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2014 WNBA Western Conference Preview

From The Sports Network

By Lucas Gulotta, Contributing Basketball Editor

(SportsNetwork.com) -

OUTLOOK: The tip-off of the 18th season of the WNBA is just around the corner, and it appears that the Minnesota Lynx are once again the favorites to take home the league title. Despite finishing the 2010 season, her inaugural tour with Minnesota, with a 13-21 record, coach Cheryl Reeve has the best winning percentage of any coach in league history due to the Lynx's dominance over the past three seasons. Much like the NBA, the Western Conference of the WNBA is much more stacked in terms of talent and potential championship squads.

To make their fourth consecutive trip to the WNBA Finals, the Lynx will have to overcome reigning MVP Candace Parker and the Los Angeles Sparks, along with Phoenix's dynamic one-two punch of Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner. Tulsa has high hopes for the 2014 Wade Trophy recipient and Griner's former college teammate, Odyssey Sims, who was selected second overall in the WNBA Draft in April.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH (2013 record):

1. Minnesota Lynx (26-8)

2. Phoenix Mercury (19-15)

3. Los Angeles Sparks (24-10)

4. Seattle Storm (17-17)

5. Tulsa Shock (11-23)

6. San Antonio Silver Stars (12-22)

MINNESOTA LYNX - The Twin Cities patiently waited for the Lynx to establish themselves as a powerhouse in the WNBA, as they reached the playoffs only twice through their first 12 seasons in the league. Minnesota gave 11 different coaches a chance to take it to greater heights before Reeve finally put a championship banner in the Target Center rafters. The 47-year old La Salle graduate should have no trouble adding another 20-win campaign to her resume since Minnesota kept the core of its star-studded roster intact. The Lynx's backcourt of Seimone Augustus and hometown product Lindsay Whalen is quite comparable to that of the 1972-73 New York Knicks, in that both featured a pair of surefire Hall-of-Famers. Augustus' incredibly high basketball I.Q. has made her one of the WNBA's most efficient players. During her 2013 All- Star season, she connected on 51.6 percent of her field goal attempts for 16.3 ppg, while only committing an average of 1.1 fouls in just under 30 minutes per contest.

The 32-year old Whalen is Minnesota's all-time leader in points, scoring average, games in double figures, free throws made and free throw percentage. She established a new career high of 14.9 ppg and added 5.8 apg last season, which was her 10th overall and fourth with the Lynx. A big reason for Whalen's improvement in 2013 was the maturation of Maya Moore, who was honored as the Finals MVP following Minnesota's sweep of Atlanta. Moore posted 18.5 ppg and 6.2 rpg last season.

PHOENIX MERCURY - Minnesota will be in trouble if the 6-foot-8 Griner turns the corner in her sophomore season. Griner finished fourth on the Mercury in the scoring column with 12.6 ppg, but made an immediate impact defensively with three blocks per tilt. Taurasi had no problem carrying Phoenix offensively in 2013, as she lit up the scoreboard on a nightly basis en route to averages of 20.3 ppg along with 6.2 apg. The veteran forward combo of Candice Dupree (15.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and DeWanna Bonner (14.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) also demand the attention of opposing defenses regularly, making the Mercury one of the most difficult teams to defend in the WNBA.

Coach Sandy Brondello will make her debut with Phoenix in 2014. The Australian skipper compiled a 14-20 record with San Antonio during the 2010 season, her sole year as a WNBA head coach. Brondello spent the previous three years as an assistant with Los Angeles. She has a promising rookie to develop in Tiffany Bias, who appeared on the All-Big 12 First Team and All-Defensive Team as a senior when she powered Oklahoma State to a 25-8 overall finish and Sweet 16 appearance.

LOS ANGELES SPARKS - The Lynx and Mercury could both be spectators for the 2014 Finals if Los Angeles has a chip on its shoulder due to its conference semifinal loss to Phoenix in 2013. Parker was the heart and soul of the Sparks last season, producing team-leading averages of 17.9 points and 8.7 rebounds. Although she has collected six Russian Cups and one EuroLeague Championship as a member of UMMC Ekaterinburg, the 6-4 forward is still on the prowl for her first WNBA title. The championship dream could be realized if the 2012 Rookie of the Year, Nneka Ogwumike, continues to elevate her play. Ogwumike, whose sister was selected first in the past draft, has averaged 14.3 ppg and 7.5 rpg in her two seasons with Los Angeles.

Coach Carol Ross has a pair of seasoned guards out of Duke, as both Alana Beard (6.2 ppg) and Lindsey Harding (10.9 ppg, 5.2 apg) are back in the fold. The Sparks are wishful that their offseason acquisition of Candace Wiggins from Tulsa is the missing piece to the puzzle.

SEATTLE STORM - Although Seattle lost its leading scorer from its 2013 team when Tina Thompson retired at the conclusion of the season, it will have a very similar makeup this year due to the return of Sue Bird. Following a solid showing in 2012, during which she contributed 12.6 ppg and 5.5 apg, Bird was sidelined for the entirety of last season after being forced to have knee surgery. The Storm have a plethora of options on the offensive end, as Tanisha Wright, Camille Little, Temeka Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen all carried double-digit scoring averages in 2013.

Seattle made it obvious it intends on returning to the postseason on draft night, as it traded the seventh overall pick (Bria Hartley) to Washington for the services of Crystal Langhorne. As a member of the Mystics in 2013, Langhorne recorded 12.0 points and 7.2 boards per outing. The 6-2 Maryland product has converted 55.8 percent from the floor in her career. Her arrival provides the incredibly balanced Storm with another reliable scorer. The Storm stole Utah center Michelle Plouffe in the second round of the draft with the 19th pick. Coach Brian Agler has another potential difference maker in forward Alysha Clark, who showed she can be lethal 3-point threat in limited action over her first two WNBA seasons.

TULSA SHOCK - Coming off a last-place finish among Western Conference teams, the Shock have nowhere to go but up. Team president Steve Swetoha has made some great moves to ensure Tulsa's rebuilding project will be a brief expedition. Sims, who averaged 28.5 ppg at Baylor as a senior, is joining a team filled with potential All-Stars. Last season, the Shock's offense revolved around 6-foot-8 center Elizabeth Cambage (16.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg) for the 20 games she was present in the lineup during her sophomore campaign. Tulsa also relied heavily on a pair of rookies, as Riquna Williams provided a spark off the bench with 15.6 ppg despite clocking just 22.7 minutes per outing and Glory Johnson tallied 15.0 ppg and a team-high 8.9 rpg.

Williams and Johnson were expected to be an afterthought to the third pick of the 2013 draft, Skylar Diggins, however the former Notre Dame star underperformed en route to an average of 8.5 ppg. Diggins is poised to turn the corner this season. She has been arguably the most dominant player in the entire league in the preseason, averaging 26.0 points and 4.7 assists. The odds of Diggins joining the ranks of the elite are even better considering Tulsa brought in coach Fred Williams to take over the helm of the team. Williams became available after Atlanta surprisingly decided not to renew his contract after he led the Dream to a Finals appearance. He has coached Hall of Fame players, such as Cynthia Cooper, Pamela McGee, Tina Thompson and Lisa Leslie during his tenure in the WNBA.

SAN ANTONIO SILVER STARS - Since Tulsa has a handful of prospects in the mix, San Antonio rookie guard Kayla McBride is a more likely candidate to be named the Rookie of the Year at the conclusion of the 2014 season. McBride was selected third overall after spearheading the charge for Notre Dame's first- ever undefeated regular season in 2013-14. "K-Mac" landed in an ideal situation, as playing time will be ample and having six-time all star Becky Hammon as a mentor could accelerate her development. The prized rookie should take pressure off third-year forward Danielle Adams, who paced the Silver Stars with 14.4 ppg in 2013.

Coach Dan Hughes is not accustomed to losing. In his 13 years as a head coach, Hughes has missed the playoffs only four times. Although it is unlikely he makes his 10th postseason appearance in 2014 due to three teams capable of winning it all being present in the Western Conference, Hughes could overcome the odds if Jia Perkins (13.9 ppg), Danielle Robinson (11.2 ppg) and Shenise Johnson (11.0 ppg) mesh well with McBride. In the second round of the draft, San Antonio selected forward Astou Ndour out of Spain. Ndour is not going to join the team for the 2014 season, but she has all the tools needed to become a double-double machine for the Stars down the road.

05/14 13:32:40 ET