After coming perilously close to having no season at all, the WNBA is pulling out all stops to show how new and improved it is for the 2003 season, which begins today.
New balls. New uniforms. New shoes. New schedule -- the league goes from 32 to 34 games and the season could last until Sept. 16.
In addition, new faces are everywhere because the players, after agreeing to a new labor agreement with the owners, have free agency for the first time. The Miami and Portland franchises also were folded, creating the need for a dispersal draft of their best players.
That has done more to improve the WNBA than anything else. Enough so that teams besides Los Angeles and Houston, which have combined to win all six previous league titles, have legitimate chances to win the championship.
But does the WNBA want to be the NFL? Does the league want or need a level of parity so broad that any team can win on any given night?
Coaches in the Eastern and Western conferences unanimously support this trend, even if it puts more pressure on them to be one of eight teams that qualify for the playoffs.
“This year is different than any other year,” said Michael Cooper, coach of the two-time defending champion Sparks. “You have to come ready to play every night. The league has gotten better and there are no easy games. This year will be a very cherished championship for whoever wins it, because the league is no joke anymore.”
Said Coach Richie Adubato, whose New York Liberty lost in the 2002 final to Los Angeles: “Every team improved as a team and so did the [basketball] product. From a coach’s standpoint, though, it is frightening. People who needed veteran players got them, including All-Stars.”
The East probably benefited more than the West because it had six of the first 10 picks.
Detroit got a center it sorely lacked in Ruth Riley. Washington also got bigger with center Jenny Mowe. New York got forward and three-point specialist Elena Baranova. Cleveland got a proven point guard in Betty Lennox. Charlotte selected forward Pollyanna Johns Kimbrough, then traded her to Cleveland for forward Rushia Brown.
But West teams also filled needs.
Minnesota latched on to guard and 2002 All-Star Sheri Sam. Houston grabbed former Spark guard Ukari Figgs. Sacramento, which also got lucky in the college draft with No. 1 pick Chantelle Anderson, added another talented forward in DeMya Walker.
And so on.
“The bottom teams all got stronger as did the top teams,” said Anne Donovan, who left Charlotte to take the coaching job in Seattle. “We’ve always said any team on any given night can win a game, but now that’s very true given the talent on every team.”
Said Cleveland Coach Dan Hughes: “There is more parity, but I’m not sure it’s more evident in the West. In the East [the difference] is dramatic. The teams I’m having to beat are better than they were five years ago when I became a coach. But even out West I see more teams that are capable of being playoff teams.”
The “new and improved” WNBA could work two ways this season.
There could be a logjam of .500 teams clawing at the third and fourth playoff slots in each conference.
And the combined game scores, which are not always that high to begin with, could be lowered by even competition and better defenses.
On the other hand, having more teams involved in the playoff hunt as the regular season concludes should heighten fan interest.
And if the games themselves improve aesthetically, that would help the league continue surviving in a crowded sports marketplace.
Or nothing could change at all. And a team like the Sparks could continue to dominate the league.
“I don’t know if there is as much parity as people think if L.A. gets Jennifer Gillom [as a free agent] and Sacramento got everyone else,” Houston Coach Van Chancellor said. “I don’t see any bad teams in the league. But the big horses didn’t get any weaker.”