The Seattle Storm had such a dominant run to the WNBA championship last year, they are the overwhelming favorites to win again as the league opens its 15th season this weekend.
The Storm rolled through the regular season with a 28-6 mark — the only team in the Western Conference with a winning record — and then went 7-0 in the playoffs to win the franchise’s second championship.
“You have to start with Seattle, because not only did they win the championship, but the way they won the championship and their run through the West a year ago,” San Antonio coach Dan Hughes said. “Plus they’ve added Katie Smith. And that is a pretty significant quality to add to an already championship caliber team.”
The season tips off Friday night when Candace Parker and the Los Angeles Sparks host Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore and the Minnesota Lynx. Seattle opens on Saturday, hosting Phoenix in one of four games on the schedule.
Seattle will be trying to become the first team to win consecutive titles since Los Angeles in 2001-02. Houston won the league’s first four titles from 1997-2000.
The Storm acquired Smith, a 12-year veteran who won two titles with Detroit, from Washington in a three-team trade in April. She joins a Seattle squad led by three-time MVP Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird and Swin Cash. Smith, a hard-nosed defender with career averages of 15.2 points per game and 37-percent shooting from 3-point range, also gives the Storm another offensive option.
“We have so many weapons that are out there,” Cash said. “(Smith) can come do her thing and if you forget, she’s going to burn you for 20. I think that’s what makes people scared about this team, is having her here.”
In the East, the Atlanta Dream made a surprising run to the WNBA finals in their third season, sweeping the conference’s top two seeds — Washington and New York — before falling short in the championship round. The Dream were swept in three games by Seattle, but lost by a total of eight points.
Atlanta then acquired point guard Lindsey Harding from Washington and figures to be the conference’s team to beat.
“Lindsey brings speed and quickness to that position, plus she can score,” Meadors said. “One of the things we really needed to address was our point guard position needed to be able to score.”
Harding fit that bill, averaging 12.4 points and 4.3 assists the last two seasons with the Mystics. She solidifies a Dream lineup led by 2009 Rookie of the Year Angel McCoughtry, Iziane Castro Marques, Sancho Lyttle and Erika DeSouza.
“The Atlanta Dream have a lot of young talent and players and most importantly they’ve kept their core together,” Mystics star Alana Beard said. “(Harding) knows the game really well. Just adding her to the Dream will make them an even stronger team.”
Atlanta will likely be challenged by the Liberty, coming off a franchise-record 22-win season, and Indiana, which has won at least 21 games five of the last six years.
New York will be playing under a new coach — John Whisenant, who led Sacramento to the championship in 2005.
“We definitely need to pick up where we left off,” All-Star guard Cappie Pondexter said. “We lost in the conference finals. It left a taste that wasn’t really satisfying.”
Indiana signed veteran center Tangela Smith, who won two titles in Phoenix. The Fever lost to the Liberty in the first round of the playoffs, a year after reaching the WNBA finals.
“We want to do what we did in the ’09 season,” Indiana star Tamika Catchings said. “We definitely have the talent and its all about putting things together.”
Sheryl Swoopes, one of the league’s original players, is back this season after sitting out two years. Swoopes signed with Tulsa in March after being recruited by Shock assistant coach Teresa Edwards to bring veteran leadership to a team that finished 6-28 in its first season after moving from Detroit.
“I didn’t pick the team, the team picked me,” the 40-year-old Swoopes said. “I really wasn’t looking to come back to the WNBA. I took the time to think about if it was something that I really wanted to do.”
Swoopes is one of two players left from the WNBA’s first season in 1997, joining former Houston Comets teammate Tina Thompson. However, Thompson — beginning her third year with Los Angeles — is the only player to have appeared in every season.
In the West, Los Angeles and Phoenix could challenge the Storm. The Sparks have a healthy Parker, who was limited to just 10 games due to a shoulder injury, and the Mercury have a rested Diana Taurasi.
Taurasi, who talked last year about missing a WNBA season to recharge, hasn’t played competitively since December, when she was told she had tested positive for the banned stimulant modafanil and was subsequentlly suspended by the Turkish League. The four-time scoring champion was vindicated two months later when the lab that conducted the test retracted its report.
Minnesota has also generated a lot of buzz with its core of young players and could be a strong postseason contender after adding Moore with the first pick in the WNBA draft.
AP Sports Writers Tim Booth in Seattle and Charles Odum in Atlanta contributed.