Wings, Mercury set to open up 2018 WNBA season
By Patrick Ralph and Dorothy Gentry
The WNBA season kicks off tonight with a Western Conference battle as the Wings travel to the desert to take on the Mercury. It's a matchup of two playoff teams from a year ago. Dallas was eliminated in the first round by Washington while Phoenix advanced to the WNBA semifinals before being ousted by Los Angeles.
Before the Lynx won four titles and the Sparks reemerged as perennial WNBA contenders, the Mercury were arguably the preeminent franchise in the league. Having won three WNBA titles over an eight-year period, the Mercury had tied the now defunct Detroit Shock with the second-most championships in league history.
Now that the Lynx and Sparks have established themselves as the class of the WNBA over the past three years, the success of Phoenix has ceded the spotlight. In fact, the Lynx and Sparks will absorb much of the attention this opening weekend of the WNBA season as the two rivals will square off Sunday in Minneapolis.
However, Phoenix is expected to be a contender this season. For the Mercury, it starts with All-Star Brittney Griner. Griner’s fifth season in the WNBA was her best to date, as she led the league in scoring for the first time. A two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Griner led the WNBA in blocks for the fifth time in as many seasons. Had it not been for an injury that kept her out of eight games, Griner could have very well had a say in the MVP race last year.
Having made the leap offensively and being one of the most dominant post players in the league, Griner is expected to be in the MVP conversation this season. But the finisher for the Mercury is eight-time All-Star and former MVP Diana Taurasi. The WNBA’s all-time leading scorer may be turning 36 this season and in the twilight of her career, but the five-time scoring champ is still a deadly scorer. It’s hard to find a better player with the ball in their hands at the end of a game than Taurasi.
For Phoenix to contend, it is going to come down to how much it can get from its supporting cast. The Mercury know that they will get a lot from their All-Star duet, but the role players will determine how far this team can go in the playoffs. During its 18-16 campaign last season, Phoenix struggled to find a dependable third scoring option to compliment Taurasi and Griner.
Seeking out that consistency from its bench for 2018, the Mercury were one of the most active teams during the offseason. From the looks of it, Phoenix appears to have addressed those concerns.
After missing the 2017 season due to giving birth, former All-Star DeWanna Bonner returns to Phoenix and will provide the Mercury with plenty of scoring, rebounding and defense. The Mercury upgraded at the point guard position with the acquisition of former All-Star and six-time All-Defensive team selection Briann January from the Indiana Fever. January will be the floor general offensively and the Mercury’s best perimeter defender. Another defensive stalwart who will now be playing in Phoenix is Sancho Lyttle. Formerly of the Atlanta Dream, Lyttle is also a six-time All-Defensive team selection in her career. With key role players Camille Little and Yvonne Turner also returning, depth could finally become an advantage for the Mercury.
Dallas had a 16-18 record, finishing fourth in the West and seventh overall last season. The Wings are hungry for a deeper, more satisfying playoff run and that begins tonight.
Bringing back Liz Cambage and drafting UCONN sensation Azura Stevens No. 6 are two moves the team hopes will get them back on track. Cambage’s return has been noticed by the league and many feel it’s just what Dallas needed to take another step forward in its quest for a postseason presence. In the recently released 2018 WNBA.com GM Survey, Dallas was runner-up in the category of most improved team and best offseason move after bringing back the 6-foot, 8-inch center. Cambage was a 2011 WNBA All-Star and she last played in the league in 2013.
“We are excited about the team we have put together for the season,” head coach Fred Williams said. “Bringing Liz back into the mix gives us the inside presence we have been looking to fill. After a successful and competitive training camp, the squad coming into the 2018 year is ready and we look forward to opening the season in Phoenix.”
Cambage has already made her presence known in the preseason with elite defense in all three games, including the final game where she scored 11 points, grabbed six rebounds and had three blocked shots.
The addition of Stevens could give the Wings their second consecutive Rookie of the Year. She still has a learning curve from college to the pros, but she is off to a good start. In her debut, she led the Wings to a victory with 19 points and nine rebounds and twice led all scorers during the preseason. Her edge in rebounding and her size are just some pluses the Wings can count on this season.
Overall, the team’s roster seems perfectly fit and ready to roll this season. In addition to Cambage and Stevens, the roster features 10 returning players, including All-Star guard Skylar Diggins-Smith.
Four members of last year’s rookie class will begin their sophomore season, led by 2017 Rookie of the Year Allisha Gray and 2017 All-Rookie Team member Kaela Davis, as well as Saniya Chong and Breanna Lewis.
The Wings know the time is now and their season theme - Rise Together - shows that they know by working together, postseason play is a given. And it all begins today.