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WNBA 25th anniversary season preview: Who to root for, if ...

·18-min read

The WNBA is back for its 25th season beginning Friday, and it can be tough to decide who to get behind. Those who live in one of the league's 12 franchise cities can pick their local team, but for the rest, it's good to know a group's perks, personalities, and sometimes downsides. 

You like chaos? Consistency? The underdogs? The 'role players'? Here's who to root for based on characteristics like that and what you should know about their leaders. 

If you like strong post play and trash talk ... Las Vegas Aces

There is no shortage of personalities in the WNBA, but if you had to put them into categories, Liz Cambage is at the top. She quite famously took a shot at the Mystics' bigs to "get in the weight room or get out of the post" in the 2019 semifinals. And when asked during Aces media day what her favorite colorway is for the new jerseys, she popped the black one she was wearing before calling out the Sparks for “trying to jack our black.”

Cambage returns to the Aces after opting out of the 2020 season and winning an Australian Women's National Basketball League title in December. She brings the smack talk and the post play alongside reigning MVP A'ja Wilson, who was left to do most of the scoring on her own in the WNBA Finals. 

2020 record: 18-4. Defeated Storm on final day of regular season to clinch No. 1 seed, but lost to Storm in three games in Finals. 

Key players: This lineup is wicked. Wilson will have Cambage back at center to work off of and Dearica Hamby, the two-time Sixth Woman of the Year, is back from a knee injury that sidelined her in the playoffs. No. 1 draft picks Jackie Young (2019) and Kelsey Plum (2017), who missed 2020 with an Achilles injury, both return. To add on to all of that, the Aces went and got point guard Chelsea Gray, a three-time All-Star and WNBA champion, in free agency.

Circle these games: The Aces open against the Storm on Saturday in an ABC prime-time showcase and play the Storm again on Tuesday. In early September, with playoff positioning on the line, Las Vegas will face budding rival Chicago. There's a lot going on in this rivalry, but to bring it full circle, Cambage and the Sky have gotten into it before.

BetMGM title odds: +375

Graphic with Who to root for? The Las Vegas Aces players and the words
(Graphic by Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

If you like dynasties in the making ... Seattle Storm

Seattle came into the bubble with unfinished business and left with the trophy. 

The Storm were prepared to defend their 2018 championship until that season's MVP, Breanna Stewart, ruptured her Achilles in a EuroLeague game one month before the WNBA season began. Days before tip, the Storm announced that veteran Sue Bird would undergo knee surgery. She also missed the entire season.

It dashed their hopes, and coming into 2020, they not only had their two stars back, but proudly boasted a "starting five coming off the bench." That's no longer as defensive standouts Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark exited in free agency. But they do have the talent to make another champion run. It would be a fifth title for the Storm, pushing past the Minnesota Lynx and Houston Comets for most in WNBA history. 

If they did it this season, or next, it would be fair to put them in the dynasty conversation with those two franchises.

2020 record: 18-4, second place. Won franchise's fourth WNBA championship. 

Key players: Bird, 40, is the oldest player in the league, and though she's no longer as spry as she was in her youth, her mind and experience is sharp. Stewart, 26, followed up the WNBA title and Finals MVP with two titles and two final MVP awards while playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg. Jewell Loyd, Jordin Canada and Ezi Magbegor will take on larger roles. 

Circle these games: The Storm draw the Aces to start the season. Bird and Diana Taurasi will face off in what we can only assume is some of the last matchups of their careers on July 9 and 11, and finally in the season finale on Sept. 17.

BetMGM title odds: +190

If you like baby GOATs and triple-double watch ... New York Liberty

Everyone was ready to give up the ankles they were using to kick back on the couch when Sabrina Ionescu suffered a grade 3 ankle sprain early in her third WNBA game. After a solid, but certainly not Ionescu-level, debut, she had bounced back in game 2 to score 33 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. And then the ankle dashed everyone's excitement for the young Liberty. 

The kid is a GOAT in the making, now playing at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, with an established veteran center in Natasha Howard. Howard, a three-time champion the Liberty dealt the 2021 No. 1 draft pick for, is already calling the pick-and-roll duo the next Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. 

Ionescu is treating 2021 as if it's her rookie year, but don't expect her to win Rookie of the Year honors. Since she played at least one game in the bubble, that was considered her first season. 

2020 record: 2-20, 12th. 

Players to watch: How Ionescu and Howard perform together, and what kind of shooting they can get around them. The Liberty were dead last in every offensive category last season: points (1,581), offensive rating (88.6), field-goal percentage (37.2%), 3-point percentage (27.7%). They added Storm shooter Sami Whitcomb and 2020 Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney. 

Circle these games: Every game featuring a veteran star on the opposite bench, but particularly the Storm (Aug. 18, 20; Sept. 2) and the Mercury (June 13; Aug. 25, 27). Taurasi was quite blunt on Instagram Live last year, telling Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird, "every time you play rookies, you just want to f***ing kill them."  

Hey yo!

BetMGM title odds: +10000

Graphic with Who to root for? The New York Liberty with Sabrina Ionescu and a goat with the words
(Graphic by Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

If you like splashy free agent signings and homecomings ... Chicago Sky

Candace Parker is just like us kicking it back home, running into elementary school classmates and having her mom cook lasagna and do her laundry. 

And then she's not like us, training for her 14th professional basketball season and repping on "NBA on TNT."

The Sky signed Parker, who spent all 13 seasons of her career with Los Angeles, in one of the biggest player moves in history. Parker's accolades are lengthy and she's the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, an honor she said she places above her two MVPs and Rookie of the Year award. 

Parker, 34, grew up in Naperville, Illinois, and now brings her 11-year-old daughter, Laila, home with her. There are high hopes the veteran can bring her hometown its first WNBA championship and the city its first basketball title since the Bulls in 1998.

2020 record: 12-10 (lost six of last eight games), sixth. Upset in first round vs. Connecticut Sun.  

Key players: Courtney Vandersloot became the first player to average 10.0 assists per game last season and led the league in win shares (4.1). The point guard is an assists extraordinaire in her 11th season. Diamond DeShields has had injury trouble, but looked good in camp and Ruthy Hebard, the Oregon star, is entering year No. 2. 

Circle these games: The Sky and the Aces don't get along and new faces aren't going to change that. The two play in early September. First, Parker goes up against her former Sparks squad on Memorial Day weekend. 

BetMGM title odds: +900

If you like consistency and top-notch coaching ... Minnesota Lynx

The Lynx haven't played a season under .500 in a decade, and they keep cycling in new superstars to take over games. If you're looking for a surefire winning team to root for for years to come, this is it. 

Cheryl Reeve is .677 all-time leading the Lynx (.672 in playoffs) and earned her third Coach of the Year award in 2020. All four Lynx championships came on her watch — in free agent signing Kayla McBride's words, the Lynx "breed them." Minnesota reached the 2020 playoffs despite losing 2017 MVP Sylvia Fowles early in the schedule and being without Odyssey Sims. 

Reeve, who isn't afraid to give it you straight, coached the past two Rookie of the Year winners and neither were the No. 1 selection in their respective draft. Napheesa Collier went No. 6 in 2019 and Crystal Dangerfield was taken in the second round at No. 16 the following year. Dangerfield, who led the team in scoring at 16.2 points per game, became the lowest selected draft pick to win the award. They drafted Tennessee's Rennia Davis in a steal pick at No. 9 this year, but Davis is out indefinitely with a stress fracture in her foot.

2020 record: 14-8, fourth. Swept by Storm (3-0) in semifinals.

Key players: Dangerfield, Collier and Fowles all return, and the Lynx added three-time All-Star McBride. Damiris Dantas was a breakout star for the Lynx in 2020 with career bests.  

Circle these games: The longtime rival Sparks come up in mid-June. Later that month, friends and podcast hosts Collier and A'ja Wilson face off

BetMGM title odds: +1100

If you like a headline 'Big 3' and UConn ... Phoenix Mercury

There is a "big 3" on most squads in the WNBA since there's a large talent base and only 12 teams. The Mercury have arguably the most headline-worthy group with veteran trash talker Diana Taurasi (No. 1 pick, 2004), the 6-foot-9 center Brittney Griner (No. 1, 2013) and four-time All-Star point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith (No. 3, 2013). 

Diggins-Smith fit in well with Taurasi and Griner before the latter left the bubble early. Griner said last week she was able to reset and take a break from basketball while away. The Big 3 is hungry for a championship, which would be Phoenix's first since 2014. Taurasi is nearing the end of her career and wants a fourth with the Mercury. Griner won in her second season with the team, but missed the clinching game with an eye injury. And Diggins-Smith hasn't won one yet, having reached the playoffs only three times with the Tulsa/Dallas franchise. 

And if you're a UConn Huskies fan, there's no shortage of players and teams to root for, but the Mercury boast four this season. There's Taurasi, guard Bria Hartley (2014), guard Kia Nurse (2018) and forward Megan Walker (2020). Might as well call them UConn-West Coast. 

2020 record: 13-9, fifth. Lost in second round. 

Key players: See above. All averaged between 17.7 and 18.7 points per game on better than 50% 2-point shooting and 36% from 3 for Taurasi and Diggins-Smith. 

Circle these games: Taurasi and the UConn crew will face fellow alumna Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart in June and August

BetMGM title odds: +1000

If you like badass MVPs, but a slow climb ... Washington Mystics

The alternative title for Washington, the 2019 champions, was "if you like the Tortoise over the Hare in the Aesop classic fable." Because while the Mystics are fairly in the title hunt, it's not going to be a dominant start to the season for this group. It will be slow goings. 

Elena Delle Donne, the first 50/40/90 player in WNBA history and 2019 MVP, is still coming back from back surgery and probably won't play early on. Head coach Mike Thibault said she'll be on a minutes restriction when she does return. Beyond that, there is jelling to do for a squad that hasn't played together in years — or ever. 

Tina Charles, a 10-year veteran and 2012 MVP, will play her first minutes with the Mystics after the draft-week trade that sent her there in April 2020. Charles opted out of the 2020 season and is eyeing her first title. Natasha Cloud re-signed with the Mystics after opting out for social justice pursuits. 

There may not be wins from the get-go with this group, but it's good practice to play your best come the postseason, anyway. 

2020 record: 9-13, eighth. Lost to Mercury in first round. 

Key players: The two MVPs will lead the way with point guard Cloud back at the helm. Emma Meesseman, the Finals MVP, might not play this year given Belgian national team commitments. 

Circle these games: The 2019 Finals matchup against the Sun will be fun to watch

BetMGM title odds: +450

Graphic with Who to root for? The Washington Mystics with Elena Delle Donne and Tina Charles with the words
(Graphic by Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

If you like underdogs and hate disrespect ... Connecticut Sun

Give credit to the Sun social media team. They know how to light up a fan base. 

Way back in 2019 (eons ago, we know), the Connecticut Sun finished with the league's second-best record, but were left out of the postseason conversation for title favorite. Enter the "disrespeCT" moniker

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What followed was a video of Jasmine Thomas on the ESPN set as commentators discussed how there's no big-time star on the team. And that led into mocking, led by Courtney Williams (see: Atlanta Dream) of being called a bunch of "role players."

The underdog title was fair in 2019, because the Sun were talented and did reach the Finals, their first since 2005, even though some experts liked more spicier options. Despite gained respect and attention out of it, they never dropped the #disrespeCT tag, and it's doubtful they will anytime soon. 

Head coach Curt Miller said as much following Game 1 of the 2020 semifinal, telling reporters the Sun would use it "even if it isn't happening." He reiterated it in February. 

"I think we'll be a little bit underappreciated," Miller told reporters. "We'll have that mantra and chip on our shoulder again."

2020 record: 10-12 (despite starting 0-5). No. 7 seed lost to Aces, 3-2, in semifinals. 

Key (more than role) players: Thomas has been the Sun's strong, consistent point guard since 2015. Jonquel Jones, a 6-6 center who finished third in 2019 MVP voting, is back after opting out and will play for the first time next to two-time champion DeWanna Bonner. Forward Alyssa Thomas is out for the season with a torn Achilles, but is still heavily involved with the team.

Circle these games: Sun vs. Mystics (May 28, June 29 and Aug. 31). These two squads will be back to full strength in 2021 for a rematch of the 2019 WNBA Finals, which the Sun were minutes from winning.  

BetMGM title odds: +1000

If you like actual underdogs and young talent ... Dallas Wings

The Wings are on the upswing, and if anyone fits an underdog bill, it's them given their youth. 

The franchise faced a tumultuous end to the 2010s with stars Liz Cambage (Aces) and Skylar Diggins-Smith (Mercury) making it clear they wanted out. They started stockpiling draft picks in 2020 and 2021, becoming the first team to select at No. 1 and No. 2 last month. The front office is mostly the same, but they've added a new head coach in Vickie Johnson, a longtime assistant with the Aces. 

The Wings haven't won a playoff game since 2009, when they were the Detroit Shock, and if that breaks this season, it would be a mighty feat. Three players in training camp had four years of experience, one had five, and everyone else was at two or fewer. The roster is stockpiled with young talent that might not pay off immediately.

2020 record: 8-14. Missed out on playoffs by one game (finished ninth). 

Key players: Arike Ogunbowale will be an MVP one day, it's just a matter of when. The NCAA tournament's clutch-shooting superstar is only entering her third season and has already ranked third and first, respectively, in points per game her first two years. Forward Satou Sabally enters year two and center Charli Collier, the No. 1 draft pick in 2021, will make her league debut. 

Circle these games: The Wings' chances of getting into the playoffs grow if they beat teams they're "supposed" to beat at the bottom of the pack: Fever, Liberty and Dream. The last two feature Ogunbowale against fellow shooters Sabrina Ionescu (Liberty) and Chennedy Carter (Dream). 

BetMGM title odds: +8000

If you like the rebuild ... Los Angeles Sparks

Something had to change in Los Angeles this offseason after back-to-back playoff no-shows against the Sun. Parker left for Chicago in a massive upheaval and point guard Chelsea Gray moved on to the Aces. It's going to be a very different look for the Sparks.

There are only three players on the roster from head coach (and now general manager) Derek Fisher's first season two years ago. He has the opportunity to make this team his own, for better or worse, and new fans will have to be ready for that.

But this team won't be bottom-of-the-barrel. Nneka Ogwumike, president of the WNBA Players Association, is one of the best in the league and used the offseason to focus on her well-being after everything the bubble season entailed.

2020 record: 15-7, third. Lost to Connecticut Sun (again) in second round.

Key players: Forward Nneka Ogwumike, the 2016 MVP, will lead the group alongside point guard Kristi Toliver, who returned to the Sparks last offseason but opted out. Chiney Ogwumike, another opt-out, hopes to remain healthy and the Sparks will ask for more from 2020 draft pick Te'a Cooper.

Circle these games: Sparks face Gray and the Aces on May 21. They play the Sun in back-to-back August games.

BetMGM title odds: +700

If you like personalities, potential chaos ... and maybe windmills? ... Atlanta Dream

Everyone at this point knows the story of the 2020 Dream team, which is great because a lot has happened since then. More specifically, a lot has happened in the past three weeks, hence potential chaos. 

But first, the personality. Chennedy Carter, a favorite for Rookie of the Year until an ankle injury, is bold, confident and full of swagger. Courtney Williams is a 5-foot-8 sharp-shooting guard full of it and her hype-man father, Don, might make his Atlanta debut with fans allowed in the arena. Similar in style is Arizona Wildcats star Aari McDonald, the No. 3 overall draft pick.

Now comes the chaos. One week after the draft, the new team ownership group that includes former Dream player Renee Montgomery fired general manager Chris Sienko. And a mere 10 days before tip-off, coach Nicki Collen took the job at Baylor.

As for the windmills, fourth-year Dream assistant coach Mike Petersen used it to kick off his first day as the interim head coach alongside assistant Darius Taylor. Honestly, we could all use a Petersen thought-for-the-day calendar. 

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2020 record: 7-15, 10th place. Two players opted out and three arrived late after COVID-19 positives. 

Key players: Carter can score in droves and is most known for scoring a record 34 points against Team USA as a college junior. 

Circled games: Carter and the Dream face the Liberty and Sabrina Ionescu on Memorial Day weekend and again in late June

BetMGM title odds: +10000

If you like the Netflix show "Stranger Things" ... Indiana Fever

In terms of teams you hear about, the Indiana Fever aren't likely on that list. The jersey reveal in April changed that and opened a new crossover it's hard to imagine anyone was expecting. 

The Fever are sporting Rebel jerseys inspired by the hit Netflix series "Stranger Things," set in the fictional Hawkins, Indiana. It prompted Wings forward Satou Sabally to click play and now, like the rest of us, she can't stop.

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Does my mom know anything about the Indiana Fever? No, and I don't want to think about what joke she'd try to make if I asked her. But would she wear a Fever jersey now? For sure. 

Maybe the show will pay them back with a Fever cameo in season 4. 

2020 record: 6-16, 11th. 

Key players: Kelsey Mitchell led the team in scoring and the Fever will return top draft picks center Teaira McCowan (2019) and forward Lauren Cox (2020). West Virginia's Kysre Gondrezick was a surprise pick at No. 4 this year, so all eyes will be on the guard. However, point guard Julie Allemand won't build off a strong rookie season as the team placed her on the full-season suspended list given her Belgian national team responsibilities.

Circled games: The Fever did well against the Liberty in the bubble, but that was without Sabrina Ionescu. 

BetMGM title odds: +10000

More WNBA season preview from Yahoo Sports:

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