<
>

Lasting impressions from 2015 -- and looking ahead to next season

Minnesota beat Indiana in five games in the WNBA Finals, and will try to become the first team to repeat since 2001-02. AP Photo/Stacy Bengs

We're a week past the big celebration in Minnesota, as the Lynx won the WNBA title for the third time in the past five years. By now, many of the league's players are either overseas or headed there for their other basketball jobs. And women's hoops fans here in the United States are counting down the days until the college season starts.

But now let's take one more look at the WNBA and the thoughts we're left with about the 2015 season each team had, plus what we might see from them in 2016 (teams listed in order of their regular-season finish in each conference).

Western Conference

Minnesota Lynx: Considering the Lynx's injuries and how good their playoff challengers were, this title didn't come easily. But talent and chemistry came through for the Lynx again. (As did Maya Moore with a crucial buzzer-beater in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals.) In 2016, the Lynx will have center Sylvia Fowles, the Finals MVP, for the whole season. And they'll hope that guards Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus, along with forward Rebekkah Brunson, will be as healthy as possible for next year, too. Minnesota's depth and its defense were crucial this season, and that will be the case again if they hope to repeat in 2016. That's something that still hasn't been done since Los Angeles won consecutive titles in 2001-02.

Phoenix Mercury: The team and fans will carry a bit of a chip on their shoulders in regard to how the season ended, on a bad call (the WNBA admitted as much) that sent Moore and Minnesota to the line to clinch Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. Might the Lynx have won anyway? We didn't get to find out. Still, the fact that Phoenix was in that position without Diana Taurasi or Penny Taylor playing was a testament to how well others -- including DeWanna Bonner and Brittney Griner -- competed. Will Taurasi and Taylor return for 2016, an Olympic year? If so, the Mercury should be as dangerous as they were in winning the WNBA title in 2014.

Tulsa Shock: In what turned out to be their last season in Oklahoma, the team endured the loss of star guard Skylar Diggins to a knee injury in late June, and the news in July that the franchise was moving to Texas. Then they made the playoffs for the first time since leaving Detroit after the 2009 season. Diggins is expected back for 2016. But what about forward Glory Johnson, who just this week gave birth to her twins prematurely? Will the Shock still be called the Shock in Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington (the latter city is where they'll play), or will there be a full-on franchise facelift? The Shock showed a lot of grit and determination, but there's many questions to answer in regard to next year.

Los Angeles Sparks: It was a different team once superstar Candace Parker returned at the end of July, and the Sparks pushed Minnesota to three games in the West semifinals. But the question remains: Is Los Angeles any closer to winning a championship? Brian Agler had a lot to juggle in his first season as Sparks coach. As a veteran of the league, he knows how hard it is to climb those last steps to being a title contender, which he did with Seattle. But will the Sparks ever have the kind of chemistry that both the Lynx and Mercury have displayed in recent years as league champions? Once again, we find we're not questioning if the Sparks have the right pieces for a championship, but whether they will fit together well enough.

Seattle Storm: They were in rebuilding mode in 2015, and might well still be in the same position even after getting No. 1 draft pick Breanna Stewart for 2016. (Clearly, she's going to be their choice with the top selection). She'll join Jewell Loyd, who was this season's rookie of the year. Getting two No. 1 picks in a row (Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird in 2001-02) was the key to Seattle's previous WNBA titles in 2004 and 2010. But who is really serving as a leadership understudy now to Bird, who will be 35 for next season? There is going to be a lot riding on young shoulders for 2016 and beyond in Seattle.

San Antonio Stars: They are the team most in need of a dynamic big name, and winning the lottery would have helped in that regard. Alas, instead they will choose No. 2 next April ... or they might trade that pick to get a point-producing veteran (but not old) post player. Their top scorer inside, Sophia Young-Malcolm, is retiring. Kayla McBride, Jia Perkins and Danielle Robinson were a solid guard corps this season. However at this point, the Stars -- who had the worst record in the league at 8-26 -- have trouble matching up, talent-wise, with any of the top teams in the league, and that seems likely to be true for 2016 as well.

Eastern Conference

New York Liberty: They had the best regular-season record (23-11) and appeared on their way to the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2002 ... but ran into the resolve of the Indiana Fever. More specifically, the Liberty couldn't stop the Fever's perimeter scorers when they most needed to. And center Kiah Stokes, who had an excellent rookie season for New York, struggled in the past two games of the Eastern Conference finals. The Liberty had all the pieces to make a run at the WNBA title, though, and now they have more experience for 2016 -- including the disappointing ending this year that could be great motivation.

Chicago Sky: Elena Delle Donne (23.4 PPG, 8.4 RPG) was fantastic, and a deserving winner of the league's MVP award. But after winning the first game of the East semifinals, the Sky weren't able to close the deal against Indiana. In particular, the Sky's typical biggest concern -- defense -- really let down Chicago in a 100-89 season-ending loss to the Fever. Sky guards Cappie Pondexter and Courtney Vandersloot, along with sixth-woman standout Allie Quigley, were good in support of EDD. But the Sky likely need a stronger presence inside to really be able to contend for a championship.

Indiana Fever: They were the never-say-die Fever, right up until running out of gas against a very good Lynx team in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals. Under first-year head coach Stephanie White, the Fever outpaced everyone else's expectations -- and perhaps even their own. Briann January continues to blossom as an elite point guard, and the Fever's perimeter was very good offensively and defensively. The 2016 season will be the last for the face of the franchise, forward Tamika Catchings. Admittedly, because of that, the Fever will have to fight against emotion overwhelming them next year. Catch, though, will be the one demanding as much as anyone that the Fever focus on the task at hand, not her.

Washington Mystics: They're still a pretty young team, and their East semifinal performance against New York highlighted that. They prevailed in overtime in the first game, at New York. But then couldn't consolidate that with a Game 2 victory at home, and ended up losing the series back in the Big Apple. However, the Mystics know their identity; they are not a team with a superstar. They have talent, but they have to execute the game plan well to really be able to contend at the top of the East. Next year, will we see the true "breakout" ability of Emma Meesseman that has shown up in a more understated way thus far? Will fellow post player Stefanie Dolson also build on her progress from this year?

Atlanta Dream: A lot of prognosticators (espnW included) thought the Dream were the favorite to win the East in 2015, because it seemed like they had the fewest questions to answer. But it didn't turn out that way. The Dream played hard, but hit a stretch in July into early August in which they lost seven of eight games, including six in a row. You never got the sense that the Dream weren't at least trying to win games, though. In July, they dealt longtime center Erika de Souza to Chicago -- as part of a three-way deal with Minnesota involving Sylvia Fowles -- and got young players for that, such as Damiris Dantas. Can Atlanta provide Angel McCoughtry enough support in 2016 to get back to being a playoff team? The Dream will pick fourth in the draft lottery.

Connecticut Sun: Injuries -- most notably to 2014 WNBA Rookie of the Year Chiney Ogwumike -- really seemed to sink the Sun's season before it even began. The Sun still got off to a strong start, yet it didn't hold up. Connecticut would have dearly loved to have won the draft lottery and the grand prize of having Stewart come straight over from UConn to Uncasville. Instead, the Sun will pick third, and this draft is deep enough to help the Sun choose wisely. They also will have a new coach, as Anne Donovan stepped down after the Sun's 15-19 record this season.