WNBA team story lines: What lies in store for 2016?

Fever guard Shenise Johnson scores against the Lynx's Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson in the WNBA Championship series last October. Photo courtesy of the Indiana Fever.
Fever guard Shenise Johnson scores against the Lynx’s Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson in the WNBA Championship series last October. Photo courtesy of the Indiana Fever.

The WNBA enters its 20th season with only three of the original eight franchises: the New York Liberty, the Los Angeles Sparks and the Phoenix Mercury. Today’s 12 teams have either been moved from another city or formed as an expansion team since that first summer of 1997.

Each franchise has carved its own unique history, and each finds itself on a different perch aiming for success this year. Like a dozen television channels that each feature a different show with a unique plot, the stories of the league promise to be riveting in 2016.

Minnesota Lynx

Plot: Top dogs

Fans of the defending champions call the Lynx a dynasty, but with non-consecutive titles in 2011, 2013 and 2015, that claim is debatable. Nevertheless, they are formidable and will likely be the team to beat this season.

All-Star forward Seimone Augustus returns from injury healthy, and point guard Lindsay Whalen sat out the offseason to rest. Center Janel McCarville is back from hiatus, while savvy veteran Jia Perkins was acquired in the offseason. Along with Maya Moore, Sylvia Fowles and a number of newcomers who could contribute immediately, the Lynx will come out firing this weekend.

Indiana Fever

Plot: Feisty fighters/swan song

The Fever have entered every championship they’ve played in as underdogs, but they are arguably the toughest tooth-and-nail-fighting team in the WNBA. Last year’s title was almost theirs, and they have only added to their arsenal this season with four strong newcomers in veteran Devereaux Peters, rookies Tiffany Mitchell and Brene Moseley, and Erica Wheeler.

Tamika Catchings, one of the most beloved players in the WNBA, will retire at season's end. Photo courtesy of the Indiana Fever.
Tamika Catchings, one of the most beloved players in the WNBA, will retire at season’s end. Photo courtesy of the Indiana Fever.

An extra incentive this summer will likely be playing for Tamika Catchings, who will retire at year’s end. As one of the most beloved players in WNBA history, “playing for Catch” will be an inspiration for her teammates……as if her diving on the floor for loose balls wasn’t enough.

Phoenix Mercury

Plot: Up and down like an EKG

After two titles, Phoenix had possibly their worst season ever in 2012, which fueled speculation that they had “tanked” to get the 2013 No. 1 draft pick in Brittney Griner. They came together in masterful, synchronized fashion in 2014 to put together a championship team that easily took the trophy. Last year they were almost back to average, with star forward Diana Taurasi sitting out and Griner suspended for a month for her off-court marital strife. Penny Taylor also took 2015 off.

Taurasi and her swag are back this season, as is Taylor, and the team has already declared they are after a fourth title. Whether or not they can muster that effort will depend largely on how much Griner has grown up since last year, as Taurasi and Taylor are getting older and DeWanna Bonner can’t keep doing it all by herself.

Chicago Sky

Plot: Under-achievers

The Sky have become somewhat infamous for early-round playoff exits, despite a plethora of talent. It was somewhat understandable two years ago, following an injury-plagued year that also kept All-Star Elena Delle Donne out for half the season with a Lyme Disease flare up. But last year’s first-round choke at the hands of the Fever defied explanation.

There’s no reason the Sky shouldn’t have an amazing 2016. Even with one more cut to make, they only have two newcomers. If Chicago still finds a way not to be great this season, there will be a problem, Houston.

Los Angeles Sparks

Plot: Inconsistency experts

The proficiency and intensity of the Sparks has varied from game to game for many years. One game they’re up, the next game they’re down. Or they’ll go on a winning streak, followed by a losing binge. The players come and go every season like hotel guests, but the inconsistency of team play remains consistent from year to year. We could talk about the promising newcomers that have just come aboard, as well as the savvy veterans who have returned, but it doesn’t matter; Los Angeles seems to steep in mediocrity no matter who is on the roster.

One thing the Sparks have not done this year so far is claim that they’re about to win a championship. That’s a good start.

New York Liberty

Plot: Unknown

New York doesn’t seem to have an identity yet. Are they the new “Bad Girls,” or what? Coach Bill Laimbeer has been rebuilding them for several seasons now, and last year he really had them rolling until the playoffs, when they pulled a Sky-esque choke job.

They’ve got five rookies in camp and have made two trades in the last week, collecting Shoni Schimmel and Amanda Zahui B. The Zahui B. trade is a head-scratcher, because the Liberty already have two solid posts in Tina Charles and Kiah Stokes. Today they trimmed five from their roster in time for tomorrow’s finalization deadline, including veteran Swin Cash, who has been one of the faces of the franchise. All that remains are centers and guards.

Who will the Liberty be this season? I can’t wait to see.

Dallas Wings

Plot: Lovable work horses

For a few seasons, the former Tulsa Shock were the best team you’d ever see lose in the WNBA – and usually it would be by five points or less. They put the B in battle, and you couldn’t help but love and appreciate their efforts. Last season they finally did make the playoffs, which was an amazing achievement considering it was without All-Star point guard Skylar Diggins, who tore her ACL nine games into the year, and All-Star Glory Johnson, who was out pregnant.

This year the Wings have a new city, a new name, two exciting rookies in Aerial Powers and Ruth Hamblin, and veteran Erin Phillips. Will they pick up where they left off in 2015? Probably.

Washington Mystics

Plot: A long-term rocket science project

It’s pretty obvious to all that coach Mike Thibault is a genius. Some of his players have called him the best X’s and O’s coach they’ve ever had. He makes unorthodox draft picks at times, like last year’s selection of Natasha Cloud. He has built a solid roster of quality players since taking over the program in time for the 2013 season. But somehow, the Mystics haven’t quite been “there” yet.

Will this be the year they take that next step up? It’s possible. They picked up hidden gem Kahleah Copper in the first round of the draft. Ivory Latta is out for up to six weeks with an injury, and veteran Kara Lawson is sitting out the first half of the season. But Tayler Hill and Tianna Hawkins have made solid preseason showings, and Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson are always reliable.

Washington needs an explosion in the lab to shake things up. Blow the ceiling off and step up to the second floor.

Connecticut Sun

Plot: Bursting with potential

Boy did the Sun begin last season on a roll, with a hot winning streak that had the league talking. And wow, did they take a tumble off a cliff midway through the year. That kind of thing happens sometimes with youngins, and Connecticut was the youngest WNBA team in 2015.

Their draft picks haven’t changed that stat, as they had the best draft of any team in choosing Morgan Tuck, Rachel Banham, Jonquel Jones and Jamie Weisner. Maybe even more importantly, their star and vocal leader – Chiney Ogwumike – is back from an injury which kept her out all last season. Key veterans have all returned healthy. And as if that weren’t enough, the team is reportedly liking new coach Curt Miller and his personable style.

Connecticut might just set the WNBA on fire this year.

Seattle Storm

Plot: The luckiest team in the WNBA/Deja vu?

No. 1 draft pick in 2001 and 2002; No. 1 draft pick in 2015 and 2016. No franchise has had as many top picks. And with the additions of Jewell Loyd last year and Breanna Stewart now, the Storm are poised to rebuild once again to possibly add to the two Championship trophies they already have from the Sue Bird-Lauren Jackson years.

It will take time to return to glory, however. Seattle’s roster isn’t as strong as it could be, and despite the heavy expectations laid on Stewart, one player can’t do it all herself, even if she’s one of the best to come out of the college ranks. Fans will need to be patient…..let’s hope they are.

Atlanta Dream

Plot: Variety show

Great players, no gelling at times, missed opportunities, not playing up to potential, you traded who and acquired who? The Dream have been somewhat of a mystery to their own fans at times. And on the night before final cuts must be made, they still have the most hacking to do to meet the deadline. I dare not guess who will end up with goodbye papers in their hands tomorrow.

Fans here are starving for some consistency from their team, too.

San Antonio Stars

Plot: C’mon get happy like the Partridge Family

The Stars haven’t had a great playoff run since 2011, despite having a lot of talent on the roster. Maybe that’s because they don’t ever seem to look too happy on the bench. I’m not on the team and wouldn’t pretend to know why San Antonio never seems to play up to its potential, but I’d love more than anything to see these fine women enjoy playing. Hopefully with ultra-cool new general manager Ruth Riley around this year, that can happen.

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