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WNBA PREVIEW

Sparks early favorites to win third title

May 18, 2008|From the Associated Press

Look out, WNBA. Lisa Leslie is back, and now she has Candace Parker with her.

The two have helped Los Angeles garner most of the preseason buzz, and the Sparks are the overwhelming favorites to win their third WNBA championship as the league opens its 12th season.

Leslie, a perennial All-Star and three-time Olympic gold medalist, has returned after a one-year absence following the birth of her daughter last June. The Sparks were a league-worst 10-24 without her, won the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery and selected Parker -- a two-time All-American who led Tennessee to consecutive NCAA championships.

"I wasn't a part of the team last year," Leslie said. "I'm all about winning. I'm excited for us to pick up where I left off."

The Sparks won consecutive championships in 2001 and '02, and although they don't have any titles since then, they were 91-45 in the ensuing four seasons with Leslie -- reaching at least 24 wins three times.

"L.A. has the hype for a reason," Seattle Storm star Sue Bird said. "They have their all-time best player ever returning in Lisa Leslie. . . . You have one of the best players right now playing, even though she hasn't played in a WNBA game, in Candace Parker. You can really put in anyone around them and they're supposed to be amazing. They're expected to do well."

Los Angeles coach Michael Cooper has compared Parker's versatility to that of his former Lakers teammate Magic Johnson, and envisions the rookie being the key to the Sparks' new uptempo offense.

"We're going to really go full throttle because she's the one that can rebound and get our transition game going," Cooper said. "Our goal is to run our way to a championship."

The Sparks also reacquired two-time Olympian DeLisha Milton-Jones, who spent her first six seasons in Los Angeles and teamed with Leslie on the championship teams.

Los Angeles' biggest challenges in the West will come from defending champion Phoenix and veteran-laden Seattle.

The Mercury went 12-2 after the All-Star break, then swept Seattle and San Antonio in the playoffs before beating Detroit in five games to win their first championship.

Phoenix thrived under coach Paul Westhead's frenetic pace, averaging a league-best 89.0 points per game. Westhead, however, left to join the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics, replaced by assistant and protege Corey Gaines. Also, second-leading scorer Penny Taylor (17.8 ppg) is training with the Australian national team and won't rejoin the Mercury until the stretch run after the Olympics.

The Storm also have a new coach -- Brian Agler -- after Anne Donovan stepped down, and they improved their lineup by acquiring Swin Cash from Detroit and signing veterans Sheryl Swoopes and Yolanda Griffith to complement Bird and Lauren Jackson. Seattle can start a lineup full of past champions, including two with multiple titles -- Swoopes won four with Houston, Cash two with Detroit.

The Shock, who won titles in 2003 and '06, appear to be the favorites in the tighter Eastern Conference. All-Star game MVP Cheryl Ford and Deanna Nolan are the faces of the franchise now, along with veteran star Katie Smith.

"We want to win the East and get to the finals," Shock coach Bill Laimbeer said. "That's our goal every year, and we've done it twice in a row and three of the last five. We're certainly capable of doing it again."

Chicago had a nine-win improvement after setting the WNBA record with 29 losses in its inaugural season the year before. The Sky have a new coach again -- former assistant Steven Key -- their third head coach in three years. However, after adding 6-foot-6 center Sylvia Fowles with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, Chicago is poised to push for a playoff run.

"I think you have to watch every team," New York coach Pat Coyle said. "There's so much parity in this league now, everybody's gotten better. There aren't any cupcakes anymore, you can get beat every night."

The Liberty are also on the upswing two years after enduring the worst season in franchise history. New York bounced back last year, earned the East's fourth and final playoff berth and nearly beat Detroit in the first round.

"The expectation for this organization every year is to win a championship," Coyle said. "Who knows what is going to happen, but we want to be better than we were a year ago."

Indiana, another team with a new coach after former assistant Lin Dunn was promoted to replace Brian Winters, could also be tough. It will depend on the health of Tamika Catchings -- perennially the team's leader in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. Catchings is still recovering from an Achilles' tendon injury sustained in Game 3 of the conference finals against Detroit, and will miss the early part of the season.

Two-time All-Star and Indiana native Katie Douglas, who averaged 17.0 points and 4.6 rebounds last year for Connecticut, was acquired to bolster the Fever's offense, but will be the focal point at the start.

The league is back up to 14 teams with the expansion Atlanta Dream, the second new team in three years, joining the Eastern Conference one season after the Charlotte Sting folded.

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