Storm lead the way for WNBA’s 6 Western Conference teams

Minnesota Lynx v Seattle Storm Breanna Stewart is back and the Seattle Storm look like their 2018 WNBA championship-winning selves. | Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Which teams most successfully navigated these challenges and changes, including new-look rosters? Which already are in need of big adjustments? An early look at the Western Conference in the season’s early-going.

This season, things are different in WNBA.

Off the court, the league is striving to make a single-site season work in the “wubble” at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL. On the court, teams are adjusting to the roster roulette that began this offseason and has continued through the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

While off-court matters will determine if the league makes it to October, on-court machinations will help to decide which team is holding the trophy this fall. The opening weekend provided a preview of which teams have best navigated challenges and changes.

Dallas Wings

The Dallas Wings can claim one of the most impressive collections of young talent in the league. But can they coalesce into an impressive, talented team?

Head coach Brian Agler may need to constantly tweak his rotation combinations in order to get the best out of as many of his players as possible.

On first unit, the offense will rightfully revolve around Arike Ogunbowale, who already is one of the league’s most dangerous volume shooters and scorers.

Even though she will no longer serve as the primary ball handler — because of Moriah Jefferson, who is back on the floor after a season-plus injury absence, and Ty Harris, the No. 7 pick in the WNBA Draft — expect Ogunbowale to have the ball in her hand a lot. So, what kind of players should most often surround her?

By inserting the sharpshooting, floor-spacing Katie Lou Samuelson into the starting lineup, the Wings could become an absolute offensive juggernaut. On the other hand, the coaching staff may want to guard against Dallas’s defensive deficiencies by giving the hard-nosed Kayla Thornton time with the first string.

In terms of the second unit, Allisha Gray asked to come off the bench and, at least on Sunday, this role served her well, as she was active and aggressive.

While No. 2 pick Satou Sabally certainly should start, might she also need some time with the reserves, allowing her to operate as the primary offensive option when Ogunbowale is not on the floor?

In short, Dallas has a lot of optionality. While the Wings, like every team, have playoff ambitions, experimentation should be their focus in the season’s early going.

Las Vegas Aces

Welcome back, Angel!

Although sporting new threads, McCoughtry turned in a throwback performance in her Las Vegas Aces debut. In her first actual action in almost two years, she put on a scoring clinic.

Even more encouragingly, McCoughtry appeared to already have established chemistry with A’ja Wilson, who put on a scoring clinic of her own.

Dearica Hamby also did Dearica Hamby things, and then some. She displayed an improved face-up game and some fancy footwork, showing, once again, that she belongs in the starting lineup. With McCoughtry, Wilson and Hamby all possessing uniquely effective isolation games, they would together cause trouble for opponents from the opening tip.

However, the “math problem” of analytically-minded modern basketball could present problems for Vegas. Despite some pretty stout defense, they dropped their opener because three is greater than two, and the Aces made zero 3s. They only shot five.

For a team that claims the services of Kayla McBride, this is inexcusable. When opponents stall the isolation efforts of McCoughtry, Wilson and Hamby, head coach Bill Laimbeer should be able to dial up a look from deep for McBride, one of the game’s best 3-point markswomen. Once Sugar Rodgers regains her fitness and form, she also should be called on to help the Aces increase their 3-point attempt rate.

Los Angeles Sparks

On Saturday afternoon, the Los Angeles Sparks were locked in, looking like the best version of themselves!

Most exciting and encouraging was the Sparks debut of Seimone Augustus. The Minnesota Lynx legend made an early bid to become a Hollywood hero. Money Mone had her mid-range game working, going six-for-six from the field. If Mone maintains this pep in her step and pop in her shot, she may add a Sixth Woman of the Year award to her already stuffed trophy case.

However, another new Spark could rival her for this honor. In her opening game in LA gold, Brittney Skyes flashed her elite athleticism on both ends of the floor. Also providing a boost off the bench was rookie Te’a Cooper, who used her size, length and strength to show that she belongs in the W.

Combined with returnees Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Riquna Williams and Sydney Wiese, these three newcomers give head coach Derek Fisher six capable wing players to slot in around the star core of Chelsea Gray, Candace Parker and the perfect President, Nneka Ogwumike. The play of Parker also was inspiring, as she, in the words of ESPN’s Rebecca Lobo, looked “spry,” seeming to have overcome last season’s injury troubles.

Minnesota Lynx

Have the Minnesota Lynx lucked into another UConn youngster?

In her WNBA debut, Crystal Dangerfield was a difference maker, running the point with poise and purpose. With Shenise Johnson’s knees limiting her playing time, Dangerfield should start. This would allow her to get extended time with Minnesota’s first unit, including her former college teammate, Napheesa Collier.

Last season’s standout young UConn-er, Collier, also impressed. After struggling through much of the first half, she showed the ability to navigate the adversity of foul trouble and defensive attention, maturely making the adjustments needed to impact the game down the stretch.

Sylvia Fowles did not require any adjustments. She was in midseason, MVP form, patrolling and controlling the area around the basket.

However, the Lynx need consistent contributors beyond Big Syl and the young Huskies.

While it is probably unwise to second guess the great Cheryl Reeve, might she need to utilize Minnesota’s top 2020 draft pick, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan? When a game begins to sag, Herbert Harrigan could inject energy. She also could prove the perfect frontcourt partner for Fowles, creating an especially troublesome defensive duo by combining her shot-blocking punch with Fowles’s paint protection.

Phoenix Mercury

The Phoenix Mercury were flat in their first game of 2020.

While Diana Taurasi eased any concerns about the state of her shooting and scoring abilities, her performance was uncharacteristically muted. She played well, but she did not impact the unfolding of the game.

The same applies to Brittney Griner. Even though she was beset by foul trouble, BG must assert the will on the action. She should dominate, regardless of opponent.

The newest member of the Mercury’s “Big Three” had the best opening game. However, while Skylar Diggins-Smith came to play, she has yet to establish a connection with teammates, requiring her to do too much dribbling.

Bria Hartley, Phoenix’s prominent off-the-bench offseason addition, also spent too much time pounding the rock, failing to create easy scoring opportunities for others. One of the Mercury’s other new reserves, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, was more impressive, playing with focus and poise.

Head coach Sandy Brondello will need to make multiple adjustments if the Mercury intend to contend for a championship. She could take a page from the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, who have thrived by putting three ball handlers around a bruising big. Rotating three of Taurasi, Diggins-Smith, Hartley and Walker-Kimbrough around Griner could juice Phoenix’s offense.

Seattle Storm

Although Breanna Stewart was not in peak MVP form, she gave every indication that she can (and likely will) get there. In her first game for the Seattle Storm since 2018, she showed off all aspects of her game as she made a difference on both ends of the floor.

Sue Bird also looked comfortable in her return to the WNBA court. While her shot was short at moments, she played a measured, low-minute game, the ideal circumstance for her this season.

With Stewie and Sue back in the lineup, Jewell Loyd was able to re-assume her supporting role in the Seattle offense. She was the best version of the Gold Mamba on Saturday, rising up to shoot and score with silky ease.

So, the Storm will cruise to the championship?

Of slight concern is the condition of Natasha Howard. The 2019 Defensive Player of the Year appeared a bit heavy, missing that twitchy quickness that makes her “Flash.” However, it is understandable that her play could be a bit uneven as she re-adjusts to her role in a Stewart-centric Seattle system.

But off the bench, there were more positive signs for the Storm, highlighted by a fit and fiery Sami Whitcomb and a pro-ready rookie in Ezi Magbegor.