The Houston Comets and the Sparks have won all six previous WNBA titles, with Los Angeles winning the last two. These teams also had the league’s best records last season, the Sparks at 25-7 and the Comets at 24-8.
They also got unexpected help in the off-season. The Sparks wooed Jennifer Gillom, the league’s second all-time leading scorer, away from Phoenix via free agency. Cynthia Cooper, the league’s first superstar, ended a two-year retirement to rejoin the Comets.
Whether Cooper, who reunites with Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson, can return the Comets to the league throne is one of this season’s major questions. More important, in the overall WNBA picture, is whether an Eastern Conference team can finally win the championship after six years of Western domination. (OK, Houston was in the East during its 1997 title run, but that shouldn’t count.)
A look at the teams in each conference (in alphabetical order):
CHARLOTTE STING (18-14)
Coach: Trudi Lacey (0-0).
Who’s new: Rushia Brown, Marla Brumfield, Teana McKiver.
Who’s gone: Keisha Anderson, Summer Erb, Sheila Lambert, Shantia Owens, Elena Shakirova.
Analysis: The franchise was in limbo until billionaire Robert Johnson, who bought an NBA expansion franchise for Charlotte, also bought the Sting. This team was good enough to reach the WNBA finals two years ago, but reaching the playoffs will be tough. Key starters Dawn Staley and Andrea Stinson aren’t getting younger, and Charlotte still lacks a big-time scoring threat.
CLEVELAND ROCKERS (10-22)
Coach: Dan Hughes (59-57).
Who’s new: Betty Lennox, Pollyanna Johns Kimbrough, LaToya Thomas.
Who’s gone: Tricia Bader-Binford, Paige Sauer, Ann Wauters.
Analysis: The Rockers reloaded with the college draft’s top pick (Thomas) and trades that brought them veterans Lennox and Kimbrough. Also back is Helen Darling, who sat out last season after having triplets. Cleveland, the 2001 regular-season East champion, should again be a playoff contender.
CONNECTICUT SUN (16-16)
Coach: Mike Thibault (0-0).
Who’s new: Debbie Black, Courtney Coleman, Rebecca Lobo.
Who’s gone: Davalyn Cunningham, Clarisse Machanguana, Tiffany McCain, Carla McGhee, Cintia Dos Santos.
Analysis: This team was in Orlando last season and missed the playoffs but should have been better than a .500 team anyway, with All-Star Nykesha Sales, Shannon Johnson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin. Former University of Connecticut players Sales and Lobo will give fans an immediate emotional connection, but the Sun will need more than emotion to compete in a conference that is more balanced and competitive.
DETROIT SHOCK (9-23)
Coach: Bill Laimbeer (9-13).
Who’s new: Allison Curtin, Cheryl Ford, Kedra Holland-Corn, Tamara Moore, Ruth Riley, Petra Ujhelyi.
Who’s gone: Edwina Brown, Dominique Canty, Jill Chapman, Begona Garcia, Lenae Williams.
Analysis: No team underwent a greater transformation than the Shock. Laimbeer, who took over 10 games into last season, has added quality around burgeoning star Swin Cash. Detroit will miss forward Astou Ndiaye-Diatta, who gave birth to triplets in April and is not expected to return until August.
INDIANA FEVER (16-16)Coach: Nell Fortner (26-38).
Who’s new: Leigh Aziz, Corretta Brown, Kristen Rasmussen, Stephanie White, Natalie Williams.
Who’s gone: Nadine Malcolm, Monica Maxwell, Jackie Moore, Tawana McDonald, Alicia Thompson.
Analysis: After making the playoffs for the first time, Fortner wants more. Trading for Williams gives the Fever another strong inside presence next to whirlwind Tamika Catchings, the 2002 rookie of the year and an All-WNBA first-team pick. Flashy guard Coquese Washington (recovering from knee surgery) will have a full season in the backcourt with Nikki McCray.
NEW YORK LIBERTY (18-14)
Coach: Richie Adubato (77-51).
Who’s new: Elena Baranova, Kristen Brooke Sharp, Erin Thorn, Lindsay Yamasaki.
Who’s gone: Camille Cooper, Korie Hlede, Bernadette Ngoyisa, Sue Wicks.
Analysis: After losing in the WNBA finals a fourth time, it was thought the Liberty roster would undergo a major shakeup. But veterans Teresa Weatherspoon, Vickie Johnson, Crystal Robinson and Tari Phillips are back for another try.
WASHINGTON MYSTICS (17-15)
Coach: Marianne Stanley (17-15).
Who’s new: Tamara Bowie, Sonja Henning, Nakia Sanford, Aiysha Smith.
Who’s gone: Vickie Bullett, Marin Walseth
Analysis: The run-and-gun Mystics looked like the best in the East until the league’s leading scorer and rebounder, Chamique Holdsclaw, was injured. Washington staggered to the finish, losing nine of its last 11 regular-season games, but still reached the conference finals. A healthy Holdsclaw, a second year under Stanley and a dependable point guard in Henning have the Mystics thinking again of being the best in the East.
HOUSTON COMETS (24-8)
Coach: Van Chancellor (141-45).
Who’s new: Octavia Blue, Dominique Cantry, Cynthia Cooper, Ukari Figgs, Mfon Udoka.
Who’s gone: Grace Daley, Sonja Henning, Tammy Jackson, Tynesha Lewis, Rebecca Lobo, Rita Williams.
Analysis: After winning four consecutive championships, the Comets have been pushed out of the first round the last two seasons. One reason is point guard play. It will be interesting to see whether the Big Three -- Cooper, 2002 MVP Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson -- can co-exist now that Houston is Swoopes’ team and not Cooper’s.
Coach: Michael Cooper (81-15).
Who’s new: Jennifer Gillom, Chandra Johnson, Shaquala Williams.
Who’s gone: Marlies Askamp, Vedrana Grgin-Fonseca, Sophia Witherspoon.
Analysis: The two-time champs added the veteran Gillom but have been stymied in trying to find another guard to replace Witherspoon -- and one who fits under the league’s new salary cap. Everyone else, including the incomparable Lisa Leslie, is in place for a run at a third straight title. This should be the strongest challenge the Sparks have faced since becoming champs.
MINNESOTA LYNX (10-22)
Coach: Suzi McConnell Serio (0-0).
Who’s new: Jordan Adams, Teresa Edwards, Sheri Sam.
Who’s gone: Tamara Moore, Val Whiting-Raymond, Shanale Stires.
Analysis: Serio will buck the trend of dominant post players in the West with an outside-shooting, guard-oriented attack led by scoring machine Katie Smith. If not for Houston’s Cooper, five-time Olympian Edwards’ venture into the league would be the league’s biggest story (and gamble) of 2003. If Edwards can survive her first WNBA season at 38, the Lynx are in the playoff hunt.
PHOENIX MERCURY (11-21)
Coach: John Shumate (0-0).
Who’s new: Edwina Brown, Anna DeForge, Dalma Ivanyi, Tamicha Jackson, Plenette Pierson.
Who’s gone: Jennifer Gillom, Gordana Grubin, Adriana Moises, Brandy Reid, Jaynetta Saunders.
Analysis: The Mercury was surprised when Gillom bolted to Los Angeles. In the long run, however, it might be a good move. Shumate has a young team that could thrive in a running game rather than the half-court sets designed for Gillom’s low post talents.
SACRAMENTO MONARCHS (14-18)
Coach: Maura McHugh (28-24).
Who’s new: Chantelle Anderson, Kara Lawson, DeMya Walker.
Who’s gone: Cass Bauer-Bilodeau, Kedra Holland-Corn, Andrea Nagy, Kara Wolters.
Analysis: The Monarchs’ 2002 season was wiped out from the start with injuries to Yolanda Griffith (neck), Edna Campbell (breast cancer) and Ticha Penicheiro (shoulder). All are sound this season and the addition of Anderson and Walker make Sacramento a popular choice to dethrone the Sparks in the West.
SAN ANTONIO SILVER STARS (20-12)
Coach: Candi Harvey (34-17).
Who’s new: Sylvia Crawley, Tai Dillard, Gwen Jackson, Tasha Mills, LaQuanda Quick.
Who’s gone: Elisa Aguilar, LaNeisha Caufield, Andrea Gardner-Coombs, Amy Herrig, Natalie Williams.
Analysis: Harvey and the Silver Stars didn’t get much respect when the franchise was in Utah. But last season’s squad did reach the conference finals against Los Angeles. The loss of Williams will be hard, but sending her to Indiana for Crawley and Jackson was a deal that should help both teams.
SEATTLE STORM (17-15)
Coach: Anne Donovan (45-51).
Who’s new: Tully Bevilaqua, Sandy Brondello, Alisa Burras, Sun-Min Jung, Rita Williams.
Who’s gone: Takeisha Lewis, Kate Paye, Felicia Ragland, Jamie Redd, Kate Starbird.
Analysis: The Storm reached the playoffs for the first time because Sue Bird withstood the hype and had an All-WNBA season as a rookie. Lin Dunn’s resignation as coach caught many by surprise, but Donovan, who guided Charlotte to the 2001 championship finals, should provide a steady hand for a young team.