Seattle storm coach Lin Dunn groans when she ponders what her young team is up against playing in the WNBA's Western Conference. "The West is a bear," she says. "It's no coincidence that all the championship teams and all the league MVPs are in the West. We've got most of the best post players and most of the Olympians. Whoever wins the East would get fourth in the West."
It's hard to say which Eastern Conference team that might be. The Cleveland Rockers, who had the conference's best regular-season record, lost point guard Helen Darling to motherhood (she had triplets in April); the Charlotte Sting, which reached the finals last season, is concerned with the status of Dawn Staley's knees and rookie Sheila Lambert's ankle; and the Miami Sol, last year's playoff newcomer, is unlikely to have star Elena Baranova, who returned to her native Russia to play. Will this be the year youth overthrows experience in the East? Not likely. Though the WNBA is getting younger—only 27 players remain of the 88 who were in the WNBA at its inception five years ago—it's still a veteran's league. Rookies such as Indiana's Tamika Catchings (who sat out last year recovering from ACL surgery) and Washington's Stacey Dales-Schuman and Asjha Jones will instantly improve their clubs' prospects, but the impact won't be enough to dislodge the conference's warhorses, Charlotte, Cleveland and the New York Liberty, from their accustomed playoff spots. Says Sacramento coach Maura McHugh, "The old guard still isn't that old."
That's especially true in the West, where the big-name veterans- Lisa Leslie of the Los Angeles Sparks, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson of the Houston Comets, the Sacramento Monarchs' Yolanda Griffith and Ticha Penicheiro, and Katie Smith of the Minnesota Lynx—are all in their late 20s or early 30s. Swoopes, who returns after missing a year with an ACL injury, will make Houston the biggest threat to the defending champion Sparks, but L.A. has no intention of standing pat. The Sparks broke up their title squad by trading away fourth-year point guard Ukari Figgs to get rookie Nikki Teasley, a prodigiously talented 6-foot point guard whose past battles with depression made some teams leery of her. If she pans out, as the Sparks expect, they'll have all-star-caliber players at every position. Look for Leslie to dominate inside again. She'll want to prove that last year's league MVP award, won when 2000 winner Swoopes was out of commission, was no fluke.