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In WNBA's 9th year, it's anybody's game

WashPost: Parity rules league, and there's lots of talent to go around
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

As the WNBA prepares to tip off its ninth season tomorrow, "parity" is the word that has been on the lips of many general managers and head coaches.

The league will add a 14th team next season when a franchise is started in Chicago and, according to several WNBA coaches, there is enough talent to fill all of those rosters without hurting the league's overall quality of play.

"I think what we're seeing is great parity in our game," said Sacramento Monarchs Coach John Whisenant. "Women's basketball is improving by leaps and bounds. . . . Just look at this year's draft. You didn't see some of the big stars we've seen in the past, but it was deep. There were good players all the way down."

Player movement, such as the blockbuster trade that sent Chamique Holdsclaw from the Washington Mystics to the Los Angeles Sparks in exchange for DeLisha Milton-Jones, and an influx of talented young players such as Washington guard Alana Beard, Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi and Seattle guard Sue Bird, has created a league that has very little separation between teams at the top of the standings and those at the bottom.

The competition promises to be especially tense in the Eastern Conference this season. The Connecticut Sun advanced to the finals last season after going 18-16 during the regular season. The last-place team in the East -- Indiana -- finished a respectable 15-19 and returns with one of the league's most exciting players in Tamika Catchings.

New Mystics coach Richie Adubato is coming off five seasons coaching the New York Liberty and has been putting his team through two-a-day practices to get it ready for tomorrow's season opener at Charlotte.

"The East has good teams from top to bottom," Adubato said. "There are no easy wins out there. The key is, you're going to have to protect your home court."

Connecticut's unexpected trip to the finals has created high expectations leading into this season. The Sun has a true star in forward Nykesha Sales and a budding star in point guard Lindsay Whalen. Connecticut's toughest competition could come from Detroit, which won the 2003 WNBA championship but finished a disappointing 17-17 last season and will be looking to rebound.

Coach Bill Laimbeer will guide a deep team that is built around the front court of Swin Cash, Cheryl Ford and Ruth Riley.

"Our team is very focused to get our championship back," Laimbeer said. "What happened last year is that we were just too young to realize how hard we had to play every night. Winning the championship the first time came so easy to us, and we were the youngest team in the league. We hadn't gone through the school of hard knocks and the mental toughness hasn't built up."

The Mystics (17-17 in 2004) were involved in the offseason's most intriguing transaction when they traded Holdsclaw -- who missed the last half of the season with an undisclosed medical condition that she later said was depression -- for Milton-Jones, who is coming off a serious knee injury.

The addition of Holdsclaw to a lineup that already includes 2004 league most valuable player Lisa Leslie, forward Mwadi Mabika, shooting guard Tamecka Dixon and point guard Nikki Teasley has many WNBA general managers and head coaches labeling the Sparks as preseason favorites in the West.

"Everywhere you look in that lineup you see an all-star," said Seattle Storm Coach Anne Donovan. "A lot of people are picking them to win it all and when I pop in a tape and watch them play, I can see why."

Los Angeles also has a new head coach in Mike Bibby, who replaces one of the most successful coaches in WNBA history, Michael Cooper. Cooper led the Sparks to a pair of WNBA titles during his five seasons as coach and to a 25-9 regular season record last year.

Los Angeles will be pushed in the West by defending champion Seattle. The Storm has one of the league's best tandems in Lauren Jackson and Bird, but Donovan must replace three key members of last season's team, including starters Kamila Vodichkova and Sheri Sam and key reserve Tully Bevilaqua.

"I went into the offseason thinking that we may lose one, maybe two players," Donovan said. "But I didn't expect that teams would go after our bench and offer starter's money."

The WNBA will also introduce a rule change that could open up the court and lead to more scoring. Referees will try to cut down on hand-checking and other contact made by defenders while guarding a dribbling player. The league has also changed the first-round playoff format from a best-of-three series to a best-of-five series.

"I like the change," Adubato said. "I think it's more of a true reward for that team that gets home-court advantage."