Temperature Rising

Originally published in SLAM 169

by Clay Kallam / @ClayKallam

You couldn’t avoid ESPN’s “3 to See” campaign no matter how hard you tried, and now the trio of rookies—Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins—are in the WNBA, which means we’ll get even more hype, especially since the network just signed a long-term deal with the league. Brittney Griner

So where do the talking heads go from here? Consider the possibilities…The GOAT (?): If Griner stays healthy, very likely yes. If her offense continues to improve, she’ll be one of those once-in-a-generation players who can control a game at both ends of the floor. The Blonde Bomber: If you like tall attractive women who can shoot like Stephen Curry, then Elena Delle Donne’s for you. But you better be 6-5, and you better not play her in HORSE, because she simply does not miss. Glamorous and Gritty: Skylar Diggins has got the look—and even if Weezy doesn’t get the Prince reference, it won’t take long for anyone who sees her to understand. But Diggins has more than glamour; she’s a get-it-done player who defends and rises to the occasion in the clutch.

Western Conference

1. Minnesota (27-7, first): Many are already conceding the West to Phoenix, but Griner is a rookie, and the Lynx are a rare combination of youth and experience—plus pure talent. Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore, Rebekkah Brunson and friends aren’t just going to roll over because the Mercury picked up a dunker.

2. Phoenix (7-27, sixth): Tank, schmank … the Mercury “rested” a lot of “injured” stars last year and wound up winning the Griner sweepstakes. They now have her, Candice Dupree, Penny Taylor and Diana Taurasi, but the key is how good second-year point guard Sammy Prahalis will be. And there are legitimate questions about how much the 32-year-old Taylor has left after a career hampered by injuries.

3. Los Angeles (24-10, second): Free-agent signee Lindsey Harding filled the biggest void for the Sparks, and with Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver, the lack of a true center seems incidental. The Sparks would coast to first in the East but they’re a half-step behind the top two in what could be the strongest conference the league has ever seen.

4. San Antonio (21-13, third): Dan Hughes is a superb coach, and even without Sophia Young, he’ll get the Silver Stars into the postseason—for whatever that first-round playoff pasting will be worth. After all, even Becky Hammon has to give in to advancing age at some point.

5. Tulsa (9-25, fifth): Six-eight Australian Liz Cambage bailed on Tulsa, backing out of her WNBA commitment at the last minute—and leaving the Shock with a nice backcourt (Diggins and Candice Wiggins) but no size up front. [Update: Cambage changed her mind and will play this season.—Ed.] Young forward Glory Johnson is good, but not enough.

6. Seattle (16-18, fourth): No Sue Bird. No Lauren Jackson. Not many wins.

Eastern Conference

1. New York (15-19, fourth): Bill Laimbeer is back, and he’s got Cappie Pondexter to go along with a lot of veteran firepower. The Liberty aren’t great, but neither is the rest of the East, and if Kara Braxton and the rookie posts pound the boards, New York’s toughness will be the difference.

2. Chicago (14-20, fifth): A healthy Epiphanny Prince, the outside game of Delle Donne and Sylvia Fowles in the paint  is a deadly offensive combination. Point guard Courtney Vandersloot, though, has to take a great leap forward for the Sky to jump past New York.

3. Indiana (22-12, second): The Fever have plenty of pieces, but the pieces are getting a little frayed at the edges. Katie Douglas and Finals’ MVP Tamika Catchings will both turn 34 this season, though if they each play 30 games and Erlana Larkins builds on her 2012 breakout season, Indiana could win the East.

4. Atlanta (19-15, third): Everyone’s back from a scary group—except point guard Lindsey Harding. In her place is Jasmine Thomas, who was the lead guard for 5-29 Washington last summer. The erratic, entertaining and vastly talented Angel McCoughtry will once again take center stage, but will new coach Fred Lewis be able to keep her act from disrupting the team?

5. Connecticut (25-9, first): It’s subtraction by addition, as Anne Donovan, a consistently mediocre coach, takes over for Mike Thibault, and it’s subtraction by subtraction with Ashja Jones taking the summer off. MVP Tina Charles, Kara Lawson and Renee Montgomery, in that order, are quality players, but the dropoff is steep after that, and there’s no reason to believe Donovan will have the answers.

6. Washington (5-29, sixth): Thibault moves over from  Connecticut, and though the roster is pretty bare, he’ll get a lot more out of this mismatched collection than Trudi Lacey ever did. Even “a lot more,” however, might not mean much more than 10 wins as Crystal Langhorne is pretty much all alone.