Change rules WNBA offseason

The best-played and most exciting Finals in the WNBA's existence ended with a champagne-soaked Phoenix Mercury locker room in October. Now it's May, and there has been more celebrating lately in the US Airways Center, as the NBA's Suns dispatched nemesis San Antonio to make it to the Western Conference finals.

Might 2010 end up being a particularly special year for Arizona hoops fans? Could the Suns win a long-coveted NBA title next month … and the Mercury repeat as WNBA champion in September?

"I have veteran players who know that what you did last year means nothing," Mercury coach Corey Gaines said. "It's a new year. … We want to come out hungry. I don't really have to rah-rah them up any because they know what needs to be done."

If the Suns win an NBA championship, their path will go through Los Angeles (barring a miracle comeback from the Utah Jazz in their second-round series with the Lakers). And if it's to happen for the Mercury, you would suspect L.A. will be one of the prominent obstacles, too.

The Mercury and Sparks will start the WNBA season Saturday (ESPN2, 2 p.m. ET). And it'll be as good a game as any to illustrate how many changes there have been in the WNBA in the past seven months since 2009 league MVP Diana Taurasi and the Mercury prevailed in five games over Indiana.

Some of the changes we knew were coming; for instance, that Lisa Leslie, a cornerstone player for the WNBA when it began in 1997, was retiring. Life for the Sparks without No. 9 could have been even more stressful had Tina Thompson also decided to leave the WNBA. But Thompson is back for at least one more season.

One of the bigger factors that helped Thompson make that decision was having a new teammate she respects and admires in Ticha Penicheiro. And, of course, the reason that Penicheiro is now in L.A. is one of the more unfortunate things that happened in the WNBA since the curtain went down on the 2009 season.

It was something we did not know was coming, although there were some ominous signs of it just before it happened. The Maloof brothers, running into some empire cash-flow problems, decided the Sacramento Kings were the only basketball team they could continue to bankroll in the California capital.

And so the Monarchs, one of the WNBA's original teams and the 2005 league champion, went out of business in November. No deals could be closed in the WNBA's efforts to move the franchise to the Bay Area for 2010, so the players landed elsewhere through a dispersal draft and free agency.

This came after another former champion, the Detroit Shock, had switched cities and another owner, Kathy Betty, had been found to keep one of the league's newer franchises, Atlanta, in place.

So if you get the sense that, particularly in the last three months of 2009, WNBA president Donna Orender was spinning a lot of plates and hoping not to hear the sound of too much shattering china, you're on target.

Orender was at least considered to be a candidate to take over as commissioner of the LPGA last year. But during the WNBA Finals, she confirmed she was staying put -- even though it would turn out that neither the Shock nor the Monarchs were.

The Shock, who won the 2003, '06 and '08 league titles, couldn't remain in economically devastated Detroit, but at least there was a welcoming landing spot in Tulsa.

However, not all the Shock players were agreeable to the move south. Which left Nolan Richardson -- in his first foray into coaching the women's game -- with a group that's a hybrid between a relocating squad and an expansion team. Key players on past Shock title teams such as Deanna Nolan, Cheryl Ford and Katie Smith will not be with Tulsa. But former Olympic sprinter Marion Jones, hoping to move away from her image as cautionary tale, might be with the Shock.

We'll see whether Jones survives the cut to 11 in Tulsa; the slicing of rosters is always a painful necessity for each franchise. And now with 12 teams, the WNBA appears to have a competitive balance even more sharply honed.

Although the WNBA took hard hits with the loss of the Monarchs and the end of the Shock in Detroit, the salvaging (at least for the time being) of Indiana and Atlanta as well as the new market for the Shock in Tulsa meant there was healing salve for the league's wounds.

The Fever were thought to have at least two wheels dangling over a cliff heading into last season, with rumblings that the Indiana brass needed to see a dramatic improvement in attendance to keep the team operating.

Although the Fever players didn't act this past summer as if they were carrying the weight of the franchise's future on their shoulders, they pretty much were. They did it with aplomb, winning the Eastern Conference regular-season title, beating the rival Shock in the East finals and then pushing the Mercury to the limit in the league Finals.

It was in the WNBA Finals series that the Fever at last seemed to really dent the general Indianapolis sporting consciousness as the team hadn't before. Larry Bird's generosity with ticket giveaways helped, but the product itself proved sales-worthy.

When the season was all over, though, Phoenix had its second title … which brings us back to where we started: the Mercury versus the Sparks, a matchup that gets the league's 14th season under way Saturday.

The Sparks, as mentioned, will now be without Leslie. But the Mercury also have a marquee absence: Cappie Pondexter, who combined with Taurasi as one of the most feared duos in WNBA history, wanted to be traded to New York. And in a three-way deal with Chicago, she got her wish.

With Pondexter and former Monarch Nicole Powell (via the dispersal draft) going to the Big Apple, the Liberty now have star power they were lacking in recent seasons. Meanwhile, the Mercury ended up with Candice Dupree from the Sky, a player who Gaines says will fit just fine into the system he's so well-versed in running.

"I will definitely miss her because I cannot replace her," Gaines said of Pondexter. "But the offense I learned from coach [Paul Westhead] is built around … a strong 4 [power forward] that demands a double team. Candice Dupree is that player."

While Rutgers grad Pondexter returns to the area where she excelled as a collegian, another marquee name has done the same. The Minnesota Lynx pulled the trigger on dealing the No. 1 draft pick -- which everyone knew would be UConn's Tina Charles -- for the playmaking and popularity of Minnesota native Lindsay Whalen.

"To get back and see some familiar faces, see fans who supported you in college and everything, has been just a really great experience," Whalen said. "It's really worked out well. I'm really looking forward to the season."

And while we're mentioning stars in new locations, former Lynx/Shock standout Smith opted as a free agent to sign with the Mystics. Which turned out to be fortuitous for Washington, with the recent announcement that Alana Beard is expected to miss the season because of an ankle injury.

Other notable changes came in coaching. Cheryl Reeve, former assistant with the Shock, took over the Lynx as Jennifer Gillom left Minnesota to become coach of the Sparks. In San Antonio, it was more of an "alteration:" Dan Hughes stepped away from the sidelines and will be a full-time general manager, with assistants Sandy Brondello and her husband, Olaf Lange, becoming head coach and associate head coach.

Some things, of course, don't change, such as the just-barely-made-it or late arrivals with players migrating back from their overseas commitments. Since the world championship is in the Czech Republic from Sept. 23-Oct. 3, the WNBA has to begin this summer in mid-May. (It started last year in June.) And that creates more instances of players having little or no time to train with their WNBA team before the season starts.

However, that's just something that all people involved in the league have had to adjust to as best as they can over the years. In fact, you could say the league has had a lot of practice making the best of adjusting to whatever it has had to.

"There's some ugly practices right now," Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said. "I think it depends; obviously, each team's situation is different. I think those that have everybody there are going to have a huge edge on the rest of 'em.

"In a 34-game season, you don't have a lot of room for error, so you're trying to play catch-up in a hurry. Certainly having a later camp last year and an earlier one this year has made a big difference in how everybody is preparing. You don't have some luxuries of waiting for things to happen."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.