagging injuries over the past few seasons, making the Mercury’s pursuit of another deep postseason run even more pressing than usual.

The Sun have been nothing if not consistent over the past few seasons, both in their regular season dominance and in their inability to finally secure the franchise’s first championship. If they were ever in win-now mode, though, this would be the time, having re-signed Jonquel Jones, last season’s M.V.P., in the off-season.

Jones rejoins Alyssa Thomas, Jasmine Thomas, DeWanna Bonner and Brionna Jones — one of the league’s most consistent core groups. While other teams around the league are working out their rotations, the Sun and their longtime coach, Curt Miller, will look to refine a long-established dynamic. Even their biggest move of the off-season — securing the return of guard Courtney Williams — was to bring a team veteran back into the fold after her brief stint with the Atlanta Dream.

Connecticut can nearly take for granted the fact that this group will reprise one of the better defenses in the W.N.B.A., with its veterans who seem to summon unfathomable energy to stifle opponents year after year. The trouble comes when the shots stop falling for the physical team. Williams, and perhaps some offense-minded young players coming off the bench, will have to close that gap.

The Dream seem like they have been in rebuilding mode for several seasons now, winning single-digit games in each of their past three seasons and facing turnover at the coaching and ownership tiers.

But this season, Atlanta will attempt to actually start fresh, with the first-year head coach, Tanisha Wright, and a slew of young talent joining Tiffany Hayes and Monique Billings, who have stuck with the Dream through all those losses. Aari McDonald, whom the Dream drafted with the third overall pick last year, will be joined by the No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft, Rhyne Howard — whom Atlanta traded up to snag — and Kristy Wallace, who spent the past few years honing her skills in an Australian professional league. The veterans Erica Wheeler and Nia Coffey, both of whom last played for the Sparks, round out the upstart group, which will aim to outperform expectations and make it to the playoffs for the first time since 2018.

After winning their first championship as underdogs in 2021, the Sky return as contenders to become the first W.N.B.A. team to win repeat titles in two decades. Many core members of last season’s team are back, including Candace Parker; Kahleah Copper, last year’s finals M.V.P.; and the veteran guards Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot. The team added center Emma Meesseman, who was the finals M.V.P. when the Mystics won the 2019 championship.

The Sky must have been certain that this group would be enough when they traded away all of their 2022 draft picks, relying instead on their veteran squad and the talents of Coach James Wade to lead them to another deep postseason run. Copper in particular, who stuffed her 2021 finals highlight reels with circus shots and tough layups, will look to continue her breakout run this season.

Since winning the W.N.B.A. championship in 2019, the Mystics’ fate has revolved around one variable: whether Elena Delle Donne, who has played just three games in the past two seasons, can get and stay healthy. Delle Donne sustained a back injury in the 2019 W.N.B.A. finals that required multiple surgeries, left her with lingering back issues and has taken extensive therapy and conditioning work to overcome.

If Delle Donne and Alysha Clark, who missed last season with a foot injury, can stay on the court, Washington’s roster suddenly looks a lot more solid. Ariel Atkins, Natasha Cloud and Myisha Hines-Allen are all settled well into Coach Mike Thibault’s system, and Elizabeth Williams, a new addition, can provide support in the post if Delle Donne isn’t ready to go.

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