Lynx beat out defending champion Sparks for top spot in preseason WNBA power rankings

We're picking up this WNBA season where we left off last year: The Lynx and the Sparks appear to be the top two teams, which is where they finished in 2016 with a thrill-packed WNBA Finals that went the distance.

We start 2017 with the usual caveats: There will be late arrivals from overseas; it will take some teams longer than others to adjust to that; and chemistry is very hard to predict.

"There are always the teams that everybody is talking about," Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said. "But each season brings a surprise -- maybe somebody who's gotten better and might be a contender."

With that in mind, here are the espnW preseason WNBA power rankings.

1. Minnesota Lynx

Ah, the agony of just missing a fourth title last year! But the Lynx are all the more motivated, led by a perennial MVP candidate, forward Maya Moore, and her 19.3 points per game. This team does everything well. Last season, with their offensive (107.2) and defensive (96.4) ratings, the Lynx had the top net rating (10.9). That such a disciplined, balanced squad lost the championship on a putback in Game 5 was agonizing for Reeve and her players.

But they aren't dwelling on that now. With gold-standard veterans such as Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson and Sylvia Fowles back, the Lynx remain hungry and focused on being the best again.
Last season: 28-6, lost in WNBA Finals

2. Los Angeles Sparks

And who hit that shot to beat the Lynx? Nneka Ogwumike, whose 2016 season was flat-out fabulous. Her 9.45 win shares were fourth best in WNBA history, and her 31.5 player efficiency rating ranked ninth best. Ogwumike (19.7 points per game, 9.1 rebounds per game) and Candace Parker (15.3, 7.4) were a dream post duo. And everyone else did her job well too, especially forward Jantel Lavender and guards Alana Beard and Kristi Toliver.

But Toliver is gone to the Mystics now, and the Sparks will have some new faces, especially on the perimeter, with Riquna Williams (out with injury last year) and Odyssey Sims (traded from Dallas). The Sparks could repeat, but they'll have to forge a little different identity.
Last season: 26-8, won WNBA Finals

3. New York Liberty

Center Tina Charles always produces -- she led the league in scoring (21.5 PPG) and rebounding averages (9.9) last season -- and she's still fine-tuning some things about her game. With a player such as Swin Cash retired, Charles is firmly in the driver's seat in regard to leadership too.

But guard Sugar Rodgers (14.5 PPG) was the only other Liberty player who averaged in double-figure scoring last season. With as great as the best teams in the league are offensively, New York must get stronger to challenge for a championship. The pieces might be there for that to happen, particularly if guard Epiphanny Prince is healthy.
Last season: 21-13, lost in second round to Phoenix

4. Washington Mystics

OK, everybody is intrigued by the Mystics, who made the biggest offseason move of any team in acquiring the 2015 MVP, guard/forward Elena Delle Donne. Also a huge transaction was the signing of Kristi Toliver, who brings her championship experience from Los Angeles. This is all pretty cool for the Mystics, a franchise that has seen some difficult times.

That said, it might take a little while for everything to jell. And Washington knows that there are questions about defense. The Mystics want to prove doubters wrong, while also living up to the offensive potential everyone believes they have.
Last season: 13-21, missed playoffs

5. Seattle Storm

Point guard Sue Bird sent a message last season with her superfit physique and her performance. Her 14th season was kind of a turn-back-the-clock display. That's not to suggest any previous years had been poor, just that her 12.8 PPG and league-best 5.8 assists per game were really impressive.

But so was the debut of forward Breanna Stewart, whose team-best 18.3 PPG and 9.3 RPG easily earned her Rookie of the Year honors. Teammate Jewell Loyd had won that award the previous year, and those two should be a dynamic duo for years to come. Depth is an unavoidable question for the Storm, though.
Last season: 16-18, lost in first round to Atlanta

6. Phoenix Mercury

This was just a weird team last year, one that wasn't as good on court as it was on paper. But once in the playoffs, the Mercury went on the road and beat Indiana and New York in the new format (single elimination for early rounds) before running into nemesis Minnesota and falling 3-0 in a best-of-five series.

Now a lot has changed. Penny Taylor retired, although she's still part of the Mercury's staff. Candice Dupree was traded to Indiana. DeWanna Bonner is pregnant and will miss the season. That leaves guard Diana Taurasi and center Brittney Griner as Phoenix's stalwarts, with veterans such as guard Danielle Robinson and forward Camille Little joining the Mercury. This team is probably one of the hardest to predict because its makeup is so different this season.
Last season: 16-18, lost in semifinals to Minnesota

7. Atlanta Dream

This is another team that is hard to project, because the Dream won't have superstar Angel McCoughtry, who was the No. 1 draft pick in 2009. She's resting this season. Although the possibility remains that she might return late in the summer, Atlanta has to proceed without her.

But the Dream will have 2016's Most Improved Player Elizabeth Williams (11.9 PPG) in the post, along with two other players who averaged double-figure scoring: guards Tiffany Hayes (15.0) and Layshia Clarendon (10.4). And while there's no way to avoid missing McCoughtry's 19.5 PPG, there's also a lot of opportunity for other players to step forward.
Last season: 17-17, lost in second round to Chicago

8. Indiana Fever

Everyone said a tearful goodbye last year to legendary forward Tamika Catchings, who retired. She is now in a front-office role with the Pacers/Fever, but she won't be there anymore to lead the Fever on court. This wasn't a lethal offensive team with her. So what will it be without her?

That's under the direction of new coach Pokey Chatman. She was let go by Chicago and quickly picked up by Indiana to replace Stephanie White, who went to Vanderbilt. For Indiana to push its playoff streak to a 13th consecutive year, it will need its veteran players to each take a little more responsibility. And if someone -- young or old -- emerges as a big scoring threat, all the better.
Last season: 17-17, lost in first round to Phoenix

9. Dallas Wings

The Wings -- while still called the Shock -- made it to the postseason in their last season in Tulsa (2015), but they fell short last year. When this team hit the skids in 2016, it wasn't fooling around: Dallas lost 11 consecutive games at one point. Skylar Diggins-Smith hopes to help a still-young squad avoid big droughts in 2017.

The Wings traded leading scorer Odyssey Sims to Los Angeles for a draft pick that became Allisha Gray, fresh from her national championship at South Carolina. Gray should be an immediate help. There is talent on this team, but a lot will need to go right for Dallas to make a playoff push.
Last season: 11-23, missed playoffs

10. Connecticut Sun

Former No. 1 draft pick Chiney Ogwumike, after missing 2015 with injury, returned last year and averaged 12.6 PPG and 6.7 RPG. She seemed poised to come in even stronger this year, but an Achilles injury suffered overseas will keep her out for the entirety of this WNBA season.

Are the Sun somewhat in a holding pattern until she returns? They don't want to be, but it's hard not to be. However, younger post players such as Morgan Tuck and Jonquel Jones might blossom this season. And the guard play has a chance to be pretty solid. Good enough to be one of the eight playoff teams? That might be a stretch.
Last season: 14-20, missed playoffs

11. Chicago Sky

New coach Amber Stocks got championship experience as an assistant last year, when she was with the Sparks. Now she needs to remake a Sky team without Elena Delle Donne, who forced a trade to Washington.

The Sky have size, and a lot of it. It might turn out, in fact, that a few players capitalize on new opportunities with EDD gone. But she'll definitely be missed, and a lot is left on the shoulders of the guards, including Cappie Pondexter and Courtney Vandersloot, to score and bring along the young post. The Sky might really surprise us, but it seems a bit more likely they'll have to figure out a lot this season to help them go forward.
Last season: 18-16, lost in semifinals to Los Angeles

12. San Antonio Stars

Maybe it seems too predictably skeptical to put the teams run by first-year coaches at the bottom of the rankings. But it's not anything against San Antonio's Vickie Johnson and Chicago's Stocks. It's just an acknowledgment that coaching in the WNBA has become quite good, and both the Stars and Sky have big questions to answer.

No. 1 pick Kelsey Plum sprained her ankle in training camp, but eventually, she could be the league's best rookie. (And nobody's going to challenge her to a T-shirt throwing contest, that's for sure.) The Stars have last year's No. 2 selection, Moriah Jefferson, and the No. 3 pick from 2014, Kayla McBride. But they're guards, and San Antonio might stay anchored to the cellar because of real struggles with post play.
Last season: 7-27, missed playoffs