<
>

5 final questions before the 2017 WNBA season opens

play
Leslie: 'It's a big difference going from college to the pros' (1:11)

Former WNBA MVP and two-time champion Lisa Leslie weighs in on what we might expect from No. 1 draft pick Kelsey Plum in her rookie season in San Antonio. (1:11)

"La La Land" might have won the best picture Oscar for only about 3 minutes, but the Sparks will be the 2016 WNBA champions forever. In honor of that title, we're going with a Los Angeles-themed five questions as we get set for the start of the WNBA's 21st season.

Los Angeles is the last WNBA franchise to repeat, which the Sparks did in 2001-02. Can they do it again? Or will Minnesota come back from last season's disappointment and get its fourth title? How big an impact will Elena Delle Donne have in Washington?

Those are all good questions, and here are five more as we count down the hours to tipoff in the "City of Stars," with Seattle visiting Los Angeles on Saturday (ESPN, 5 p.m. ET).

1. How will the new-look Mercury jell?

You want to talk about "Another Day of Sun"? Arizona is the sunniest place in the United States -- but there was gloom last season. The Mercury weren't as good defensively as they needed to be, went 16-18, and got the No. 8 seed in the playoffs. However, they won at Indiana and New York in single-elimination rounds (in the new playoff format) before Minnesota swept Phoenix 3-0 in the semifinals.

Two stalwarts remain: Guard Diana Taurasi, in her 13th season in the WNBA, and center Brittney Griner, in her fifth. Guard Danielle Robinson and forward Camille Little are respected veteran newcomers. A lot is missing: Penny Taylor retired, Candice Dupree was traded to Indiana, and DeWanna Bonner is pregnant and sitting out the season.

"Certain names have been connected to our franchise for so long," Taurasi said. "So from the outside, it's very different. On the inside, it's not as big a change because the people we have coming in, I'm familiar with their game and we've been friends for a long time.

"Playing overseas, in the WNBA, in the Olympics -- everyone is used to being in the moment with whatever team they're on. So I think that's the approach we're taking this year."

Taurasi will look on the sunny side: It's a new challenge. For someone who's won everything there is to win, she still has motivation. This only adds to that.

"If you try to answer a lot of questions about this team, it would just be silly because there are too many unknowns and things up in the air," Taurasi said. "You don't get those answers until you go through some battles throughout the season.

"But on the flip side of that, there is something to be said for the unknown. It's kind of exciting. So there is that energy you get from that."

2. Who can be the Mississippi State of the WNBA?

The Bulldogs had a terrific regular season and made the SEC tournament final. Did anyone outside of Starkville, Mississippi, really think they'd knock off Washington, Baylor and (shocking the world) UConn in succession in the NCAA tournament? They lost the NCAA championship game to nemesis South Carolina, but it was an unforgettable run.

So who might be -- in the words of "Someone in the Crowd" -- a team that's ready to be found this WNBA season?

What if it's -- ironically -- Connecticut? UConn was the giant who was slain while going for its fifth consecutive title in women's college hoops. The Connecticut Sun have missed the playoffs the past four years. In most preseason WNBA rankings, the Sun are near the bottom. Understandable, considering 2014 No. 1 draft pick Chiney Ogwumike is hurt and will miss the season.

Maybe the Sun have more going for them than we think. They should have a strong, young interior game with the likes of Morgan Tuck and Jonquel Jones. Guard Alex Bentley, the team's leading scorer in 2016, is back. So are forward Alyssa Thomas and guard Jasmine Thomas, who both had the best seasons, statistically, of their careers in 2016. Post player Danielle Adams is trying to make her way back into the WNBA after not playing in the league last year.

If Connecticut doesn't flip expectations and surprise us, maybe Dallas, with its new South Carolina Gamecock influence, will. Or Atlanta, which won't have guard/forward Angel McCoughtry for at least some and maybe all of the season, as she's resting. Consider that she's led the league in usage percentage for six of the past seven years, so all that responsibility she took for trying to make things happen offensively has to be spread around.

Chicago also hopes to prove a lot of predictions wrong. The Sky made it to the semifinals without Delle Donne last year, as she was hurt and missed the postseason. Now new coach Amber Stocks will try to help the Sky forge a different identity.

3. Will the Stars leave the cellar?

Here's to the fools who dream: those who start with basketball as kids and then make it all the way to the WNBA. Because the odds are quite long; there are so few roster spots and so many good players.

That's something to keep in mind about San Antonio, which is a combined 15-53 during the past two years. Being in last place doesn't mean a team doesn't have any talent. But the Stars haven't had enough in a league that can be very punishing. That's been especially evident on offense.

No. 1 draft pick Kelsey Plum joining the Stars should help, and new coach Vickie Johnson knows what it takes to succeed in the league. Can the Stars avoid a last-place finish again? Maybe ... although there's also a certain pragmatism that says it's not going to be the worst thing if they are last again. The 2018 draft should be very good for lottery teams.

4. Can the Storm make this a special season?

Seattle as a city is kind of the "un-Los Angeles," but the Storm have plenty of stars. Sue Bird got in crazy-good shape, even for her, last season and led the league in assists. Jewell Loyd, who followed her rookie of the year award with a very strong second season in the league, is taking great advantage of learning more about perimeter play from Bird.

Forward Breanna Stewart had the kind of first year -- 18.3 PPG, 9.3 RPG -- that makes it seem weird to say, "So, what will you work to improve on in your second season?" It's not that she won't get better, but -- wow -- she's already set the bar so high.

Stewart came home a little earlier than expected from her overseas play in China because of a knee sprain. We'll have to see if she's 100 percent to start the season, but she sounds upbeat.

"Both physically and mentally I'm feeling great right now," Stewart said. "I think that having my overseas season be cut a little bit short was disappointing, but it was also a blessing in disguise. Because otherwise I wouldn't have had that time off to really rest my body, my mind and recover in that way."

This should be an exciting season in Seattle, with the All-Star Game being played at KeyArena on July 22, and the feeling that the Storm have a chance to make a playoff run. Seattle went 7-3 after the Olympic break last year, but then lost in the postseason's opening round at Atlanta.

"Even though we had that great run to make the playoffs," Stewart said, "we wanted to do more than to just get to the first game and lose. I think it's more fuel to the fire. Just really [want to] start off a lot stronger than we did last year."

5. What's the best rivalry in the WNBA?

We ask this in honor of L.A.-based Ryan Murphy and his miniseries "Feud," which was enjoyable even if you didn't grow up watching Bette Davis and Joan Crawford movies on the late show. (But especially if you did.)

Maybe Washington-Chicago will feel "feud-like" with Delle Donne having left the Sky for the Mystics. Incidentally, New York really kind of needs an updated vibrant rival, just because it's New York.

Considering their competitive, down-to-the-wire WNBA Finals last year, perhaps the Lynx-Sparks matchup will have some extra spice now. Unfortunately, their first 2017 meeting isn't until July 6.

Despite all the changes with the Mercury, maybe the league's best rivalry remains Minnesota-Phoenix, with teams and fan bases that seem to get under each other's skin in an entertaining way. Some Mercury fans refer to Lynx star Maya Moore as "Princess Maya" because they think she gets so many calls from officials. They also love to heckle Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, who most definitely would disagree with them.

Minnesota fans like to razz Taurasi. Of course, they are among the most fervent believers -- much to Phoenix fans' irritation -- that the Mercury tanked in 2012 to get into the 2013 draft lottery, which they won and used to pick Griner.

The Mercury and Lynx first face off this season on June 30.