2019 WNBA season preview: Western Conference things to watch for

The 2019 WNBA regular season tips on Friday. Our second of three 2019 WNBA season preview pieces here on BBall Index will introduce one key issue to watch for with each Western Conference team, beginning with the team that came just moments away from a trip to the 2018 Finals.

Part one: Eastern Conference things to watch for

Dallas Wings

Arike

This pairing made a lot of sense going back to draft night. The Wings need another creator on the perimeter, have long struggled with backup point guard play and happen to have a fellow Notre Dame alum at the point that also thrives in transition.

Arike Ogunbowale will get ample opportunity to prove that she can shoulder a big offensive workload as the team starts the season without Skylar Diggins-Smith (maternity leave).

We’ll get an idea of where she’s at in terms of making plays for others when a WNBA defense has a chance to get set and lock in on her every move. We’ll probably see a good amount of isolations, too, because the Wings simply don’t have very many obvious solutions to turn to without Diggins-Smith on the floor.

And some may think this stuff is too mushy, but Ogunbowale carries an unshakable confidence. That matters for a franchise that was finally able to execute a Liz Cambage trade so that they can move on from the trade request that stems back to January.

Fans will be able to latch onto her personality and look ahead to the future with excitement. The Wings aren’t in a playoffs-or-bust situation in 2019. Now’s a good time to be open to some growing pains. Just be sure to keep League Pass nearby so you don’t miss it when Ogunbowale pieces together her first 15-point fourth quarter, goes off for 20 or more in back-to-back games or even adds another game-winner to her resume.

Las Vegas Aces

Stolen Sugar

The Aces probably didn’t know for certain that they’d later acquire Liz Cambage at the time of the Sugar Rodgers trade. But the trade for Rodgers only grew in importance once the Cambage deal was struck.

The Aces turned a late-round pick into a player that has played for Bill Laimbeer before and has made 40 or more 3-pointers in each of the last four seasons. Laimbeer could easily keep two Rodgers, Kelsey Plum and Kayla McBride on the floor to spread the floor around Cambage and A’ja Wilson.

Teams would have to cover more ground to double either big in the first place, and the decisions to leave somebody open on the perimeter will sting much more than they did last season.

Los Angeles Sparks

Backcourt battle: Known versus the unknown

Alana Beard is the reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt is one of the league’s more versatile wing defenders. Riquna Williams regained her confidence coming off an Achilles tear and emerged as a very valuable two-way starter last season.

Generally speaking, we know who those players are and what the Sparks can expect to get from them. Look further down the guard depth chart and one thing stands out: 3-point shooting.

Marina Mabrey, Alexis Jones and Sydney Wiese can light it up. But how many minutes will be there for them to begin with? How severe will the drop off be defensively from the first trio?

Jones would be the logical choice to get the first shot to produce in those minutes. The Sparks acquired her from the Minnesota Lynx in exchange for Odyssey Sims. Sims signed a three-year max offer sheet with Phoenix this offseason but the Sparks matched it.

The “didn’t lose her for nothing” argument will ring hollow if Jones never latches on in the rotation. If Beard, Williams and Ruffin-Pratt all stay healthy, though, Derek Fisher may struggle to find consistent minutes for any of the three younger guards.

Minnesota Lynx

Getting the glut of wings on the floor

The Lynx might have too many wings, a good problem for any team to have.

No. 6 overall pick Napheesa Collier and the newly signed Karima Christmas-Kelly appeared to be in line to split most of the time at the 3. Both could also slide up a position when Cheryl Reeve elects roll out some “smaller” lineups.

Cecilia Zandalasini is expected back at some point after competing in EuroBasket. She and Steph Talbot, who the team acquired this week in exchange for a 2020 second-round pick, are more straightforward 3-and-D types. All four players add value.

The readiness of Damiris Dantas and Jessica Shepard to contribute on both ends at the 4 spot will have a big say in determining the chunk of minutes available to the four wings. The rotation may just come down to matchups.

Reeve and the Lynx face a healthy kind of uncertainty. They don’t know what their best combinations and lineups are yet. But they’ve stocked up in a hurry with some fresh faces that each bring something different to the table. Even if they don’t push for the playoffs right now, they’ve added some pieces sure to carve out a role on the next great Lynx team.

Phoenix Mercury

Ripple effects of the rookie bigs

As you may know, we’ve been quite high on Alanna Smith in these parts. She somehow fell all the way to the Mercury at No. 8. The rest of the league did them a favor in allowing them to pair the two-way stretch four with All-WNBA center Brittney Griner for the foreseeable future.

Smith will probably underwhelm, if anything, with her per game stats this season. But that was never her game in the first place. And the Mercury have DeWanna Bonner and Sancho Lyttle returning at the 4. Smith’s presence, though, will help those two even more than it will for Griner.

Lyttle is working her way back from a torn ACL. The team was 14-5 before the injury last season, her first as the team’s starting power forward. The Mercury don’t need to rush her back to get quality minutes at the position.

Extended run for Smith could also spare Bonner and her slight frame some of the toll that comes from having to bang inside every night when she slides up to the 4 as she did full-time last season after Lyttle’s injury.

No. 11 overall pick Brianna Turner, who the Mercury acquired from the Atlanta Dream in exchange for 2018 first-round pick Marie Gulich, can also come to Griner’s rescue in a very straightforward manner: Defend well enough to ensure that Sandy Brondello can buy her star center at least eight minutes of rest every night without fear of completely cratering in those minutes.

Turner fits quite well with their style of play. She’s a rangy shot blocker with good feet, loves to rim run in transition and can make hay rolling to the rim with four shooters stationed around her. The only real concern at this stage is whether she can compete physically in enough matchups at 6-foot-3.

The growing pains may translate to a bit of a feast or famine experience. There will probably be plays Turner makes at the rim that surprise everybody. There will also be times when an opponent is able to get a shoulder into her chest and bury her all the way under the basket.

The Mercury clearly trust both rookies. They’re going to have to play them as Lyttle works her way back. Backup big Camille Little is also nursing an injury and may miss some time to start the season.

Seattle Storm

Natasha Howard breaks out…again? 

What will Breanna Stewart’s absence and Sue Bird’s knee surgery mean for one of 2018’s breakout players?

Howard fortified their defense in tandem with Stewart, challenging shots at the rim and covering ground to disrupt opponents away from the basket with her length and quick feet. Foul trouble has been a bit of a bugaboo in the past. Those times will be far less forgiving when it comes to the 2019 Storm’s playoff chances.

She reaped the benefits of a spread floor, cutting and rolling to the rim with four players stationed around the arc. The spacing alone won’t put as much fear in Seattle’s opponents when Stewart and Bird aren’t there to strike from deep. Howard may need to do more of that herself, especially if and when they rely more on lineups featuring a more traditional center.

Howard actually got a vote in this year’s GM survey as the player with the best post moves. She only used 47 possessions in the post last season per Synergy Sports, shooting 21-of-37.

Maybe the Storm tap into some of Howard’s back-to-basket game. On a related note, her face up game and ability to put it on the deck will be at a premium.

It’ll take a collective effort for the Storm to replace the production and the variety of ways their top two offensive threats were able to compromise and collapse defenses. Given the circumstances, Howard getting a chance to stretch her limits now could pay off down the line.

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