As usual, the Western Conference is loaded with championship contenders. After all, the Western Conference has won 12 of the 16 WNBA titles, so 2013 isn’t out of the ordinary.
Sorry Eastern Conference, it’s just the truth. (Thank God for Bill Laimbeer and his Detroit Shock or it would be even worse.) Yes, there’s a train building up steam in Atlanta that may help the Eastern Conference’s woes – but it’s only July. The Western Conference hasn’t won all of those championships by accident, and the top three teams are loaded with talent again.
Here’s how the Left Coast looks right now.
No. 1 Minnesota Lynx
Coach Cheryl Reeve is as edgy and passionate as ever and the Lynx, with the best record in the West at 7-4, are the beneficiary of it. They have a super-talented team and she’s done a great job of helping the players mesh into a powerful unit in which everyone’s skills are maximized. Lindsey Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore lead a tremendous group in Minnesota, and Janel McCarville has blended in well, although she returned to the WNBA a bit out of shape. It’s great to see superstars Augustus and Moore play together and allow whomever has the hot hand to make plays and receive their support. Monica Wright and others coming off of the bench also give this team quality minutes and make it a difficult task to unseat the two-time defending Western Conference champions. However, they have lost to the Sparks twice this season, so they've shown vulnerability. But overall, there’s no reason the Lynx shouldn’t be two-time WNBA champions, and right now, they’re playing like they want to get back what was lost to Indiana last year.
No. 2 Phoenix Mercury
The run-and-gun is back -- Phoenix is playing very well, possibly the best in the league right now after starting the season horribly. Diana Taurasi is certainly looking like the one of the best players in the world as she leads a talented roster of scorers in DeWanna Bonner, Penny Taylor (welcome back) and Candice Dupree. After trying to change their approach to compensate for 6-8 rookie Brittney Griner, the Mercury have gone back to what they know and it’s working. No surprise there, as they won two championships that way.
Sometimes with this guard and wing-oriented offensive approach it seems that Griner is the most heralded and talented designated pick-setter in league history. But with so many scorers, it is difficult to make her more of a factor offensively. As she continues to improve her rebounding, she will get more points. From more of a purely fan point of view, however, Griner is the league's biggest draw and people would love to see her get a few more touches -- and a few more dunks. But with all that being said, it's hard to argue with 8-4 after an 0-3 start.
No. 3 Los Angeles Sparks
A 6-4 record isn’t all that bad most of the time, but when you have three overall number-one picks in your starting lineup, and one of them is considered by most to be the best player in the world and you’re two games over .500 ... uhhh, no. Then 6-4 just isn’t acceptable and this has been a very unfulfilling start to the Sparks season. This is the team that left the court in tears after last year’s playoff exit, but where is that passion this year? In the opening game against the Storm, in the first return match against the Lynx, it was there, but otherwise the emotional intensity has hardly shown up -- and has left fans longing for the team that is one of the most exciting teams in the league on paper, and has given us some brilliant flashes this season. Somehow, coach Carol Ross has to get this team to play to its potential every night, Candace Parker has to play like the LeBron James of the league every night (as like he typically does) and everyone else has to step up and live up to the name on the front and back of their jerseys.
No. 4 Seattle Storm
The Seattle Storm are having their troubles but this is a team that is playing about as well as it can considering the roster that it has. Temeka Johnson is her usual solid self and Tina Thompson has shown flashes of the ability that will soon take her into the Hall of Fame, but it’s difficult when Thompson at 38 is essentially the most potent scoring option. Shekinna Stricklen has to continue to be aggressive and be more of a scorer and though the effort is there, she needs a few more shots to fall. Though she’s really more of an all-around player who can score at times, but with the roster the Storm have now, she’s probably one of their best options to put points on the board Tianna Hawkins could be coming around gradually, and could eventually give the team a force in the paint. Rebounding is a major issue, and Seattle really needs Hawkins, among others, to step up and get possessions. But with coach Brian Agler in charge, don’t expect the Storm to just roll over – they’re going to fight every minute.
No. 5 San Antonio Silver Stars
The team with the longest name in the league often has the shortest bench, but is there a point guard playing better than Danielle Robinson right now? OK, maybe excluding Lindsey Whalen, but it’s really exciting to see what she’s doing and when Becky Hammon returns expect the veteran to play off the ball. Hammon can spot up off Danielle’s penetration and still be really effective at the two, which many would say is her best position. Coach Dan Hughes does a great job for that franchise, and he’s getting occasional flashes from Shenise Johnson, Danielle Adams is playing her usual solid basketball, and Kayla Alexander may develop into a presence in the post. If Hammon, Johnson, Jayne Appel and DeLisha Milton-Jones all return from injury, San Antonio should be in the running with the Shock to get that fourth playoff spot in the West.
No. 6 Tulsa Shock
Mark the date --July 3, 2013. That’s when the Shock are going to turn the corner. Granted, they’re coming off of a very difficult start to the season, and they still don’t have the talent to match up with the powers in the West, so turning the corner doesn’t mean they’ll reach .500 or even have a winning record for the rest of the season. But they’ve played more road games than any team in the league so far, and they have so many young players coming into their own: Glory Johnson is averaging a double-double; Riquna Williams is an explosive (if erratic) scorer; and Skylar Diggins is going to be better the rest of the way as she’s slowly adjusting to the league. And the youngest of them all, Liz Cambage, will be huge for this team. She’s had limited time playing time and is still trying to get in shape after sitting out for a month with an injury, she's just now get her game back and adapting to new teammates – but she’s still putting up numbers. Get Liz the rock and great things will happen for this franchise.
(Bell Fuller runs the blog “Lovin’ the WNBA,” and is a contributing writer for Full Court)