Expectations and intrigue surround the WNBA as the league tips off its 27th season this weekend.
There are super teams in Las Vegas and New York loaded with star power and championship aspirations. Brittney Griner is set to make her long-awaited return to the league after missing last season while detained in a Russian jail on drug-related charges before the saga ended with a prisoner swap in December.
On Friday night, Griner makes her 2023 WNBA season debut when the Los Angeles Sparks host the Phoenix Mercury at 11 p.m. EDT on ESPN. On Sunday, Griner plays her first regular-season home game since her release when the Mercury face the Chicago Sky at 4 p.m. EDT on ESPN.
Star-laden rosters are not new to the WNBA. The Houston Comets dominated with four titles in the first four seasons of the league's existence, starting in 1997. Then Phoenix and Minnesota took over, assembling squads with several Olympians in the starting lineup.
But those teams were built mostly through the draft. Las Vegas and New York are using free agency to step into the spotlight.
The defending champion Las Vegas Aces signed former MVP Candace Parker. She joins a Las Vegas team led by MVP A'ja Wilson and all-stars Kelsey Plum and Chelsea Gray.
Wilson is the preseason AP player of the year, selected by a national voting panel. Aliyah Boston, the top pick in the WNBA draft by Indiana, is the choice for rookie of the year.
Las Vegas is a slight favorite over New York to repeat as champions, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. The Aces and New York are also in the preseason AP WNBA power poll. Washington, Connecticut and Phoenix round out the top five teams. Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago and Minnesota follow, while Los Angeles, Seattle and Indiana finish off the poll.
The last time a team repeated as WNBA champions was in 2001-02, when the Sparks won consecutive titles to end the Comets' four-year run.
Standing in Las Vegas' way could be the Liberty, who are looking for their first title in franchise history. The Liberty made several moves, adding former MVPs Jonquel Jones through a trade and Breanna Stewart as a free agent. New York also signed all-star point guard Courtney Vandersloot to join a young core led by Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney.
The group aims to bring New York its first pro basketball championship since 1973, when the Knicks won the NBA title.
Five of the 10 starters on the two powerhouse teams signed as free agents over the last few seasons. The collective bargaining agreement ratified in 2020 allows for more player movement by lowering the number of years teams can keep core players from five to two. With a core player, a franchise still controls the rights for the upcoming season and can potentially sign and trade her instead of losing her as an unrestricted free agent.
“Opening up free agency is pretty much why we’re here today, talking about this very team,” Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb said. “Players are getting to choose the location of their legacy, and I think that’s really important.”
Griner's life and legacy off the basketball court took a drastic turn over the past year-and-a-half, following her nearly 10-month detention in Russia. With all that's happened, it’s easy to forget that the 6-foot-9 all-star had one of her best seasons in 2021. She averaged 20.5 points and 9.5 rebounds, finishing second in the MVP race. She led the Mercury to the WNBA Finals that season before losing to Chicago.
Some other storylines to follow this upcoming season:
At 40, Diana Taurasi is returning for her 19th season as the league's all-time leading scorer. She'll once again team with Griner in Phoenix. Taurasi played 31 games last year before injuring her quad in early August, which sidelined her for the remainder of the season. Barring a major injury, she's expected to play next season and compete for a spot on the 2024 Paris Olympic team and aim for a sixth gold medal.
Elena Delle Donne said she's feeling the best since entering the league in 2013. The Mystics' MVP candidate has dealt with a back injury the past three seasons. She missed the 2020 season and only played three games in 2021. Washington managed her workload last year, playing just 25 of 36 games.
“Throughout the past few years with my injury, not always traveling or being on the road, not being in each practice, being in and out, (it) was tough to find that presence and the same voice as being there every single day,” Delle Donne said. “So I’m excited that I’m there now. I’ll be there on the road. I don’t plan to miss any games. It’s different.”
After taking Connecticut to the WNBA Finals last season, coach Curt Miller moved on to Los Angeles, where he got his start as an assistant. Miller was replaced in Connecticut by former Indiana head coach Stephanie White.
While Miller and White have experience as head coaches, longtime assistants Christie Sides (Indiana) Latricia Trammell (Dallas) and Eric Thibault (Washington) will make their debuts as head coaches.
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