WNBA 2019 season preview

Photo courtesy of Bleacher Report.

Opening tip-off is just around the corner and WNBA fans are ready to jump. An eventful offseason has seen stars change teams, return from injury and get injured while overseas.Over the next three and a half months stars will rise and fall, top athletes will show off their skills and fans across North America will be thrilled.

Starting Line-Up
Usually the five main stories of the week but for this issue it’ll be the five most interesting teams.

1) Las Vegas: Liz Cambage, A’ja Wilson, Kayla McBride, Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young…. Yeah, that is one loaded group of players with the Las Vegas Aces who are hoping to beat the Golden Knights and Raiders in bringing Vegas it’s first pro sports title. Las Vegas was the star of the offseason with the addition of arguably the most dominant player last season: Liz Cambage. She was a double-double machine that set the single-game scoring record before leaving Dallas.The challenge for Head Coach Bill Laimbeer will be to organize this talented core and try to quickly form chemistry between his two bigs, Cambage and Wilson, while also continuing to improve the play of Plum, 2017’s top pick in the draft. We have seen teams struggle to work on the court but with this much talent and character on the team this will be a show worth watching, good or bad.

2) Los Angeles: The Ogwumikes getting their chance to play together was supposed to be a nice story for the Sparks but with a new head coach and no Candace Parker, expectations on the sister’s have been raised. Parker should return after a few weeks, but hamstrings can be tricky for any athlete to recover from, so the Sparks will hope their new front-court duo can hold up.One advantage for the Sparks to lean on to start the season is their backcourt duo of Chelsea Gray and Alana Beard. The two present plenty of challenges on their own and have experience playing with each other. If they can maintain their defensive intensity, second in defensive rating, under Derek Fisher, then the Ogwumike sisters, both top 20 in points per game last season, can score enough for this team until Parker comes back.

3) Connecticut: For a team that was so dangerous last year, especially before injuries became a factor, it will be interesting to see how players, such as Jonquel Jones, adjust to more playing time without Chiney Ogwumike. Other than Connecticut and Seattle, no team was as dangerous at shooting. Connecticut had a bevy of options, led by Alyssa Thomas, who should be leaned on this season.Jonquel Jones can be a change maker if she can properly step into the starting line-up, as this team has played enough together to be able to maintain their successful system. This is a team that, as young as they are, have lost in the second round in consecutive seasons. The Ogwumike move could be a signal to other key members that they need to build off regular season success and go on a playoff run.

4) Seattle: The last time we saw these defending champions they were firing on all cylinders with dominant play top to bottom on their roster on their way to a fairly easy championship. Now they get to try and do it all over again with Sue Bird another year older and minus the league’s MVP in Breanna Stewart, who survived a torn achilleas playing overseas.The positives for those in the northwest is that in Jewell Loyd, the Storm have another potential MVP who can lean on the veteran savvy of Bird and Natasha Howard. Howard played her role as a secondary figure last season but without Stewart she will also be expected to increase her production which she has shown she is capable of at times over the years. A repeat would be a surprise, but crazier events have happened.

5) Washington: They lost to Seattle in the finals but get all their top players returning, including superstar forward in Elena Delle Donne. The Mystics Forward was picked as the most likely MVP by the league’s GM’s, and for good reason, as she does a lot of everything for her team.Delle Donne is far from alone, though, with the mystics enjoying the play of Kristi Tolliver at point guard as she controls play. She plays with a grit and determination that leads everyone else to follow suit. For a team that was consistently productive last season with a rotating group, the addition of Emma Meesseman, who is back this season after averaging over 14 points per game in 2017, the mystics should only continue to improve. 

Bench Squad
The rest of the league, which is almost guaranteed to have a semi-final participant.

6) Dallas: This team could end up with the worst record in the league if they can’t find a way to adapt without two of their key players in Cambage and Skylar Diggins-Smith. Diggins-Smith is out after giving birth in the offseason.Azura Stevens should be able to step up in her second season. The key piece, though, will be the sensational rookie Arike Ogunbowale who has shown at Notre Dame that she can come up big in big moments. If she can play well enough this could still be a playoff team for a third straight year.

7) Minnesota: Unfortunately, Maya Moore has decided to sit out this season due to circumstances off the court, meaning the dynasty continues to slowly fade away. Sylvia Fowles did great work last season helping an aging core that will now miss Moore as well as Lindsay Whalen. If Fowles can keep the Lynx in the playoffs she deserves unlimited praise.

8) Atlanta: After going on a scorching hot run over the second half of 2018, the Dream will look to continue their success without their leader Angel McCoughtry, who is expected to return from a torn ACL near the end of the season.

9) Phoenix: Not much really to say about Phoenix other than Essence Carson and the rookies hoping to contribute some depth. If Diana Taurasi takes longer than expected to retire then there is something worth watching out for from this annual contender.

10) Chicago: The future might be here this year for the Sky, who were able to keep Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley together to lead a young group of athletic stars in Diamond DeShields, rookie Katie Lou Samuelson and Gabby Williams. The Sky could turn into a team that simply overpowers opponents on offence and has the right mix of athleticism and veteran experience. Under new coach, James Wade, the Sky could make some noise this season.

11) Indiana: The duo of second year Kelsey Mitchell and second overall pick Teaira McCowan could form a dynamic inside-out duo that helps the fever return to the playoffs if they play to their full potential. After a tough year in which they finished with only six wins, the hope for Indiana is that those two can shine a light on the future.

12) New York: Someone had to be on the bottom of this list but don’t sleep on this team. Tina Charles is still playing at a high level as her career winds down in the Big Apple. The Liberty will work on Asia Durr in her first year and Kia Nurse, who will be looking to build on a strong rookie season. I don’t want to put any more pressure than necessary on Han Xu who has been compared to Yao Ming for the impact she could make on the game, so just enjoy her development in her rookie season. 

Potential Future Stars
These players could make the jump to elite status through various circumstances.

G: Kelsey Plum (Las Vegas Aces): Entering her third season, the Aces will be looking to Plum to lead a group of young stars and spread the ball around as a floor general. After increasing her stats across the board, another jump should be expected from the former top prospect.

G: Asia Durr (New York Liberty): A two-time Player of the Year in the NCAA’s toughest conference, Durr will be looking to help Charles and the rest of the Liberty avoid finishing near the bottom again. Playing with Nurse could give Durr someone to defer to as she adjusts to higher competition.

F: Diamond DeShields (Chicago Sky): As a rookie she was ready to score from the outset and build some nice chemistry with Vandersloot as the season went along. If DeShields can make the jump she could be the impact player the Sky need to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2016 when they still had Delle Donne.

F: Alyssa Thomas (Connecticut Sun): Putting a former All-Star in this spot might be considered cheating but when you consider the loss of Ogwumike we could see the versatile Thomas become a top five player in the league this season.

C: Azura Stevens (Dallas Wings): A first round pick last season that made the all-rookie team sound like a promising start for Stevens, who should continue to grow into the professional game as she adds weight. One problem for the Wings is how much they rely on her to lead the team now that Cambage is gone and they need scoring help without a ready playmaker. 

Power Rankings
Can’t wait to see how bad these look in a month, let alone the end of the season.

1) Los Angeles Sparks: Truly a toss-up between the top two but I’ll give the edge to the veteran team with proven consistency even without their head coach.

2) Las Vegas Aces: Buying all the hype around this team with multiple first overall picks and one of the league’s top stars pulling it all together.

3) Washington Mystics: They made it to the finals and unless one of the rebuilding teams fully evolves to contender status the Mystics should be able to repeat and get another crack at a title.

4) Phoenix Mercury: If they can get a little more out of the middle and bottom of their roster a Griner/Bonner pairing should be tough to handle for any team.

5) Seattle Storm: The defending champs are only this low out of fear that Sue Bird is getting up there in age, and without Stewart the team might struggle just a little too much to be a top contender.

6) Atlanta Dream: Without their leader it will be time for players such as Hayes and Breland to step up if the Dream want to go on another dream run.

7) Chicago Sky: This must be the year for the Sky with DeShields, Vandersloot and Quigley at risk of having to deal with the potential overhaul if they continue to fall short.

8) Connecticut Sun: Without Ogwumike the Suns are going to be one of those teams that could still be near the top due to depth or hoping to get the top pick in the lottery.

9) Indiana Fever: I would say they’re still one year away from contention in Indiana, but don’t be surprised if they make a playoff push.

10) Minnesota Lynx: Last year was the beginning of the end and without Moore it should only be worse this year. Hope you enjoyed those title runs, Lynx fans.

11) New York Liberty: With Nurse and Durr the framework is starting to come together but it usually takes even top players a few years to adjust to the professional game.

12) Dallas wings: It’s going to be tough without their top two players from last season for a team that barely reached the playoffs.

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