Lynx lead way in preseason WNBA power rankings

Maya Moore, left, Seimone Augustus and the Lynx look to become the first team to repeat as WNBA champs since the Sparks in 2001-02. Jim Mone/AP Photo

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In celebrating its 20th season, the WNBA says hello to bright new stars like four-time NCAA champions Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck of UConn, the Nos. 1-3 draft picks. And goodbye to the face of the Indiana franchise, WNBA superstar Tamika Catchings, who will retire after this year.

The league also has a new playoff format, in which the top eight teams by record make the postseason, regardless of what conference they're in.

So how do the 12 teams stack up? Here are the espnW preseason power rankings before the season tips off with five games Saturday (including Phoenix-Minnesota on ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET).

1. Minnesota Lynx
Last season: 22-12, won WNBA title
Winners of three of the past five titles, the Lynx aim to become the first repeat champs since the Sparks won consecutive titles in 2002. But it's never easy, especially this season: Four Lynx are headed to the Olympics, including forward Maya Moore (20.6 PPG in 2015) and Finals MVP Sylvia Fowles. Plus, coach Cheryl Reeve is an assistant for the U.S. Olympic squad.

The Lynx continue to have the great chemistry that has been a hallmark of this team under Reeve. The return of forward/center Janel McCarville -- who played for Minnesota in 2013 and '14 -- helps. But with six key veterans in their 30s, might age/fatigue take a toll by playoff time?

2. Phoenix Mercury
Last season: 20-14, lost in West finals
Guard Diana Taurasi and small forward Penny Taylor, keys to Phoenix's three titles, didn't play in 2015, both taking a rest. How happy are the Mercury to have them again? Very, very happy. So are the fans. There's even a "welcome back" banner for Taurasi hanging on the side of City Hall in Phoenix.

Taurasi will be 34 in June, and Taylor turns 35 this month. But the Phoenix core -- which also includes guard/forward DeWanna Bonner (15.8 PPG), center Brittney Griner (15.1) and forward Candice Dupree (14.1) -- that was so good in winning the 2014 title will be tough to beat.

We'll look at Mercury-Lynx games as a possible preview of the WNBA Finals, a matchup that could happen with the new playoff format.

3. New York Liberty
Last season: 23-11, lost in East finals
The Tina Charles-led Liberty had the WNBA's best record last year, but coach Bill Laimbeer acknowledged they ran out of gas in the East finals against Indiana. Now, their second-leading scorer, guard Epiphanny Prince, is out with a knee injury and offense might be a concern. Newly acquired perimeter players Shavonte Zellous (9.3 career PPG; spent six of her seven seasons in Indiana) and Shoni Schimmel (8.0 PPG after two seasons in Atlanta) could help, and it will be good for the Lib to have guard Brittney Boyd back. A wrist injury kept her out of the 2015 playoffs after a strong rookie season.

As for helping Charles (17.2 PPG and 10.2 RPG in her six pro seasons), fellow center Kiah Stokes has to build on her strong rookie year (5.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG). The Liberty also picked up the 2015 No. 2 draft pick, center Amanda Zahui B, in a trade with Dallas to give them more depth inside.

4. Los Angeles Sparks
Last season: 14-20, lost in first round
Forward Candace Parker's omission from the U.S. Olympic team made for drama, but could it end up saving her fitness-wise for a late postseason run? That might be the best way for Parker to channel whatever frustration she feels about USA Basketball's decision.

Without Parker, L.A. was 3-15 in 2015. With her, the Sparks went 11-5 and pushed Minnesota to a third game in the first round of the playoffs. Parker averaged 19.4 points, 10.1 rebounds and 6.3 assists. The question has been, though, does she sometimes try to do too much? Parker should have good help inside, including from forward Nneka Ogwumike and center Jantel Lavender. Perhaps point guard Chelsea Gray (acquired in trade from Connecticut) will help add to the Sparks' league-best 18.3 APG last year.

5. Chicago Sky
Last season: 21-13, lost in first round
The Sky led the league in scoring (82.9 PPG) last season and WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne, a 6-foot-5 forward/guard, was tops individually (23.4). The three other players who averaged in double figures scoring for Chicago were guards: Cappie Pondexter, Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley.

After losing longtime center Sylvia Fowles, who sat out last season until getting traded in late July to Minnesota, Chicago went for size in the 2016 draft, selecting 6-7 Imani Boyette. She was known for her defense at Texas, which is exactly what the Sky need: They allowed the second-most points in the WNBA last year (78.8 PPG).

6. Indiana Fever
Last season: 20-14, lost in WNBA Finals
After an unexpected WNBA Finals appearance in Stephanie White's first year as head coach, Indiana will try to make one last long playoff run for Catchings, who will retire at season's end. She has averaged 16.4 PPG and 7.5 RPG in 14 seasons, all in Indianapolis, where she is a city treasure.

Former Notre Dame teammates Natalie Achonwa and Devereaux Peters (she was obtained in a trade with Minnesota) are back "home" in Indiana where they went to college, trying to shore up the post position. The Fever's top 2016 draft pick, guard Tiffany Mitchell, should be a good fit and can learn a lot from veteran Briann January.

7. Dallas Wings
Last season: 18-16, lost in first round
In its third incarnation -- the former Detroit/Tulsa Shock made the 2015 playoffs in their last of six seasons in Oklahoma -- the newly named and relocated franchise could be postseason-bound again. But the Wings will need guard Skylar Diggins (lost to knee injury in late June last season) and forward Glory Johnson (missed 2015, pregnancy) to return to form.

The Wings also need a lift in offensive efficiency: Their 39.5 shooting percentage was the worst of any 2015 playoff team. They traded for veteran guard Erin Phillips, who has been part of championship teams in Indiana and Phoenix. Dallas also traded Zahui B to New York for a 2017 pick, although one season seems a short amount of time evaluate a No. 2 overall selection.

8. Connecticut Sun
Last season: 15-19
The Sun had quite a draft, picking Tuck at No. 3 and guard Rachel Banham at No. 4 and then trading for 6-6 forward Jonquel Jones, who was the No. 6 pick by the Sparks. And they get 2014 rookie of the year Chiney Ogwumike back from knee surgery

If they all can mesh with forward/center Kelsey Bone, the squad's top scorer (15.4 PPG) last year, and All-Star guard Alex Bentley (14.7 PPG), Connecticut could be headed back to the playoffs after a three-year absence. That's the goal of new coach Curt Miller, who replaces Anne Donovan at the Sun's helm.

9. Washington Mystics
Last season: 18-16, lost in first round
The Mystics must cope with the early-season absence of their 2015 leading scorer, point guard Ivory Latta (knee surgery), and various late arrivals. But coach Mike Thibault will aim to create stability and continue to preach defense -- his squad allowed the second-fewest points per game last season (71.2), behind New York (71.1).

Washington also returns two All-Stars at center, Stefanie Dolson and Emma Meesseman, and forward Tianna Hawkins returns after missing last season (pregnancy). So don't rule out a fourth straight playoff run.

10. Seattle Storm
Last season: 10-24
With No. 1 selection Stewart joining last season's rookie of the year, guard Jewell Loyd -- the top pick in 2015 -- few doubt that the Storm will be a force in the future. But 2016 is probably too early -- even with what's likely to be a brief learning curve for Stewart, at 21 the youngest player on the U.S. Olympic squad.

Forward Crystal Langhorne was the Storm's top scorer at just 11.1 PPG in 2015 (24th in the league), so all those offensive skills that Stewart showcased at UConn will be put to use right away.

11. Atlanta Dream
Last season: 15-19
Last year, Atlanta missed just the second postseason in its eight-year history, and things don't look to be much better in 2016. Guard/forward Angel McCoughtry (20.1 PPG) returns as one of the league's best players, but she is going to need more help. Just not sure where she's going to get it.

Recently acquired center/forward Elizabeth Williams (No. 4 pick in 2015) averaged just 3.3 points for the Sun. Guard Layshia Clarendon, whom the Dream obtained in a trade with Indiana, averaged 5.0 PPG in her three seasons with the Fever.

12. San Antonio Stars
Last season: 8-26
Still rebuilding, the Stars continue to be suspect in the post. Center Sophia Young-Malcolm (11.5 PPG) retired and forward Danielle Adams, who averaged 12.4 PPG in her first four seasons, dipped to 7.4 last year and was waived.

Missing out on the Stewart sweepstakes in the draft lottery, the Stars did get Jefferson at No. 2. She can pair in the backcourt with former Notre Dame rival Kayla McBride (13.8 PPG, Stars' leading scorer last year). San Antonio also traded for veteran guard Monique Currie. But they must make up for the absence of Danielle Robinson (Achilles injury) and Jia Perkins (traded to Lynx).