Sparks, Storm, Sun look like teams to beat

Updated: May 23, 2005, 9:46 AM ET
Associated Press

The Los Angeles Sparks made the biggest offseason deal, acquiring three-time All-Star Chamique Holdsclaw, and once again look like the team to beat in the WNBA.

Los Angeles' biggest challengers when the league opens its ninth season Saturday would appear to be the defending champion Seattle Storm, who lost several key players, and the Connecticut Sun.

The Sparks were a league-best 25-9 last year, including an 11-3 record after coach Michael Cooper left to become an assistant with the NBA's Denver Nuggets. However, Los Angeles, which won two titles while appearing in the previous three WNBA Finals, lost in three games to Sacramento in the first round.

Looking for a return to the top, the Sparks hired former Southern California coach Henry Bibby last month and acquired Holdsclaw from Washington to form a formidable duo with reigning MVP Lisa Leslie.

"They vastly improved themselves with Holdsclaw,'' Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer said. "I think they are going to be determined to try to get back to the championship round.''

Holdsclaw missed Washington's last 10 regular-season games last year due to what she later disclosed was depression. She then asked for a trade, and was dealt to the Sparks in March.

"Sometimes, change is power. And I feel right now the change I've made is a great thing for me as a person,'' Holdsclaw said. "Chamique Holdsclaw the person needed change, and it's great. L.A. has been great for me.''

Although Seattle still has its top two players – Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird – and finals MVP Betty Lennox, the Storm lost two starters. Sheri Sam – a key acquisition last offseason – signed with Charlotte, and Kamila Vodichkova went to Phoenix. Also, backup point guard Tully Bevilaqua joined Indiana.

"I was saying we would lose one starter, and worst case scenario lose two, which is what came to fruition,'' Seattle coach Anne Donovan said. "What caught me by surprise is the challenge to keep Tully Bevilaqua. I didn't anticipate teams would come after our bench. All three players went on to what they perceive to be bigger roles on the teams they've gone to.''

Diana Taurasi helped the Mercury make a nine-game turnaround from a league-worst 8-26 mark in 2003, and the club missed a playoff berth by just one game. Phoenix addressed its glaring shortcoming in the middle by signing Vodichkova and selecting Sandora Irvin, the NCAA's career blocks leader at TCU, with the third overall pick in last month's draft.

In the East, three games separated first and last place, and the Sun return nearly the same team that came within one shot of winning the championship.

"I don't know how easy it is to pick anyone in our conference from year to year,'' Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said. "If we can play like we did at the end of last year, we have the chance to be as good as anybody.''

The Sun also bolstered their lineup in the middle, getting 7-foot-2 center Margo Dydek in a trade with San Antonio.

Laimbeer expects every team to be better, but is also confident his team will bounce back after faltering in defense of its title last year.

"Obviously, I'm going to pick the Shock to finish first (in the East),'' he said. "I think Connecticut and Indiana will beat each other up to see who comes in second and third. Our team is very focused to get our championship back. What happened to us last year is that we were just too young to realize how hard we had to play every night.''

Charlotte made the most changes in hopes of winning a title for veteran guard Dawn Staley, who signed a one-year deal to come back this season. In addition to signing Sam, the Sting acquired forward Tangela Smith and guard Helen Darling, and selected the University of Minnesota's Janel McCarville with the top pick in last month's draft.

"There is perhaps a little sense of urgency, not knowing how long Dawn will continue to play,'' Sting coach Trudi Lacey said. "At the same time, we recognize that we have a new team and it's going to take us some time to jell and for it to come together.''

Washington, which made a surprising run to the playoffs last season, has its eighth coach in eight years in Richie Adubato and is now building its team around second-year guard Alana Beard. The Mystics added veteran forward DeLisha Milton-Jones as part of the Holdsclaw trade, and acquired Beard's former Duke teammate.

"I just think that there's a tremendous amount of excitement about the competition this year and the level of play that we're going to see,'' first-year WNBA president Donna Orender said.

The average attendance for regular-season games was less than 8,600 last year, slightly lower than the previous season, and more than 2,200 below the 10,869 the league averaged in 1998.

Eight teams saw a dropoff, with New York falling nearly 2,900 from 2003. However, the Liberty played six home games at Radio City Music Hall because of the Republican Convention at Madison Square Garden. The Liberty drew the maximum 5,945 at the famed concert hall, while averaging 11,638 at the Garden – about 800 fewer than the previous year.

The Mystics averaged a league-best 12,615 despite a dropoff of about 1,400. Detroit, Los Angeles, Seattle and Connecticut all had increases of at least 10 percent, and the WNBA Finals between Seattle and Connecticut was sold out for the first time in league history.

After having three franchises fold and two others move in the previous two winters, the new season features the same number of teams in the same locations as the previous season. And the league has an eye toward expansion once again, having announced plans for a new team to begin play in Chicago in 2006 and considering more additions after that.

The traditional All-Star game will return this year, at Uncasville, Conn., on July 9. Last season, the U.S. national team played an All-Star team of WNBA players at Radio City Music Hall at the start of the league's month-long break for the Olympics.

The league is entering the third year of its five-year collective bargaining agreement, and the third year of a six-year TV contract with ABC, ESPN and the Oxygen Network.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press