Defending champ opens as favorite

Can Seattle win back-to-back WNBA championships? Considering the Storm brought back all the key components from a title winner and added Katie Smith, Seattle certainly did all it could to pave the way for a repeat. So, yes, we are picking another trip to the top of the Space Needle for the Storm flag and to the top of the WNBA for the Seattle players in 2011.

But as Seattle point guard Sue Bird said of feats in the women's basketball world, "To be completely honest, winning the WNBA championship is one of the hardest things to do."

She would know, considering she has won titles in college, Europe, the Olympics, the world championship and the WNBA.

Bird's and teammate Lauren Jackson's two WNBA championships (2004, '10) were separated by five consecutive first-round playoff losses. Injuries, some luck at the right times, and the simple fact of a lot of parity in what's now a 12-team league all play a part in who ends up with the trophy.

Only two franchises have repeated as champion in the WNBA's first 14 seasons, and one of them no longer exist. The most recent to do it was Los Angeles, in 2001-02. The Houston Comets, of course, won the first four WNBA titles (1997-2000), but ceased operations after the 2008 season.

However, one of the key components for the Comets, 40-year-old Sheryl Swoopes, is back in the league. She's trying to help give some veteran leadership to Tulsa as the Shock start their second season in Oklahoma. With first-round draft picks Liz Cambage and Kayla Pedersen, the Shock should be able to win more than last season's six games … but actually getting out of the Western Conference basement still will be difficult.

Last year, the Storm lapped the field as the only West team with a winning record. Everybody in the West should be improved, thanks to the draft, trades and getting injured players back, such as Candace Parker for Los Angeles.

In the Eastern Conference, it was a logjam all last year, with Washington emerging on the final day to finish first. But the team that finished fourth, Atlanta, was the one to reach the WNBA finals.

We were very, very tempted to make the Dream our pick to advance again for a repeat of last year's finals matchup. We're going with Atlanta to finish first in the regular season … but Indiana to survive the East playoffs. And for Tamika Catchings to win her first regular-season MVP award.

How about a first WNBA title for Catch and the Fever? Well, Indy, the crystal ball seems to be glowing green. For what it's worth, this forecast calls for another season-ending Storm celebration.

Western Conference predicted order of finish

1. Seattle
2. Phoenix
3. Minnesota
4. Los Angeles
5. San Antonio
6. Tulsa

Eastern Conference predicted order of finish

1. Atlanta
2. Indiana
3. Connecticut
4. Washington
5. Chicago
6. New York

Playoff picks

Western Conference semifinals

Seattle over Los Angeles
Phoenix over Minnesota

Western Conference finals

Seattle over Phoenix

Eastern Conference semifinals

Atlanta over Washington
Indiana over Connecticut

Eastern Conference finals

Indiana over Atlanta

WNBA finals

Seattle over Indiana

Regular-season awards

MVP: Tamika Catchings, Indiana. She has been in the running several times, including last year when Lauren Jackson deservedly won her third MVP award. Catch continues to be like a force of nature on court.

Rookie of the year: Maya Moore, Minnesota. The No. 1 draft pick has been preparing for her pro career a long time. She should help the Lynx make their first playoff appearance since 2004.

Coach of the year: Brian Agler, Seattle. He gladly stood in the background last season, giving the credit to the players. But he has pushed the right buttons in terms of personnel and strategy.

Scoring leader: Cappie Pondexter, New York. She'll have an even bigger load than last year, as the Liberty could struggle with their interior game.

All-WNBA first team

Tamika Catchings, Indiana
Candace Parker, Los Angeles
Lauren Jackson, Seattle
Diana Taurasi, Phoenix
Cappie Pondexter, New York

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