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WNBA TEAM PREVIEWS

May 22, 2003|Mike Terry

The Houston Comets and the Sparks have won all six previous WNBA titles, with Los Angeles winning the last two. These teams also had the league's best records last season, the Sparks at 25-7 and the Comets at 24-8.

They also got unexpected help in the off-season. The Sparks wooed Jennifer Gillom, the league's second all-time leading scorer, away from Phoenix via free agency. Cynthia Cooper, the league's first superstar, ended a two-year retirement to rejoin the Comets.

Whether Cooper, who reunites with Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson, can return the Comets to the league throne is one of this season's major questions. More important, in the overall WNBA picture, is whether an Eastern Conference team can finally win the championship after six years of Western domination. (OK, Houston was in the East during its 1997 title run, but that shouldn't count.)

A look at the teams in each conference (in alphabetical order):

Mike Terry

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EASTERN CONFERENCE

CHARLOTTE STING (18-14)

Coach: Trudi Lacey (0-0).

Who's new: Rushia Brown, Marla Brumfield, Teana McKiver.

Who's gone: Keisha Anderson, Summer Erb, Sheila Lambert, Shantia Owens, Elena Shakirova.

Analysis: The franchise was in limbo until billionaire Robert Johnson, who bought an NBA expansion franchise for Charlotte, also bought the Sting. This team was good enough to reach the WNBA finals two years ago, but reaching the playoffs will be tough. Key starters Dawn Staley and Andrea Stinson aren't getting younger, and Charlotte still lacks a big-time scoring threat.

CLEVELAND ROCKERS (10-22)

Coach: Dan Hughes (59-57).

Who's new: Betty Lennox, Pollyanna Johns Kimbrough, LaToya Thomas.

Who's gone: Tricia Bader-Binford, Paige Sauer, Ann Wauters.

Analysis: The Rockers reloaded with the college draft's top pick (Thomas) and trades that brought them veterans Lennox and Kimbrough. Also back is Helen Darling, who sat out last season after having triplets. Cleveland, the 2001 regular-season East champion, should again be a playoff contender.

CONNECTICUT SUN (16-16)

Coach: Mike Thibault (0-0).

Who's new: Debbie Black, Courtney Coleman, Rebecca Lobo.

Who's gone: Davalyn Cunningham, Clarisse Machanguana, Tiffany McCain, Carla McGhee, Cintia Dos Santos.

Analysis: This team was in Orlando last season and missed the playoffs but should have been better than a .500 team anyway, with All-Star Nykesha Sales, Shannon Johnson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin. Former University of Connecticut players Sales and Lobo will give fans an immediate emotional connection, but the Sun will need more than emotion to compete in a conference that is more balanced and competitive.

DETROIT SHOCK (9-23)

Coach: Bill Laimbeer (9-13).

Who's new: Allison Curtin, Cheryl Ford, Kedra Holland-Corn, Tamara Moore, Ruth Riley, Petra Ujhelyi.

Who's gone: Edwina Brown, Dominique Canty, Jill Chapman, Begona Garcia, Lenae Williams.

Analysis: No team underwent a greater transformation than the Shock. Laimbeer, who took over 10 games into last season, has added quality around burgeoning star Swin Cash. Detroit will miss forward Astou Ndiaye-Diatta, who gave birth to triplets in April and is not expected to return until August.

INDIANA FEVER (16-16)Coach: Nell Fortner (26-38).

Who's new: Leigh Aziz, Corretta Brown, Kristen Rasmussen, Stephanie White, Natalie Williams.

Who's gone: Nadine Malcolm, Monica Maxwell, Jackie Moore, Tawana McDonald, Alicia Thompson.

Analysis: After making the playoffs for the first time, Fortner wants more. Trading for Williams gives the Fever another strong inside presence next to whirlwind Tamika Catchings, the 2002 rookie of the year and an All-WNBA first-team pick. Flashy guard Coquese Washington (recovering from knee surgery) will have a full season in the backcourt with Nikki McCray.

NEW YORK LIBERTY (18-14)

Coach: Richie Adubato (77-51).

Who's new: Elena Baranova, Kristen Brooke Sharp, Erin Thorn, Lindsay Yamasaki.

Who's gone: Camille Cooper, Korie Hlede, Bernadette Ngoyisa, Sue Wicks.

Analysis: After losing in the WNBA finals a fourth time, it was thought the Liberty roster would undergo a major shakeup. But veterans Teresa Weatherspoon, Vickie Johnson, Crystal Robinson and Tari Phillips are back for another try.

WASHINGTON MYSTICS (17-15)

Coach: Marianne Stanley (17-15).

Who's new: Tamara Bowie, Sonja Henning, Nakia Sanford, Aiysha Smith.

Who's gone: Vickie Bullett, Marin Walseth

Analysis: The run-and-gun Mystics looked like the best in the East until the league's leading scorer and rebounder, Chamique Holdsclaw, was injured. Washington staggered to the finish, losing nine of its last 11 regular-season games, but still reached the conference finals. A healthy Holdsclaw, a second year under Stanley and a dependable point guard in Henning have the Mystics thinking again of being the best in the East.

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WESTERN CONFERENCE

HOUSTON COMETS (24-8)

Coach: Van Chancellor (141-45).

Who's new: Octavia Blue, Dominique Cantry, Cynthia Cooper, Ukari Figgs, Mfon Udoka.

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