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Five WNBA storylines that will define the 2021 season

Sparks forward and WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike (Douglas P. DeFelice / Getty Images)

The 25th WNBA season is just days away from tipoff.

We’ve delivered our preseason power rankings and our season predictions are on the way. As the action begins this weekend, we’ll also be tracking some on- and off-court WNBA storylines through the summer.

Here are our top five.

1. New-look Storm

It’s hard not to like the Storm’s chances of defending their WNBA title when they return their core of Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd. But it’s also not often a championship team undergoes as much turnover as the Storm did this past offseason, losing two of their best defensive players in the process.

On Feb. 1, Alysha Clark chose to leave in free agency and sign with the Washington Mystics. On Feb. 8, the Storm signed veteran forward and seven-time All-Star Candice Dupree. Two days later, the Storm dealt Natasha Howard, Sami Whitcomb and a couple of draft picks while acquiring Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, Katie Lou Samuelson and Stephanie Talbot in a series of trades.

Clark, Seattle’s anchor on defense, and Howard, the 2019 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, were integral to Seattle’s team identity and championship runs in 2018 and 2020.

In their place are Talbot, a 26-year-old journeywoman, and Herbert Harrigan and Samuelson, two promising but unproven players at the WNBA level. Dupree, while a seven-time All-Star, isn’t known for her defense at this stage of her career.

The Storm were setting themselves up for the future with their offseason moves. Herbert Harrigan and Samuelson are in their early 20s and under contract for at least the next two seasons. But with Bird, Stewart and Loyd entering unrestricted free agency after this season, there’s more urgency behind their title defense.

Can Seattle meet the challenge? We think so, but the rest of the league is anxious to find out.

2. The start of another Lynx dynasty?

The Lynx have just one holdover from their 2017 championship team, the last of four titles in a seven-year span. That is center Sylvia Fowles, who won two championships and two Finals MVPs with the Lynx and became the WNBA’s all-time leading rebounder last season.

It would be natural for the Lynx to toil through a rebuild after having all that success in one decade and losing many of the top players from those teams. But coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve has reloaded quickly through the draft and made shrewd moves in free agency. She also has two former Lynx champions on her coaching staff in Rebekkah Brunson and Plenette Pierson.

Natalie Achonwa, who signed with the Lynx in free agency after six seasons in Indiana, got a feel for the championship culture from her first sitdown meeting with Reeve. She took in all the championship memorabilia in Reeve’s office and absorbed the coach’s basketball knowledge.

“When you have a mind like that, there’s no such thing as a rebuild,” Achonwa said of Reeve during Lynx media day.

“Yeah, you lost the legacy of these great players and the careers they had, but you have to see who’s coming in, too. Coach Reeve is bringing in players that have a similar mindset, a similar approach, a similar sacrifice for the team. She’s built a culture here. It’s not about the individual, it’s the Lynx organization, the team that she’s built.”

Aerial Powers won a championship with the Mystics in 2019, so she knows the level of buy-in and sacrifice that’s required. In her first training camp with Minnesota after signing as a free agent, she’s seeing those lessons being ingrained quickly.

“Not only is the culture holding you accountable, but your teammates are holding you accountable,” Powers said. “If someone sees something, they say it, but the other person really listens. That’s what I’ve picked up in the last few days.”

The Lynx are chasing a title this year. And between Napheesa Collier, Crystal Dangerfield, Bridget Carleton, Jessica Shepard and Rennia Davis, they have the young talent to contend for years to come.

3. Off-the-court work is just beginning

2020 was a landmark year for the WNBA in its social justice efforts, building on the activism that has been a part of the league’s identity from the very beginning.

Players formed a Social Justice Council that brought athletes and community leaders together to talk about ways they could organize around issues of inequality and racism. They painted “Black Lives Matter” on the courts and wore Breonna Taylor’s name on the backs of their jerseys. They spoke out against former Atlanta Dream co-owner and U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler after she denounced their promotion of BLM, supporting her opponent Rev. Raphael Warnock, the eventual winner of the Georgia election.

“We took matters into our own hands with every challenge that was thrown at us and every endeavor that we wanted to involve ourselves in,” said Nneka Ogwumike, Los Angeles Sparks forward and president of the WNBA Players Association. “Quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to do it with any other group of women because I really do feel like we’re pushing the dial in society, in the world, in our communities in a way that will show that we’re on the right side of history.”

With teams back in their home markets this season, the players intend to take the learnings and momentum from 2020 into their communities.

The top priorities this season, according to the WNBPA, are as follows:

  • Racial justice and voting rights
  • LGBTQ+ advocacy, with a focus on anti-transgender legislation
  • Public health, with a focus on vaccine confidence, cancer awareness and research, mental health and maternal health
  • More “Bet On Women” initiatives, including merchandise collaborations with BreakingT

4. Who will shine the brightest in their debut?

The WNBA’s CBA in 2020 increased the salary cap and gave teams the leverage to recruit top talent with bigger contracts in free agency. So, it’s no surprise that we’ve seen more player movement in the past two offseasons than ever before, shaking up the league for its 25th season.

Star players making their debuts in new markets this season include Candace Parker in Chicago, Tina Charles in Washington, D.C., Natasha Howard in New York, Chelsea Gray in Las Vegas, Kayla McBride in Minnesota, Kia Nurse in Phoenix and Erica Wheeler in Los Angeles.

With fewer preseason games this year, and players like McBride still making their way back from their overseas seasons, it may take longer for them to adjust to their new teams. In a shortened 32-game season, building chemistry will be critical.

Parker won’t have very long to get acclimated before meeting her former team. The Sky welcome the Sparks to Wintrust Arena for a two-game set on May 28 and 30 before traveling to Los Angeles for a June 5 matchup.

5. WNBA expansion

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert stirred excitement among WNBA fans last month when she said expansion is something “we’re prepared to start talking about” on the condition of a “very successful season.”

Talk of expansion has gotten louder as the WNBA has become more competitive. There are only 144 roster spots in the league, and with star players able to earn more money under the current CBA, some teams will carry only 11 players (as opposed to the usual 12) to meet salary cap requirements. Simply put, as more talent enters the league from the college and international ranks, more WNBA-caliber players are getting cut, and that’s a problem.

Even those within the WNBA have different views on the best approach to adding more teams.

“We’re always in a rush to get more,” said Sparks coach Derek Fisher. “I think the best thing to do for the league to expand in a healthy way is for all of us to continue to work our tails off to make the 12 teams we have now the best operating teams in sports. … The league should and will expand, ultimately, but we can’t wait for that to continue to strive to be great.”

Said Reeve: “We have this strange notion that we treat women’s sports differently than men’s sports. In men’s sports, the narrative isn’t that you have to have 30 financially healthy teams or quality teams before you expand. In women’s sports, the narrative is we have to have 12 healthy teams before we’ll do anything. That makes no sense. … The more teams in the league, the healthier the league becomes overall. The business gets better with expansion, with revenue opportunities.”

However quickly Engelbert decides to address it, the calls for new markets and more roster spots are not going away.