Sparks, Shock open as favorites in new WNBA season |

Sparks, Shock open as favorites in new WNBA season

AP Sports Writer

The Los Angeles Sparks were expected to run away with the WNBA championship last year.

After falling short, they made the biggest moves in the offseason and are again the favorites for the title as the league opens its 13th season this weekend.

“If they don’t win the WNBA championship,” Phoenix Mercury star Diana Taurasi said before pausing and running down the list of the Sparks’ big-name players. “You have Tina (Thompson), Lisa (Leslie), DeLisha (Milton-Jones), Candace Parker. Pretty good. Betty Lennox, (Marie) Ferdinand. I don’t know if they’re beatable. It will be interesting to see if anyone can beat them.”

Los Angeles had three Olympians in Leslie, Parker and Milton-Jones on a team that won 20 games a year ago, doubling its win total from 2007 when Leslie was sitting out after giving birth, Parker was getting ready for her last college season at Tennessee, and Milton-Jones was with the Washington Mystics.

Looking for a final chance to get Leslie a third WNBA title in her farewell season, the Sparks reloaded by signing Thompson and Lennox, and acquiring point guard Noelle Quinn in a trade with Minnesota.

Thompson, who gives Los Angeles a fourth member of the U.S. team that won gold in Beijing last summer, had spent her entire 12-year career in Houston, but was looking for a new team after the Comets were shut down in December.

“I’m thinking there will be just a little bit of coaching going, and let their experience work for us,” Sparks coach Michael Cooper said of having the four Olympians, though he knows he’ll have to wait to have them all on the court while Parker recovers from giving birth to a daughter last month.

Cooper believes getting Lennox, who led expansion Atlanta in scoring at 17.5 points per game last year, could be the key addition.

“One of our deficiencies, we didn’t have a guard that could get out in transition and create her own shot for us last year,” Cooper said. “For us to reload at that spot was definitely a plus for us.”

Taurasi’s Mercury teammate Cappie Pondexter isn’t ready to concede anything to the Sparks.

“They’re talented, no question, on paper,” she said. “But can they play?”

The question in the Eastern Conference centers on whether anyone can stop the Detroit Shock from reaching their fourth straight WNBA finals. The defending champions have won twice during that stretch, and three times in the last six seasons.

The Shock return with team intact and know the rest of the league will be looking to beat them.

“It’s something you have to deal with but also, I think for us, it’s the key to maintaining, staying on top, coming ready to play every night,” Detroit’s Katie Smith said. “Not taking nights off, just understanding every team in this league is talented and is going to be gunning for you.”

Shock assistant coach Rick Mahorn agreed, adding: “You’re the king for now, but there’s always someone there that’s going to knock you off the block.”

Connecticut, New York and Indiana will likely be playoff contenders again. The Liberty nearly knocked off the Shock in the conference finals, squandering a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 2 and then nearly rallying from 20 points down in Game 3 before losing by two.

Also, the East’s three non-playoff teams figure to be improved after having the top three picks in both the Comets dispersal draft and the league’s annual rookie draft.

Atlanta revamped its roster for its second season after finishing with a WNBA-record 30 losses last year, adding veterans Chamique Holdsclaw, Nikki Teasley, Michelle Snow and Sancho Lyttle, and No. 1 overall draft pick Angel McCoughtry.

Washington is also different from top to bottom with a new general manager, a new coach – the team’s 11th in 12 seasons – and several new players, including Lindsey Harding, Chasity Melvin and rookie Marissa Coleman. And Chicago stands to benefit from a full season with Sylvia Fowles, who missed 17 games last year after being selected with the No. 2 overall pick.

In the West, the Sparks’ biggest challenge will likely come from San Antonio, which had the league’s best record in the regular season and knocked out Los Angeles in the conference finals. The Silver Stars will be without center Ann Wauters the first couple of months, but could have an improved perimeter game with return of Shanna Crossley from an ACL injury and the addition of Belinda Snell.

Seattle had the biggest signing of the offseason when two-time MVP Lauren Jackson decided to stay with the Storm instead of jumping to Phoenix.

A big change for this year that all teams have to deal with is the reduction of rosters to 11 active players. Previously, teams were allowed to have up to 13, with 11 actives declared before the start of each game. Along with the demise of the Comets, that means up to 39 fewer jobs available in the league.

“It’s very, very difficult for a player to make a roster right now,” Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer said

On the positive side, the start of training camp was delayed by about three weeks, allowing time for teams to start with all their players back from overseas instead of having players trickle in slowly until opening day.

“It’s been nice to start from day one teaching what we want to do and not have to repeat it a bunch of times,” Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said.