2014 WNBA Eastern Conference Preview

By The Sports Network
May 14, 2014 - 2:06pm

(SportsNetwork.com) -

OUTLOOK: The Atlanta Dream will attempt to make a trip to the WNBA Finals for the third time in four years, but will do so with a new coach. After the Dream were swept by Minnesota in the championship round last year, the contract of head coach Fred Williams was not renewed. Atlanta will trudge into the future under the guidance of Michael Cooper, who won a pair of titles, along with the 2000 WNBA Coach of the Year Award, while with the Los Angeles Sparks. The former Laker will have his work cut out for him as he tries to figure out a way to overcome the Elena Delle Donne-led Chicago Sky and Mike Thibault's Washington Mystics.

Connecticut hopes to make waves as well as the first overall pick from the WNBA Draft, Chiney Ogwumike, joins the fold. Alyssa Thomas (Washington) and Natasha Howard (Indiana) are also expected to make an impact immediately after serving as the Atlantic Coast Conference's marquee players a season ago for Maryland and Florida State, respectively.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH (2013 record):

1. Chicago Sky (24-10)

2. Atlanta Dream (17-17)

3. Washington Mystics (17-17)

4. New York Liberty (11-23)

5. Connecticut Sun (10-24)

6. Indiana Fever (16-18)

CHICAGO SKY - Pokey Chatman did a stellar job during the regular season in 2013, leading the Sky to their first Eastern Conference top seed before being unexpectedly swept by the Indiana Fever in the opening round of the playoffs. Delle Donne finished fourth in the league in scoring with an average of 18.1 ppg and led all players by sinking 92.9 percent of her free-throw attempts. The Sky traded four-time All Star forward Swin Cash to Atlanta for second-year guard Courtney Clements, who posted just 2.2 ppg for the Dream as a rookie. Delle Donne still has plenty of help as double-double machine Sylvia Fowles (16.3 ppg, 11.5 rpg) will provide inside toughness after recovering from an early-season injury, while Epiphanny Prince (15 ppg) and Courtney Vandersloot (8.8 ppg, 5.6 apg) form a solid backcourt.

Although Chatman is the youngest coach in the league, she brings plenty of experience to the table. She compiled a 47-3 record at LSU to become the second winningest coach through her first 50 games in NCAA Division I history and led Spartak Moscow Region to three consecutive Euroleague Championships from 2008-10. The Sky added some size in the draft with their selection of the 6-foot-5 Markeisha Gatling (NC State) in the first round and California's all- time leading rebounder, Gennifer Brandon, with the 22nd overall pick.

ATLANTA DREAM - Atlanta's quest for a return to the WNBA Finals will revolve around the defending scoring champion, Angel McCoughtry, who netted 21.5 ppg in 2013. McCoughtry's ability to drive and dish will lead to many easy buckets for Dream star center Erika de Souza (12.9 ppg, 9.9 rpg) and Cash (9.3 ppg). With Cooper, the 1987 NBA Defensive Player of the Year as its new coach, Atlanta will not be surrendering too many open looks to the competition.

Atlanta will benefit from the return of forward Sancho Lyttle, who underwent successful surgery to repair a fractured left foot after playing in just six games last season. The Dream landed a 3-point specialist and Louisville's all- time leading scorer when they selected Shoni Schimmel with the eighth pick in the WNBA Draft. Second round picks Inga Orekhova (South Florida) and Cassie Harbets (USC) will provide depth at forward for Cooper's first tour of duty in Atlanta.

WASHINGTON MYSTICS - John Wall is not the only dominant point guard in the nation's capital. Following her first All-Star campaign, former North Carolina standout Ivory Latta enters her eighth WNBA season looking to build on her impressive 2013 averages of 13.9 ppg and 4.4 apg. The 5-foot-6 floor general showed she is a threat from anywhere last season, converting 39.6 percent of her attempts from beyond the arc, while ranking among the league leaders with a 90.2 percent clip at the charity stripe. Latta, who will serve as an assistant for her alma mater next season, will have to step up her play to make up for the loss of Crystal Langhorne's 12.0 ppg and 7.2 rpg. The veteran presence of Kara Lawson and the always reliable Monique Currie (10.5 ppg) will help round out a very deep and talented squad for Washington.

With Mike Thibault steering the ship, the Mystics have a solid chance of overachieving once again. Thibault will need his rookie center, Stefanie Dolson (Connecticut), to establish herself as a defensive anchor and rebounding presence just as she did for the Huskies during their run to the 2014 NCAA Championship.

NEW YORK LIBERTY - Coach Bill Laimbeer was quite pleased with the Liberty's offseason activity. New York's acquisition of the 2012 MVP Tina Charles via trade on draft night immediately gave it one of the top post players in the league and its second-round selection of Tyaunna Marshall (Georgia Tech) will provide the former Bad Boy with a hard-nosed shooting guard to tighten up the team's perimeter defense. Charles returns to her hometown after tallying 17.3 ppg and 10.8 rpg over the course of her four seasons with the Sun. Her arrival in the Big Apple will take pressure off Cappie Pondexter, who shot a career- low 36 percent from the floor en route to a team-high 16.9 ppg in 2013.

The Liberty are not very deep, which means Charles and Pondexter will have to carry the team offensively on most nights. Essence Carson, who played in the 2011 All-Star Game, could be the missing piece, as she is capable of playing multiple positions and produced 14.3 ppg on 55 percent efficiency from the floor in four games last season before tearing the ACL in her left knee. New York is not filled with proven commodities, but playing with a pair of gems like Charles and Pondexter should make life much easier for players such as DeLisha Milton-Jones, Shanece McKinney and Toni Young.

CONNECTICUT SUN - The Sun still have a ways to go before they will be claiming their first ever WNBA title. They are certainly heading in the right direction. Connecticut made some bold offseason moves to change the culture of the franchise and start its climb to the top of the pyramid. It included the selection of Ogwumike, who finished a stellar four-year career with the Cardinal as the Pac-12's all-time leader in points (2,737) and rebounds (1,567). She averaged 26.1 points, 12.1 rebounds and shot 60.1 percent from the field in 2013-14, leading Stanford to its sixth Final Four appearance in the last seven years.

Although Connecticut parted ways with Charles, it received New York's top pick in next year's draft along with the 6-foot-2 Thomas, who amassed the most points in Maryland history on her way to three consecutive ACC Player of the Year awards. To help the Sun's rookie tandem get acclimated to the professional ranks, general manager Chris Sienko acquired 13-year veteran Katie Douglas through free agency. Due to the departure of Lawson, Allison Hightower (12.8 ppg, 3.0 apg) will hold the key to the ignition of Anne Donovan's high-octane offense. Sixth-year guard Renee Montgomery (11.8 ppg, 3.1 apg) is also going to contribute as a playmaker for Connecticut. Hightower and Montgomery may have to take a back seat when rookie point guard Chelsea Gray returns from the injury she suffered last season as a senior at Duke. Prior to fracturing her knee, Gray averaged 10.8 ppg and 7.2 apg for the Blue Devils.

INDIANA FEVER - On May 6, coach Lin Dunn announced that the 2014 season would be her last with the Fever, as she intends on retiring at the end of the year. Dunn would shock the league if she managed to turn her farewell tour into a championship run. Tamika Catchings is without a doubt one of the greatest players in WNBA history, but the six-time All-Star's days as a premier player are numbered. While she is still capable of lighting up the scoreboard on any given occasion, asking Catchings to be the Indiana's workhorse on a consistent basis will take a toll on her efficiency. Catchings could play a big role in the development of Natasha Howard, who was picked fifth in the draft after a tremendous career at Florida State. Indiana used its other first-round selection on Notre Dame product Natalie Achonwa. While with the Fighting Irish, Achonwa helped Notre Dame reach four Final Fours before tearing her ACL, which will prevent her from participating in the 2014 campaign.

Indiana's playoff h