#WNBA25: 2021 Season Preview! Back in Arenas … and a rivalry renewed in Finals?

Photo Credit: Lamar Carter

At long last after another excruciatingly long offseason and doubt as to if the WNBA would return to another bubble-like environment for the 2021 season, we are on the cusp of said 2021 season.

This season will not only be just any other season in the W, but it will be the 25th season in league history. It will feature 100 national telecasts across the WNBA’s television partners, a new “Changemaker” in Google, the Commissioner’s Cup and the All-Star Game along with an upcoming Olympic break.

But, perhaps, most satisfyingly for the league, its players, coaches, staff and fans, the 2021 WNBA season will see teams return to their home arenas and markets after a taxing time in the Wubble.

The out-of-control nature of the free agency period, the status of players having overseas commitments and unfortunate 11th hour injuries may have shuffled the deck as far as the outlook for many teams this season.

How do we see this season playing out? Here is where we see our 12 teams from top to bottom.

1 – Las Vegas Aces

Las Vegas got some unfortunate news as the preseason concluded when veteran wing Angel McCoughtry injured herself badly after going for an offensive rebound in a game with the Los Angeles Sparks at the LA Convention Center. The Aces were expected to go into the season with what was to be a ferocious big three of McCoughtry, Liz Cambage and reigning league MVP A’ja Wilson.

Luckily for the Aces, two of that big three in Wilson and Cambage are still intact. Wilson, of course, is the reigning MVP and Cambage was not with Vegas last season in the bubble. Aces GM Dan Padover also made some big moves in the offseason by getting two former Sparks in Chelsea Gray and Riquna Williams, bringing a championship pedigree to a team expected to bring a professional sports championship to Sin City. Bill Laimbeer is used to coaching teams with championship aspirations (see: many of his Liberty teams) and even with McCoughtry’s unfortunate injury to her ACL and meniscus, Laimbeer’s Aces should still be expected to hit championship paydirt when all is said and done.

2 – Chicago Sky

Obviously, Chicago made the splash of the offseason when they inked a free agent deal to land a native of the area in Candace Parker to trade in her purple and gold for powder blue and gold. The Sky have also been in the news plenty recently for what was apparently a spat between Gabby Williams and coach James Wade, which eventually resulted in Williams being traded to Los Angeles.

As Parker has proven throughout her career in LA, whichever team she is on is an automatic contender to compete for and win a championship. The Sky are a team that in recent seasons in the Wade era has proven it is ready to take that next step with its core of talent. That core, of course, still includes Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and Diamond DeShields. This is a team that nearly got to the semifinals two seasons ago if it were not for a certain “heave” from a certain Las Vegas Ace. Could we see those Aces and the Sky renew its rivalry in the Finals this year. Our crystal (basket)ball is looking very optimistic on these chances.

3 – Seattle Storm

It feels borderline disrespectful to look at a team like the Seattle Storm, a team in search of the WNBA’s next great dynasty that has won two of the last three championships, and have them at three. This would mean Seattle would barely be on the outside looking in. But the Storm were one of many teams that had an interesting offseason.

Seattle lost two of its important veteran players that played integral roles in its two championships in Natasha Howard (traded to New York in that five-team deal where the No. 1 overall draft pick was dealt twice) and Alysha Clark (free agent signing by Washington). By no means do those moves drop the Storm all the way to the lottery and Seattle still has Jordin Canada, Jewell Loyd, Breanna Stewart and a Sue Bird who is looking more like the Tom Brady of the WNBA. The Storm will still be good and they added Katie Lou Samuelson, but one wonders if the hits they took in free agency may prevent another Finals trip in Seattle.

4 – Minnesota Lynx

We admit that we were one of many outlets last season that began to slowly but surely close the book on Cheryl Reeve and her Lynx prior to when they entered the bubble last season. We had Minnesota barely on the outside looking in of the WNBA’s playoff picture. All the Lynx did was advance to the semifinals, claim a second consecutive Rookie of the Year in Crystal Dangerfield and a Coach of the Year award for Reeve.

Reeve proved in the offseason that she does not believe in rebuilds, but reloads. The Lynx got three veteran players during the offseason in Kayla McBride, Aerial Powers and Natalie Achonwa. Add that to a core that already included veteran Sylvia Fowles, rising star Napheesa Collier (2019 Rookie of the Year), Damiris Dantas and Dangerfield. While Las Vegas, Chicago and Seattle may be the teams to beat, the Lynx proved this offseason that they are still a team to be reckoned with thanks to its nucleus of great veteran players.

5 – Washington Mystics

Even though the Mystics made last year’s playoffs in the bubble, what we saw were not the real Washington Mystics. What we will get this season from Mike Thibault’s ‘Stics will be the real Washington team. Remember, the Mystics were hurt last season because a number of players were not in the bubble – including Elena Delle Donne, Tina Charles, Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders.

Charles is back – and looks ready to go in search of her first-ever championship. Delle Donne will eventually return for Washington as well. Sanders is now on Washington’s coaching staff and Cloud is returning as well. They did add Clark from Seattle in the offseason, but will still miss 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman who will be away from Washington because of Olympics commitments with the Belgian Cats. Regardless, expect the Mystics to be in the mix from start to finish.

6 – Los Angeles Sparks

Does anyone remember during the offseason when after the Sparks lost Candace Parker (to Chicago) and Chelsea Gray (to Las Vegas) that Sparks Nation blamed coach Derek Fisher for the losses and wanted to throw him out of LA? Then, Los Angeles began making moves in free agency and everyone in Southern California that lives, breathes, eats and sleeps purple and gold began calming down.

One of the Sparks’ free agent additions was Erica Wheeler – the 2019 All-Star Game MVP, who has unfortunately been out of sight and out of mind for the most part recently for her time with a rebuilding Indiana Fever organization. Another one of those free agent additions was Amanda Zahui B., a proficient 3-point shooter and once dropped 37 on LA while she still donned Liberty colors. Add Wheeler and Zahui B. to a Sparks team that is bringing back another skilled sharpshooter in Kristi Toliver as well as other vets such as Seimone Augustus and both Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike (Chiney was not in the bubble last season) and the Sparks’ history of contending and winning should continue in 2021.

Beyond The W was part of the Sparks’ media day. Wheeler mentioned that she has yet to see much of the area since she has been so busy with training camp. She already saw her billboard and said she wanted to see the Hollywood sign. Toliver mentioned that the goal is to make the most LA’s temporary home of the Convention Center (which is already giving off major Wubble vibes) until returning to Staples after the Olympic break. Zahui B. talked about the friendliness of people in California.

7 – Connecticut Sun

In the WNBA, “Connecticut Sun” is seemingly how one spells dark horse. A team that seemingly is not as ballyhooed as teams that play in larger markets, but is still off everyone’s radar until stuff gets real.

Notably, the Sun had arguably more movement in its front office as it did on the court with the departure of Amber Cox to the Kansas City NWSL team and the addition of Jennifer Rizzotti as its new team president. Connecticut will be without Alyssa Thomas this season, but they were without Jonquel Jones in the bubble last year and still nearly ousted the Aces in the semifinals. This season, Jones appears to be back for the Sun and Connecticut is bringing back Jasmine Thomas and DeWanna Bonner. Do not let this No. 7 spot fool anyone – Connecticut belongs on a WNBA court with any team and they proved in the bubble last season that they can compete with – and beat – the best of this league.

Beyond the W was also part of the Sun’s media day (which was the same day as Los Angeles’). Bonner mentioned that even with how Connecticut constantly gets overlooked that she is not paying much attention to expectations for other teams. Thomas mentioned that it felt good to be back in Connecticut and remarked that she “almost forgot” most of last year’s campaign in the bubble.

8 – Phoenix Mercury

Sandy Brondello’s Mercury team is a classic example of how basketball games are not won on paper or in preseason power rankings. One looks at a Phoenix team that won a championship as recently as 2014 with the veteran talent it fields and one would think that the Mercury are favorites for the Finals year in and year out.

Phoenix was notably in that five-team blockbuster earlier in the offseason when they acquired Kia Nurse from the Liberty in a move that was done, perhaps, to prepare Phoenix for life after Diana Taurasi. Thankfully for the Merc, that period of life without one of the UConn GOATs has yet to happen. Brittney Griner left the bubble early last year – now she is back. As is Skylar Diggins-Smith. Similar to Connecticut, the Mercury is one of those teams that we would not be surprised if they did make a run even if the results in recent years have been less than desirable.

Speaking of Phoenix, do not forget to check out our chat with Diggins-Smith here!

9 – New York Liberty

When a team goes two for the bubble as New York did in 2020 (and its much-ballyhooed star rookie rolls her ankle in only her third game of her WNBA career) to sideline her for the season, one has to think it has nowhere to go but up.

In spite of the Liberty winning the draft lottery for the second consecutive season, Jonathan Kolb was tired of New York winning draft lotteries and wanted to get the Lib back in the business of winning games. What Brooklyn’s resident WNBA team did was get Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb from the Storm in the five-team trade as well as ink a deal with ex-Atlanta Dream Betnijah Laney (who won Most Improved Player last year after averaging 17.2 points in the bubble). And while the Liberty did suffer a setback in camp with the injury to Jocelyn Willoughby, it appears a number of New York’s now second-year talents from last season (including Sabrina Ionescu) will return for SeafoamSZN 2021. New look, new arena (finally) … even a new mascot at Atlantic and Flatbush.

Beyond The W was part of Liberty media day. Joyner Holmes told us that she did not feel anything was missing from last season’s New York rendition and that so much of it was simply a matter of learning a new offense under coach Walt Hopkins. DiDi Richards, one of New York’s draftees this past draft, wanted Lib Loyals to know that she competes with intensity and that she is typically an all-around happy person.

10 – Atlanta Dream

Arguably no team suffered a bigger preseason jolt than the Dream did when it was announced that now former coach Nicki Collen decided to pack up her bags and leave the ATL for Baylor two weeks prior to the start of the season. This was on top of the fact that the Dream had fired its now-former GM in Chris Sienko the week following the draft.

In that draft, Atlanta selected Aari McDonald with the No. 3 overall selection. McDonald, of course, became a national sensation with how she led her Arizona Wildcats to the national championship game against Stanford. The pick definitely bolstered a potent Dream backcourt that includes second-year player in Chennedy Carter as well as a veteran in Courtney Williams. Prior to Sienko’s ouster, he also added veterans from other teams such as Yvonne Turner and Tianna Hawkins. With a new ownership group that includes former two-time WNBA champion Renee Montgomery and a new arena in College Park, Atlanta has to hope that its preseason/scrimmage success translates into a return to the Dream’s contending ways.

11 – Dallas Wings

The collective hearts of Dallas Wings fans were in their throats when they heard the news that Arike Ogunbowale, who was in the 2019 Rookie of the Year conversation and last year’s MVP convo, had injured herself while playing overseas. Thankfully for WNBA fans, it appears Ogunbowale will be ready to go as the 2021 season commences.

The Wings are one of two teams that will be starting the season with a new coach – but unlike the recent maelstrom that engulfed Atlanta, Dallas was able to embark on its coaching find earlier in the offseason. The Wings selected Vickie Johnson as its new coach, making her the W’s only Black woman head coach. As was the case last season, Dallas will field a very young team that includes four rookies (No. 1 overall pick Charli Collier, Awak Kuier, Chelsea Dungee and Dana Evans). Kayla Thornton is considered a veteran by Wings standards and she has been in the league for five seasons. Dallas will be without Satou Sabally and Allisha Gray to start the season – and it could be another season that Dallas gets to evaluate where it is in its post-Skylar Diggins-Smith/Liz Cambage rebuild.

12 – Indiana Fever

Speaking of teams that have undergone rebuilds. The Fever have experienced more attention in the build-up to this season than they have in previous seasons because of the social media sensation that is Kysre Gondrezick. Indiana will actually tip off the season at Barclays Center at the Liberty.

And while Indiana did land veterans such as Danielle Robinson and Jantel Lavender, the lion’s share of this team, similar to Dallas, is young players such as Victoria Vivians and Teaira McCowan. The biggest problem for the Fever as has been the case in years past has been the injury bug. It may not even be a stretch to say that coach Marianne Stanley may find herself on the hot seat if the Fever have another season similar to the last two that puts Indiana in position to win the draft lottery. Nevertheless, the Fever did defeat its I-55 rivals in the Sky in a preseason contest at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

MVP Prediction?

With so many great players in the W, it can be difficult to prognosticate who will win MVP on a year-by-year basis. A’ja Wilson makes sense – after all she won MVP last year. Stewie makes sense – after all she claimed the MVP award two seasons ago. Elena Delle Donne also makes sense after missing last season in the bubble.

But something tells us that Candace Parker will be more than energized to play in her hometown with the whole city of Chicago ready to celebrate its hometown baller returning to the Windy City. Parker previously won MVP in 2008 and 2013 and our guess is she will add a third of those awards to her already stacked trophy case after this season.

Championship Prediction?

Looking at how we believe this season will go, we are calling a Las Vegas Aces-Chicago Sky Finals to renew the rivalry that in many ways began two seasons ago with the “Hamby Heave.” After last season’s Finals with the Storm and Aces was a sweep, we think we are due for a five-game thriller in this year’s Finals.

Finals MVP?

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