NEW YORK (AP) — It’s been a busy offseason in the WNBA since the Minnesota Lynx won the championship last year, beating Los Angeles in another thrilling final.
Las Vegas gained a team while New York changed arenas. Dallas saw the return of a huge inside presence with Australian Liz Cambage coming back to the WNBA after a hiatus. A third of the league changed coaches while another strong rookie crop led by A’ja Wilson and Kelsey Mitchell entered the league last month.
“There’s so much excitement for our 22nd season,” WNBA President Lisa Borders told the AP. “So many stories to tell and so many great players to watch.”
The league begins play Friday night when Dallas visits Phoenix. All 12 teams will be in action on Sunday with the marquee game that day a WNBA Finals rematch between Los Angeles and Minnesota. The two teams have developed quite the rivalry over the past two seasons, having played for the title the last two years.
“Every game that we play, it feels like a championship game,” Minnesota star Maya Moore said. “That’s when you know; when you play teams, and you have that kind of feeling. You sense, ‘This is exactly what a rivalry feels like.'”
While the Lynx and Sparks are still the class of the league, earning the top two spots in the preseason AP WNBA power poll , there are many teams poised to knock them off.
“This summer is going to be intense, because the margin for error is so small,” Moore said. “It’s awesome. Don’t be fooled; it’s harder than it looks.”
Moore and Minnesota will try to end the league’s repeat drought and win a record fifth championship. No team has won consecutive titles in the WNBA since Los Angeles did it in 2001-02. The Lynx have had three chances over the past few years, falling short in their repeat quest each time. With the stellar core of Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, reigning MVP Sylvia Fowles and Rebekkah Brunson all back — albeit a year older — the Lynx could end that streak.
Here are a few key story lines for the upcoming season:
Viva Las Vegas: The San Antonio Stars relocated to Las Vegas in the winter, giving the Nevada city its second pro sports franchise. The team, which is owned by MGM Resorts, had the No. 1 draft pick and added Wilson giving them a solid young post player to compliment a strong guard group. New coach Bill Laimbeer hopes to build the franchise into a perennial contender.
Coaching changes: Laimbeer isn’t the only new coach on the sidelines this season. His protege Katie Smith took over the New York Liberty, marking her first year as a head coach after being an assistant for the past few seasons in New York. Dan Hughes is back on the bench after taking a year off. He’s in Seattle now. Atlanta hired Nicki Collen as the new coach after she spent a few years as an assistant in Connecticut.
Welcome back: Cambage was only 19 when the Tulsa Shock drafted her and she acknowledged that the Oklahoma city wasn’t the right fit.
“I wasn’t happy in Tulsa. I was 19 and looking for a team that was going to support me and help me grow,” said Cambage, who only played in 2011 and 2013 with Tulsa. “I don’t think that happened in Tulsa. I’m older now and more mature.”
When the franchise moved to Dallas a few years ago, the 6-foot-8 star began considering a comeback after her hiatus from the WNBA. A trip to the Texas city last May helped seal the deal.
“I’m so happy to be back and am ready to help this franchise take the next step,” she said.
Cambage isn’t the only player returning to the league this year. After sitting out last season to rest her body, Angel McCoughtry is back with Atlanta. The former All-Star will provide a lift on offense and defense. Phoenix also will see the return of DeWanna Bonner, who gave birth to twins last season.
Finding a new home: After an offseason of uncertainty for the Liberty where owner James Dolan announced his intentions to sell the team, New York remains owned by MSG — for now. The team will only play two games at Madison Square Garden, its home for most of the franchise’s first 21 years, with the rest being played in Westchester at a venue about a third of the size of the Garden.
New York hasn’t made it out of the second round of the playoffs the last two years, earning first-round byes each time before getting upset in their playoff opener.