The longest W.N.B.A. season in league historical past will start on Friday. For the primary time, groups will every play 36 regular-season video games as the following step within the league’s plan for incremental progress — a plan stifled for the previous two seasons by the coronavirus pandemic.
As the league enters its twenty sixth season, new sponsors and a few elevated engagement from staff possession is inspiring some optimism concerning the state of the W.N.B.A. Growth in viewership on the school stage means extra buzz for graduating gamers aiming to turn into professionals, whereas new broadcast offers and a heavier emphasis from the league’s major accomplice, ESPN, have made video games extra accessible.
Looming over all that optimism, although, is the continued absence of one of many league’s greatest gamers, Phoenix Mercury heart Brittney Griner, who has been detained in Russia — the place she additionally performs professionally — since February on drug expenses. An picture of Griner and her jersey quantity No. 42 will likely be on every staff’s court docket all through the season.
“We are keeping Brittney at the forefront of what we do through the game of basketball,” W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert mentioned in an announcement.
Here’s what to anticipate from the 12 W.N.B.A. groups this season.
No matter what occurs, this season will probably mark the tip of an period for the Storm and for ladies’s basketball. After considering retirement final season, Sue Bird introduced in January that she would return and with the hashtag #1moreyear prompt this season could be her final. When she was drafted No. 1 total by Seattle in 2002, the franchise had performed solely two seasons; 4 championships later, received partly by Bird’s consistency, the Storm have turn into one of the vital dominant groups in W.N.B.A. historical past.
The 41-year-old’s farewell tour will inevitably embrace many teary tributes and gaudy spotlight reels, but the Storm will intention for its remaining cease to be a champions’ parade. The staff is taking part in its first season within the new Climate Pledge Arena, which the Storm are sharing with the N.H.L.’s Kraken. The Storm will nonetheless have Breanna Stewart, who met with the Liberty within the low season earlier than signing a one-year deal, and Jewell Loyd, who additionally met with the Liberty earlier than re-signing for 2 years. Bird, Stewart and Loyd kind the staff’s core, and the chance of taking part in with out them within the close to future makes the staff’s quest for a league-leading fifth title extra pressing than ever.
A bunch of recent faces crowd the Sparks roster, as Los Angeles seems to reignite this season. The staff struggled final 12 months within the wake of Candace Parker’s departure and the fallout from a authorized battle with Penny Toler, the staff’s former common supervisor.
The Sparks had an wonderful season defensively in 2021 but fell in need of the playoffs for the primary time since 2011 due to their woeful offense. This 12 months, they’ve added starpower designed to spice up their scoring with the flashy younger guards Chennedy Carter and Jordin Canada and heart Liz Cambage, who owns the single-game scoring report and is on the lookout for a recent begin after promising seasons in Las Vegas that also ended in need of titles. The query is how all these abilities will match collectively beneath Coach Derek Fisher: There aren’t many function gamers on this Los Angeles staff, so checking out obligations might show difficult.
Those gamers will be part of Nneka Ogwumike, nonetheless the staff’s greatest probability at filling that Parker-size gap, in addition to the veterans Brittney Sykes and Kristi Toliver as they chase a brand new form of chemistry befitting the franchise’s storied legacy.
For the sixth 12 months in a row, the Fever will attempt to return to the playoffs — or at the very least not be the worst staff within the league but once more. Without a modicum of success to point out for years of excessive draft picks, Indiana was compelled to just about begin from scratch this 12 months. The staff amassed 4 picks within the first spherical alone after reducing Kysre Gondrezick, their prime decide within the 2021 draft at No. 4 total.
A gaggle of rookies, then, will be part of the veterans Danielle Robinson, Bria Hartley, Tiffany Mitchell and Kelsey Mitchell, as Lin Dunn, the interim common supervisor, tries to proper the ship.
NaLyssa Smith, Indiana’s prime 2022 draft decide at No. 2 total, was dominant at Baylor and enters the W.N.B.A. with one thing to show after an underwhelming senior postseason. She’s been clamoring to compete on the skilled stage and, at 6-foot-4 with spectacular athleticism, Smith might nicely show to be the difference-maker the Fever desperately want.
Last season, the Wings had one of many youngest rosters within the league. Though they appear to have discovered some stability, having made just one non-draft addition, the 6-foot-7 heart Teaira McCowan, there’s nonetheless some uncertainty about how the staff will stability all that potential. Dallas has lots of depth but few clear front-runners who can outline the staff’s core.
Arike Ogunbowale is one exception to that rule. The sharpshooting All-Star has been the centerpiece of Dallas’s offense, and he or she signed a multiyear extension within the low season. She had assist from guard Marina Mabrey, her former Notre Dame teammate; they work collectively so nicely they’ve earned the moniker Marike.
This season, the second-year Wings Coach Vickie Johnson, will attempt to take the staff previous the primary spherical within the playoffs for the primary time since 2015 by discovering consistency within the frontcourt. Forward Satou Sabally, along with her refined footwork inside and skill to search out high-percentage pictures, looks like the proper stability for Ogunbowale’s pull-up-from-anywhere mentality — the Wings simply have to ensure she’s touching the ball.
The four-time champion Lynx will lose the ultimate piece of their final two title-winning squads on the finish of this season with the retirement of the 6-foot-6 heart Sylvia Fowles, who was taking part in at a near-M.V.P. stage final season regardless of being 35 years outdated then.
Fowles’s persevering with dominance might push Minnesota again into place to win within the postseason. However, she and Coach Cheryl Reeve will face the added problem of competing with out ahead Napheesa Collier, the staff’s main scorer final season, who’s pregnant and more likely to miss most or all the season.
The five-time All-Star Angel McCoughtry, who injured her knee final season, will be part of Fowles within the effort to push the Lynx again to the playoffs for the twelfth consecutive 12 months. The veterans Kayla McBride and Aerial Powers spherical out a Lynx roster that would, as soon as once more, outperform expectations, because of Reeve’s constant teaching and the staff’s expertise.
The story of the Aces facilities on one essential low season transfer: the introduction of Becky Hammon because the highest-paid head coach within the W.N.B.A. Combined with the development of a shiny, new Aces-specific follow facility in Henderson, Nev., Hammon’s hiring was a part of proprietor Mark Davis’s efforts to flaunt his investments within the staff up to now. All that’s left is for the staff to lastly win its first title.
Hammon will undoubtedly be within the highlight — maybe much more so than her gamers — after returning to the W.N.B.A., the place she first flourished as a participant, and passing up what many noticed as a probable shot to turn into the primary feminine head coach in N.B.A. historical past.
In her first head teaching function, the longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant will attempt to retool the Aces following the departure of heart Liz Cambage and ahead Angel McCoughtry, veteran abilities who accounted for a lot of the staff’s manufacturing. Last season ended with an ugly upset loss to the Mercury within the playoffs, one recreation away from the championship collection. This 12 months, Hammon will work with A’ja Wilson, the 2020 M.V.P., to take the proficient staff to the following stage, counting on guards Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum to amp up the Aces’ offense.
The Liberty’s 2021 season was a shock: It was Betnijah Laney who took the reins to steer the staff again to the playoffs for the primary time since 2017 and never Natasha Howard, the previous defensive participant of the 12 months who missed a lot of the season with a knee damage or the highly-touted guard Sabrina Ionescu.
This season, they’ve added Stefanie Dolson from the reigning champion Sky and employed a brand new coach, Sandy Brondello, to place all of the items collectively. The staff is filled with potential but an entire thriller so far as chemistry. Despite shedding 10 of their final 12 video games on the finish of the 2021 common season, the Liberty have been two factors shy of upsetting the Phoenix Mercury within the first spherical of the playoffs — a complicated final result in step with their unpredictability final season.
If Brondello, who led the Mercury to a championship in 2014, can discover consistency amongst a gaggle of veterans who’ve discovered lots of success on different groups, the Liberty may be capable to make a deeper run within the playoffs.
The Mercury start the season beneath a very giant shadow: the continued detention of their star heart, Brittney Griner, in Russia, the place she has been held since February. Her indefinite absence leaves an enormous gap within the staff and league, on and off the court docket. Until she returns, the Mercury must determine methods to play with out one of the vital dominant facilities in W.N.B.A. historical past for the primary prolonged interval in practically a decade.
An esteemed group of veterans can even be combating for one more title. Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi have been joined by Tina Charles within the low season, sparking a lot dialogue about so-called superteams within the W.N.B.A. Coach Vanessa Nygaard, in her first 12 months, has been charged with getting the staff into form to attempt to declare the franchise’s fourth championship. Phoenix made it to final season’s championship collection earlier than shedding in 4 video games to the underdog Chicago Sky.
Taurasi, who will flip 40 years outdated in June, insists that she’s not planning on retiring anytime quickly. But she — the league’s profession main scorer — has had nagging accidents over the previous few seasons, making the Mercury’s pursuit of one other deep postseason run much more urgent than common.
The Sun have been nothing if not constant over the previous few seasons, each of their common season dominance and of their incapacity to lastly safe the franchise’s first championship. If they have been ever in win-now mode, although, this might be the time, having re-signed Jonquel Jones, final season’s M.V.P., within the low season.
Jones rejoins Alyssa Thomas, Jasmine Thomas, DeWanna Bonner and Brionna Jones — one of many league’s most constant core teams. While different groups across the league are understanding their rotations, the Sun and their longtime coach, Curt Miller, will look to refine a long-established dynamic. Even their largest transfer of the low season — securing the return of guard Courtney Williams — was to convey a staff veteran again into the fold after her transient stint with the Atlanta Dream.
Connecticut can practically take as a right the truth that this group will reprise one of many higher defenses within the W.N.B.A., with its veterans who appear to summon unfathomable power to stifle opponents 12 months after 12 months. The bother comes when the pictures cease falling for the bodily staff. Williams, and maybe some offense-minded younger gamers coming off the bench, must shut that hole.
The Dream look like they’ve been in rebuilding mode for a number of seasons now, successful single-digit video games in every of their previous three seasons and going through turnover on the teaching and possession tiers.
But this season, Atlanta will try to really begin recent, with the first-year head coach, Tanisha Wright, and a slew of younger expertise becoming a member of Tiffany Hayes and Monique Billings, who’ve caught with the Dream via all these losses. Aari McDonald, whom the Dream drafted with the third total decide final 12 months, will likely be joined by the No. 1 decide within the 2022 draft, Rhyne Howard — whom Atlanta traded as much as snag — and Kristy Wallace, who spent the previous few years honing her abilities in an Australian skilled league. The veterans Erica Wheeler and Nia Coffey, each of whom final performed for the Sparks, spherical out the upstart group, which can intention to outperform expectations and make it to the playoffs for the primary time since 2018.
After successful their first championship as underdogs in 2021, the Sky return as contenders to turn into the primary W.N.B.A. staff to win repeat titles in 20 years. Many core members of final season’s staff are again, together with Candace Parker; Kahleah Copper, final 12 months’s finals M.V.P.; and the veteran guards Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot. The staff added heart Emma Meesseman, who was the finals M.V.P. when the Mystics received the 2019 championship.
The Sky will need to have been sure that this group could be sufficient after they traded away all of their 2022 draft picks, relying as a substitute on their veteran squad and the abilities of Coach James Wade to make them one other deep postseason run. Copper particularly, who stuffed her 2021 finals spotlight reels with circus pictures and hard layups, will look to proceed her breakout run this season.
Since successful the W.N.B.A. championship in 2019, the Mystics’ destiny has revolved round one variable: whether or not Elena Delle Donne, who has performed simply three video games previously two seasons, can get and keep wholesome. Delle Donne sustained a again damage within the 2019 W.N.B.A. finals that required a number of surgical procedures, left her with lingering again points and has taken intensive remedy and conditioning work to beat.
If Delle Donne and Alysha Clark, who missed final season with a foot damage, can keep on the court docket, Washington’s roster all of the sudden seems much more stable. Ariel Atkins, Natasha Cloud and Myisha Hines-Allen are all settled nicely into Coach Mike Thibault’s system, and Elizabeth Williams, a brand new addition, can present help within the put up if Delle Donne isn’t able to go.