Breaking down the Western Conference
Before the season tips off Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), here's a look at the strengths and potential question marks for all seven teams in the Western Conference:
HoustonStrength: The Comets have the momentum of last season's strong finish, and they still have Tina Thompson. That's not a bad combination for a team which won't have to do much to exceed expectations. Like Washington, the Comets opened last season with a double-digit losing streak. And also like Washington, Karleen Thompson's team played better than .500 basketball down the stretch. The difference was that in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, that effort still left them several laps behind the leaders. Re-signing Thompson was critical, and if Michelle Snow bounces back from a so-so season, the Comets have enviable depth in the frontcourt -- even without recently injured Latasha Byears. Question mark: Without Sheryl Swoopes for all but three games last season, Houston didn't take care of the basketball and didn't create many assists. Now Swoopes has moved on to Seattle. There are a number of candidates to facilitate the offense, but will the extremes of experience in Shannon Johnson and Tamecka Dixon and youth in Erica White and Matee Ajavon produce a comfortably productive middle ground?
Los AngelesStrength: Candace Parker, Lisa Leslie, DeLisha Milton-Jones, Temeka Johnson, Marie Ferdinand-Harris and Michael Cooper. Other than that, there's no particular reason to think the Sparks will be much better than last season. The hordes of people picking the refurbished Sparks to reclaim the championship -- a horde that includes a majority of league general managers -- make it difficult to paint the Sparks as some sort of sleeper. That understandably has a lot to do with pairing Leslie and Parker together in a tandem that could prove reminiscent of Tim Duncan and David Robinson, but Johnson's return could prove to be critical in making that all-world tandem the best it can be. Johnson had a better than two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio in 2006. When a knee injury caused her to miss all but 11 games last season, the Sparks didn't have anyone close to that mark. Question mark: Are the Sparks tempting fate in turning back the clock? Milton-Jones will turn 34 during the playoffs and shot a career-low 34.9 percent from the floor last season after missing double-digit games in two of the preceding three seasons. Ferdinand-Harris hasn't averaged more than 14 minutes a game since 2005. And Johnson, for all her magic in 2006, did miss 23 games last season.
MinnesotaStrength: As long as rumors about Lindsey Harding's place on the trading block remain whispers of speculation, the Lynx might have the most exciting young trio in the game with Harding, Seimone Augustus and Candice Wiggins. Granted, there are some similarities in the way they play, but Phoenix did pretty well for itself playing outside-in last season. And if Vanessa Hayden-Johnson, back after missing last season while pregnant with her first child, is ready to capitalize on her immense potential, the Lynx will have something worth waiting for when the ball finally does get inside to Hayden-Johnson and proven commodity Nicole Ohlde. Throw in a shooter like Anna DeForge, a backup distributor like Noelle Quinn and some toughness with Nicky Anosike and Kristen Rasmussen, and the Lynx have more than a little bit of everything. Question mark: The Lynx have looked good on paper for years, but is the current collection of talent more than just another assemblage of mismatched parts? An average team is going to attempt somewhere between 65 and 70 shots in a given game. Last season, Augustus, Ohlde and Harding combined to average nearly 40 shots a game (although Harding did miss 14 games). With Wiggins and DeForge added to that mix, are there enough shots to go around to keep all of them in their rhythm?
PhoenixStrength: The Mercury have the core of a championship team back, and they get the added bonus of easy motivation given all the people picking the Sparks and Storm to unseat them based on moves those teams made when all the basketballs were locked up in storage for the winter. The thing is, while those teams work to find their rhythm, the Mercury have mastered their style like few teams have ever mastered a style. Defense is supposed to slow down games in the postseason, but the Mercury actually averaged 6.8 more points per game on 3.2 more field goal attempts per game during the run to the title. Question mark: Almost every WNBA team will take a hit in some way as a result of the Olympics, but few as directly as the Phoenix, which will lose Australian Penny Taylor until after the competition in China. All Taylor did in the playoffs last season was average 19.3 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.1 blocks. That's an MVP-caliber line, and there aren't any two players, let alone one, on the current roster who can replace it.
SacramentoStrength: While saying farewell to franchise legend Yolanda Griffith, who moved on to Seattle, wasn't easy, the Monarchs did get a much-needed youth infusion without destroying the base that has made them a playoff regular in recent seasons. Losing Griffith and DeMya Walker (waived after another season-ending knee injury) hurts a team that was at its best making up for iffy shooting with its sheer volume of shots -- the Monarchs took nearly five more shots per game than their opponents last season. But rookie Laura Harper should give Rebekkah Brunson plenty of cover on the boards. Question mark: As good as Brunson is and Harper could be, they aren't going to score a lot of first-chance points in the paint. So can the Monarchs, who haven't shot a better percentage than their opponents since 2005, score enough points elsewhere to get it done? Kara Lawson is one of the best all-around guards in the game, but her 3-point percentage has fallen from 44 percent in 2005 to 40 percent in 2006 to 34 percent last season. That's not so much on her as its on a lack of scorers around her forcing more bailout shots.
San AntonioStrength: Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird or Deanna Nolan and Cheryl Ford might have a case, but is there a more offensively dynamic inside-outside combination than Becky Hammon and Sophia Young? For all the fervor about Hammon opting to play for Russia in the Olympics, it's easy to ignore the part about her likely being one of the most difficult players to stop in Beijing. Hammon was at her best last season, setting a career high in 3-pointers -- while shooting 40 percent from behind the arc -- and also getting to the free-throw line more than 100 times for just the third time in her career. And while a decrease in Young's numbers on the boards was a slight concern, she blossomed as the complement to Hammon's game. Young improved her shooting percentage from 41 percent to 48 percent, all while being aggressive enough to rank sixth in the league in free-throw attempts. Question mark: Who else can the Silver Stars count on? Cutting Kendra Wecker, injury-plagued career and all, suggests the team thinks it has plenty of depth to work with. And if Ann Wauters returns to the league the same way she left it -- averaging nearly 14 points per game for the Liberty in 2005 -- it would be a nice foundation for an answer.
SeattleStrength: If it's not accurate to say there have been All-Star teams with less name recognition than Seattle's quintet of Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird, Sheryl Swoopes, Swin Cash and Yolanda Griffith, it's only because they've been on just about every All-Star team. And while collections of All-Stars have a tendency to fit together, Jackson is the best player in the world precisely because she does everything well, and Swoopes, Cash and Griffith are all the epitome of versatility at their respective positions. Question mark: The Storm might be among the odds-on favorites to be in the mix for the title, but the odds are even better that their five big names won't all play 34 games. So how well will the supporting cast fill in when one of the five is out of the lineup, or even to keep their minutes down when healthy? Tanisha Wright and Katie Gearlds are the leading returning scorers after Jackson and Bird, combining to average 8.1 points per game last season.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
2008 WNBA Season Preview
Analysis• Hays: Western Conference breakdown
• Voepel: East favorite Shock hungry for title No. 3
• Hays: Eastern Conference breakdown
• ESPN.com contributors split on preseason favorite
• Voepel: Leslie-Parker combo dominate L.A. story
• Voepel: Still awaiting a lot of answers
• SportsNation: Make your preseason picks
WNBA.com• Complete season preview
• Preseason power rankings
• GM survey: Sparks picked to win title
• Happy 12th birthday, WNBA
• Play: Pick One Challenge
Key Dates• May 16: Rosters cut-down date
• May 17: Regular season opens
• July 28-Aug. 27: Olympic break
• Sept. 14: Regular season ends
• Sept. 18: WNBA playoffs open
• Oct. 1: WNBA finals begin
• Oct. 9: Last possible playoff date