Asked what he expected of the Eastern Conference this season, Washington's Mike Thibault spoke from his 12 years' experience as a head coach in the East.
"It's wide-open," said Thibault, entering his third season with the Mystics after 10 with Connecticut. "Some of it depends on injuries. Some depends on teams who'll be without players for various reasons. So it's kind of, who can survive those games while key players are gone? I think it will go right down to the wire."
Sounds like the usual in the East. Although if you're looking for a favorite, it appears Atlanta is a pretty solid choice. The Dream finished first in the East last year, and they seemed on their way to the conference finals before giving up a big fourth-quarter lead to Chicago and Elena Delle Donne in the decisive Game 3 of their playoff series.
Delle Donne and the Sky, the No. 4 seed, went all the way to the franchise's first appearance in the WNBA Finals. Whether Chicago can build on that depends on how healthy Delle Donne (lingering effects of Lyme disease) feels throughout the season and how they deal with not having Sylvia Fowles, who wants a trade.
The only team in the East that has won a WNBA championship is Indiana. And despite a change in head coaches, the Fever seem likely to run their playoff streak to an 11th consecutive season.
Here is a quick look at the East, listed in projected order of finish for 2015.
Guard/forward Angel McCoughtry (18.5 PPG) returns as an MVP candidate, and the Dream will seek their fourth WNBA Finals appearance in six years. Second-year coach Michael Cooper dealt with tongue cancer last season that kept him away from the team for a while and depleted his energy. Cooper said he feels very good heading into this year, and he's excited about the Dream's chances to compete for a title. Along with McCoughtry, Atlanta returns starters Erika de Souza, Sancho Lyttle and Tiffany Hayes, all of whom averaged between 12 and 14 points per game last season. Flashy guard Shoni Schimmel came off the bench as a rookie but seems likely to start with Jasmine Thomas having been traded. The Dream also drafted a point guard in Iowa's Samantha Logic. Atlanta just seems to be the East team that has the least uncertainty.
Former assistant Stephanie White moves up to the head coaching spot vacated by the retirement of her mentor, Lin Dunn. Expect the Fever to look a little different offensively under White, but there shouldn't be radical changes. Future Hall of Fame forward Tamika Catchings dealt with injuries last season and played just 16 regular-season games in 2014 but was the Fever's leading scorer at 16.1 PPG. Guards Shavonte Zellous and Briann January were the only other Indiana players to average in double figures in scoring last season. Can the Fever be a more potent offensive threat under White? And with assistant Gary Kloppenburg back in Indy, will the defense be of the caliber the Fever have had at their best? Maybe we've gotten too used to taking the Fever's "we'll get it done" consistency for granted, but -- it just feels again as if they'll find a way to the postseason.
Gone is forward Monique Currie, who played nearly seven full seasons with the Mystics but left for Phoenix as a free agent. The Mystics still have very experienced veterans in guards Kara Lawson, Ivory Latta and Armintie (Price) Herrington, as well as center Kia Vaughn. And players such as guard Bria Hartley and center Stefanie Dolson, who were rookies out of UConn last year, are already key contributors. Thibault expects both to play even more important roles this season. Washington had just two players average double figures in scoring in 2014, led by Latta at 12.8 PPG. Emma Meesseman, a 22-year-old Belgian entering her third WNBA season, averaged 10.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists. Her teammates and Thibault consider her a blossoming superstar in the making.
Fowles wants to move on, but she and the Sky seem to be at an impasse for now. Obviously her absence leaves a big gap on the interior that Chicago must figure out how to fill. The Sky traded their second-leading scorer from last season, guard Epiphanny Prince, to New York for Cappie Pondexter, who is from Chicago. Pondexter won two titles while in Phoenix. And although her five seasons in New York didn't really garner the team results she hoped for, Pondexter should still bring some good vibes to the Sky. Delle Donne led Chicago in scoring last season (17.9 PPG), and the Sky will need that and more from her this year to be in playoff contention. Courtney Vandersloot, who was injured and played just 18 regular-season games, is a very efficient point guard when it comes to running the offense. Can she average in double figures in scoring for the first time in her WNBA career?
If you can put aside the Isiah Thomas ownership sideshow, which is very difficult to do, and just look at the Liberty on paper, they are intriguing. But all the changes made with personnel might not pan out with a playoff appearance again this year. One thing is for sure, though: The Liberty will look rather different in several ways. One way New York is the same? Center Tina Charles (17.4 PPG and 9.4 RPG) is back as New York's most consistent threat. It will be interesting to see whether it helps her having another UConn-trained and physically powerful center, rookie Kiah Stokes, on the Liberty roster. Guard Tanisha Wright, who left Seattle after 10 seasons, brings a defensive toughness on the perimeter for the Liberty, along with her floor leadership and dependability. But will this team really jell?
The Sun have gone a combined 23-45 the past two seasons, and there's not really a lot pointing toward a turnaround this year. Last season's Rookie of the Year, forward Chiney Ogwumike, is recovering from knee surgery and out indefinitely. Guard Allison Hightower and forward Kelsey Griffin are injured and won't play this season. Katie Douglas, the Sun's second-leading scorer last year behind Ogwumike, retired. Guard Renee Montgomery, who wanted to leave Connecticut, was traded to Seattle, and the Sun got experienced players in forward Camille Little and guard/forward Shekinna Stricklen in return. Connecticut is hoping for strong development from center Kelsey Bone, who's entering her third season, and point guard Chelsea Gray, a rookie after sitting out last season with injury. Maybe the Sun can surprise us, but right now, it seems as if they have more questions than answers.