Arts & Entertainment

Sparks will try to defend title as WNBA kicks off 21st season

Guard Alana Beard of the Los Angeles Sparks keeps the ball from guard Jia Perkins of the Minnesota Lynx enroute to a 92-75 Sparks win in game three of the 2016 WNBA Finals.
Guard Alana Beard of the Los Angeles Sparks keeps the ball from guard Jia Perkins of the Minnesota Lynx enroute to a 92-75 Sparks win in game three of the 2016 WNBA Finals.
Harry How/Getty Images

It's been seven months since the WNBA Finals ended in thrilling fashion with the Los Angeles Sparks edging the Minnesota Lynx in a decisive fifth game.

Now the league is set to begin its 21st season Saturday when San Antonio visits New York in the opener of a three-game slate.

The defending champion Sparks face Seattle on Saturday at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN, but they will be without Finals MVP Candace Parker, Jantel Lavender and Essence Carson. The trio is still playing overseas in the Turkish League final. That caused the team to move its ring ceremony back a week so that they could all take part in it.

Los Angeles didn't stand pat in the offseason, trading for Odyssey Sims after the team lost guard Kristi Toliver to free agency. It was quite the active winter for the league with a flurry of deals, including the blockbuster that sent former MVP Elena Delle Donne to the Washington Mystics. She'll make her debut on Sunday when the Mystics face the Stars.

There was also the retirement of longtime stars Tamika Catchings, Penny Taylor and Swin Cash. All three now have front office positions with their former teams.

Here are a few key story lines for the upcoming season:

TITLE DEFENSE: No team has won consecutive titles in the WNBA since Los Angeles did it in 2001-02. Sparks coach Brian Agler knows firsthand how difficult it is to repeat as champion, trying to do it in Seattle a few years ago.

"I don't like the approach of defending," he said. "This season our roster's completely different, our schedule's different, our competition's different. You just try to stay in the moment, get better each day, get ready for your next opponent. You try to position yourself as well as you can throughout the season, until the conclusions."

Agler won't have his entire team together until probably the end of May.

HUNGRY LYNX: Minnesota came within 4 seconds of winning its fourth title in six seasons. Instead, the Lynx were left wondering what happened. Nneka Ogwumike's falling fadeaway, off the rebound of her blocked shot, won it for the Sparks.

The team's core of Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Sylvia Fowles and Seimone Augustus are back, albeit a year older. Moore, Whalen and Augustus didn't play this winter overseas, giving their bodies a chance to rest.

"They have the hunger and they have the passion," Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said. "That's a really, really dangerous set of ingredients to have all that, and to have that fire still burn so bright inside of them. That's what makes our group special."

COACHING CHANGES: Three teams will have different leaders on the sidelines this season. Pokey Chatman will coach Indiana after Stephanie White departed for Vanderbilt. Chatman was replaced in Chicago by Amber Stocks. Vickie Johnson replaced Dan Hughes in San Antonio when he retired at the end of last season.

SITTING OUT: The Atlanta Dream will be missing All-Star Angel McCoughtry as she's decided to sit out this season to rest her body. The Dream will need Tiffany Hayes, Elizabeth Williams and Layshia Clarendon to pick up the slack on offense. McCoughtry isn't the only one missing this year. The Mercury will be without DeWanna Bonner, who is pregnant. New York guard Shoni Schimmel is missing the year to deal with personal issues.

NEW HORIZONS: The WNBA made a couple of key deals in the last few weeks partnering with Twitter to stream 20 games a season and FanDuel to offer daily fantasy sports. Both are potential ways to bring in many new fans.

RECORD BREAKER: Diana Taurasi is just 178 points short of breaking Tina Thompson's all-time scoring record. With only Brittney Griner back from last year's team, Taurasi might need to score a lot to keep the Phoenix Mercury competitive.