There have been years when, in trying to project the preseason favorite in the WNBA, you might as well have asked a Magic 8 Ball about several teams. There was little to separate them, so you could make equally plausible cases for many squads to win the championship.
However, 2011 isn't that kind of preseason: Seattle, winner of the franchise's second WNBA title last year, brings back all its key parts and added Katie Smith, who has two league championships of her own. Seattle obtained Smith from Washington in three-way trade that also involved Indiana, giving the soon-to-be 37-year-old guard another chance at a title.
The Storm were 28-6 in the regular season last year, then swept their playoff series against Los Angeles, Phoenix and Atlanta. All three WNBA finals games with the Dream were decided by three points or less, but still a sweep is a sweep.
So with the likes of Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Tanisha Wright, Camille Little and Le'coe Willingham ready to take the floor again, if I asked the Magic 8 Ball, "Is Seattle the top pick to win the WNBA title in 2011?" the answer would be, "It is decidedly so." (After I flipped it over enough times to get the response I wanted, that is.)
But that doesn't mean there won't be challengers for the Storm. After an overseas season cut short as she endured the fiasco of a false drug-test result in Turkey, Phoenix's Diana Taurasi has had more time to rest, recover and prepare for this WNBA season than any other. That's looking at the bright side of what happened to her, which is generally what Taurasi does.
All things considered, losing seven times to the Storm in 2010 was hardly the biggest worry Taurasi dealt with in the past year. But speaking strictly of on-court competition, the Storm provided Taurasi and Phoenix their greatest frustration. Phoenix -- the WNBA champion in 2007 and '09 -- will try to keep the Western Conference from being a Storm runaway like last season.
Like Taurasi, Penny Taylor, DeWanna Bonner and Temeka Johnson are hungry to win again. Candice Dupree, in her second season with the Mercury, wants her first title.
Meanwhile, none of the teams currently in the Eastern Conference have ever won the WNBA championship. That includes the only franchise in the East that has been in the league since it began in 1997: New York.
Three games separated first from fourth last season in the East -- but it was that fourth-place team, Atlanta, that made the finals. Like Seattle, the Dream concentrated on keeping its core pretty much the same but also added a member of the Mystics via trade: Lindsey Harding.
Ah, yes, the Mystics. Some things you can always count on. After winning the Eastern Conference title for the first time last season, they stayed true to their historical form and got another new coach.
Although Trudi Lacey -- who took over as coach and general manager when Julie Plank and Angela Taylor left in disagreement with the organization -- is certainly not new to the WNBA. She was coach and GM for Charlotte before that franchise ended in 2006.
Lacey is well-traveled between the WNBA and college basketball. But maybe she really can help the Mystics -- who have Alana Beard back from injury but lost Monique Currie -- pick up where they left off last year, despite the offseason turmoil. There are some new young faces in Washington's post game, which was an area of need.
Or Mystics fans could be in for another summer of wondering why they put themselves through this. The Magic 8 Ball, when asked about the Mystics' outlook, says, "Better not tell you now." But don't be alarmed, D.C. backers. That could just mean the plastic predictor doesn't want to jinx you guys. Uh, yeah, that's it.
Lacey, New York's John Whisenant and Chicago's Pokey Chatman are new to coaching their respective teams this season, so we'll see how that impacts the Eastern Conference. The East standings could be just as jumbled as last year, with the playoff order not being decided until the last day of the regular season. There were times in 2010 when it appeared that New York or Indiana or Atlanta or even Connecticut -- which ended up out of the playoffs along with Chicago -- might finish first.
As to whether we could expect a similar East logjam this summer, the Magic 8 Ball says, "Signs point to yes." (Which, as all Magic 8 Ball aficionados know, is subtly different than the answers, "As I see it, yes;" "Yes, definitely," and plain old "Yes" -- which, of course, is not quite as definite as "Yes, definitely.")
What are some of the other things the soothsaying sphere has to tell us about this, the 15th WNBA season? Let's ask a few more questions.
Question: Will Minnesota make the playoffs?
Magic 8 Ball: "Outlook good."
OK, here we go again. The Lynx have teased us before with their potential, convinced us the organization had turned a corner toward really knowing how to compete. Yet Minnesota has not been in the postseason since 2004.
So why the optimistic answer? Because well, for crying out loud, it's time.
Coach Cheryl Reeve acknowledged the Lynx just didn't respond as she'd expected they would during her first season with the franchise last year. Yes, they had injury woes, but that's a standard obstacle in the WNBA.
That in itself did not keep the Lynx from the postseason, especially considering every team in the West except Seattle struggled, and Tulsa in particular wasn't ever realistically in the playoff race.
There was definitely an opening for the Lynx in 2010, but they couldn't capitalize on it. Time and again, Minnesota would be in position to win games but let them slip away. That inability to close certainly wasn't unique to Minnesota last year, but it was very frustrating for Reeve.
The benefit of poor finishes, though, is that they've helped Minnesota acquire some top-shelf talent in the draft the last few years. Including this spring's No. 1 pick, Maya Moore of UConn, which has quite a success rate among its alums in the WNBA.
On paper, the 2011 Lynx seem good enough to be in the top four in the West. They acquired an oldie-but-still-goodie in Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who will be 41 in August. She and Rebekkah Brunson, 29, can help tutor rookie post Amber Harris.
Minnesota has great scoring potential from the likes of Moore, Seimone Augustus, Candice Wiggins and Monica Wright. The Lynx have the defense, hustle and winning attitude of Alexis Hornbuckle. And they have the leadership of point guard Lindsay Whalen.
Enough is enough with Lynx letdowns. Make the playoffs, Minnesota. The Magic 8 Ball commands it.
Question: Will the Liberty under new coach John Whisenant end up being a hot mess?
Magic 8 Ball: "Ask again later."
It seems our oracle orb is essentially tabling this question out of some respect for the 2005 WNBA title that Whisenant won in Sacramento, and the ability of New York guard Cappie Pondexter. But Liberty fans must be feeling a good deal of anxiety, which is not, unfortunately, new for them.
Very shortly after last season ended with a loss to Atlanta in the Eastern Conference finals, the Liberty were largely rudderless, at least in the public eye. Coach Anne Donovan left for Seton Hall, as she'd announced she would before the season. Carol Blazejowski, the general manager since the franchise's inception, was let go -- which she clearly did not expect.
Then, in another chapter of the Liberty's book of absurdity, Pondexter took to Twitter in March to share some thoughts she should have kept to herself about the earthquake/tsunami in Japan.
You know, it's actually not even enjoyable anymore to poke fun at the Liberty, who fleetingly regained some fan goodwill and home-court magic last season but probably haven't maintained it.
Especially since "home" will be different for this year and the next two summers -- unless the work on Madison Square Garden gets done early -- as the Liberty will be playing at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
Whisenant came aboard as New York's coach/GM in October. He was 85-54 during his coaching career with the now-defunct Sacramento Monarchs, which included the 2005 WNBA title.
Whisenant knows the league and seems enthusiastic about another opportunity with a different team. Pondexter, her Twitter gaffes aside, is in the elite group of WNBA performers who can single-handedly help a team contend.
But does she really have enough talent/experience around her, especially in the paint? The Liberty could be without post Janel McCarville, the WNBA's No. 1 draft pick from 2005 who may opt not to play for New York this season.
Question: Can a healthy Candace Parker make Los Angeles a contender again this year?
Magic 8 Ball: "You may rely on it."
We say this because Parker has been nothing but reliable when she has been able to play. She missed time after having her daughter in 2009, yet came back to help L.A. get to Game 3 of the Western Conference finals. But last year, Parker was lost for the season after 10 games because of a shoulder injury.
The Sparks really do deserve credit for battling to earn a playoff spot in a season in which they lost Parker and also Betty Lennox (who's now in Tulsa) due to injuries. The worry that L.A. was relying too much on older players Tina Thompson, Ticha Penicheiro and DeLisha Milton-Jones is still there this year. Yet down the stretch in 2010 when the Sparks could have totally tanked, it was the professionalism of those players that kept that from happening.
Remember when the Sparks were the team nobody outside L.A. liked? And how even some of their own fans didn't truly like them? That's not really the case anymore.
Milton-Jones might still proudly carry the moniker "D-Nasty," and the Sparks are going to play a tough and physical game. But that veteran trio has earned respect for all they've meant to women's pro basketball. So has Parker, even in her short time in the league. It will be very good to see her back in action.
Ebony Hoffman, who signed with the Sparks as a free agent, came close to a WNBA championship with Indiana in 2009, but fell to Phoenix in five games. The former Southern California standout is now back home in L.A.
The Sparks' top draft pick in April was the personable center Jantel Lavender. She had a lot of success at Ohio State but the Buckeyes had their difficulties in the NCAA tournament.
Plus, L.A. coach Jennifer Gillom and assistant Sandy Brondello -- whose head-coaching stint with San Antonio last year ended after one season -- are seeking their first championship, too, after long involvements with the WNBA.
We certainly won't go so far as to call the Sparks sentimental favorites. But fans of the league in general might find themselves thinking Los Angeles is a team they could actually get behind -- or at least not root against vociferously.
Question: Will Tulsa be more fun to watch this season?
Magic 8 Ball: "Most likely."
Ever get fooled into buying one of those "best-of" compilation CDs, but then the songs don't actually sound the way you hoped? It's because they're not the original recordings you're familiar with, but rather knockoff versions that typically are not as good.
That's the situation Tulsa fans found themselves in last year if they were expecting to see a reasonable facsimile of the Shock team that had won three titles in Detroit. Tulsa went 6-28 -- and it was a bigger mystery how the Shock managed to win those half-dozen games than how they lost the 28.
Three of the most important figures in Detroit's success -- Deanna Nolan, Cheryl Ford and Katie Smith -- didn't even relocate to Tulsa. Smith signed with Washington; Nolan and Ford didn't play in the WNBA and apparently won't this summer, either.
Before the 2010 season was over, the remaining remnants of the Detroit Shock that had moved to Tulsa were gone. Coach Nolan Richardson said he had a plan. It included several deals that prompted various "Aren't trades supposed to be done to make you better?" wisecracks from league observers.
Soon-to-be Naismith Hall of Famer Teresa Edwards was hired in November as director of player personnel. Will that help? On May 2, the Shock traded the only player who was with them all last season who averaged in double figures in scoring, sending guard Scholanda Robinson to San Antonio for second- and third-round draft choices in 2012. Which is not much different than just giving her to the Silver Stars.
But on a very positive note, on draft day, the Shock got young Australian sensation Liz Cambage and Stanford's Ms. Do-It-All Kayla Pedersen.
Sheryl Swoopes is also back in the league with Tulsa at age 40, looking to somehow beat the buzzer once more against Father Time and show the young Shock players what it takes to win championships. How much can she really still do on the basketball court? We'll see.
The fans who kept showing up last year stayed admirably enthusiastic So will Tulsa really be more fun for them to watch in 2011? Yes, mostly to see how the youngsters develop. But if the question had been "Will the Shock's record be significantly better this season?" the Magic 8 Ball probably would have been forced to say, "Don't count on it."
Question: Will new WNBA president Laurel J. Richie have a successful tenure?
Magic 8 Ball: "Cannot predict now."
That might seem negative. But remember, the Magic 8 Ball is actually never completely pessimistic. It might tell you, "My reply is no" or "My sources say no" or "Outlook not so good" or "Very doubtful."
But it won't ever say, "Absolutely no freaking way." Meanwhile, it can give you any of 10 replies that range from 100 percent optimistic to pretty darn certain.
People have taken all these varying attitudes about the NBA's choice to succeed Donna Orender as WNBA president. But the most logical answer really is the noncommittal, wait-and-see one.
Richie has been successful in marketing and building product brand names, and that's important to the WNBA. But she was a professional woman based in New York for several years who never attended a WNBA game until she became president.
One way to look at that is, "How can she now sell a product that she heretofore seemed to have no interest in?" But another viewpoint is, "Who better to strategize about reaching new fans than someone who herself is a new fan?"
The other part of this is how "success" will be defined for Richie by her bosses. NBA commissioner David Stern wants all 12 WNBA franchises to be profitable, although he didn't put an exact timetable on when that was supposed to happen.
Orender was in spin cycle all the time -- to the extent that if you were on a sinking ship with her, she would try to convince you it was actually a fabulous time to go swimming. But to be fair, it's pretty hard for the head of any organization to strike a balance that reflects continual optimism without ever seeming to be overdoing it.
Richie must establish her own personality and voice as leader of the league. The WNBA has been through hard times, but not necessarily more so than any other American professional sports league trying to establish itself. Despite the economic downturn, the WNBA is starting its 15th season.
And the actual product -- the level of play -- has markedly improved since its inception. You'll have to take my word for it that the Magic 8 Ball really did predict that would happen.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.