NEW YORK — The WNBA will kick off its 26th season this weekend with several intriguing stories, including the possible retirement of Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles, the return of Becky Hammon as coach and the absence of Brittney Griner.
There is no bigger headline engulfing the league than Griner.
Mercury’s All-Star center remains in Russia after being detained following her arrival at a Moscow airport on February 17. Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges that allegedly contained cannabis-derived oil, which could carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Griner’s status has been changed to “wrongly detained” and she has a hearing scheduled for May 19.
But Griner’s presence will be felt even in his absence.
The league plans to honor Griner and keep his current status front and center with a floor decal that will display his initials along with his number 42.
It will appear on the home court of all 12 teams beginning with today’s season opener. The regular season ends on August 14.
The teams will play a record 36 games this year.
“The 36-game schedule will provide fans with increased opportunities to see the best players in the world compete at the highest level,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said when the schedule was announced in December.
Before Griner’s arrest, the Mercury made a lot of moves in the offseason to put the team in contention to win another championship after losing to Sky last season in the Finals.
Phoenix added Tina Charles and Diamond DeShields to the list to congratulate Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith.
DeShields joins Mercury from the Sky, who will attempt to become the first team to repeat as champions since the Los Angeles Sparks did so in 2001-02. The Sky added Emma Meesseman, the 2019 WNBA Finals MVP, to their roster.
Then there’s the impending retirement of All-Stars Bird and Fowles.
Bird, the league’s all-time assists leader, has said all signs point to this year being her last with the Seattle Storm, but she doesn’t want next season to be a farewell tour.
Fowles has stated that he will retire after this season. The WNBA’s all-time rebounding leader said it was a tough decision whether she would return for a 15th season or not.
With Fowles and Bird out the door, the league welcomes Hammon back this season.
Hammon took over as coach of the Las Vegas Aces, replacing Bill Laimbeer, after serving as an NBA assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs since 2014. She is one of six former players who are now head coaches in the league. .
Some other stories to follow this season:
No team went through more injury problems the past two seasons than the Washington Mystics. Coach Mike Thibault hopes his team has finally put all that bad luck in the rearview mirror and hopes to have Elena Delle Donne and Alysha Clark in the lineup.
Delle Donne has only played in three games in the last two seasons due to COVID-19 concerns and back problems.
The former league MVP was on the court full-time in 2019 when the Mystics won their first championship.
Clark missed last season, which would have been his first in Washington, because of a Lisfranc injury to his right foot.
Indiana used four first-round draft picks to try to rebuild its roster, taking NaLyssa Smith (second), Emily Engster (fourth), Lexie Hull (sixth) and Queen Egbo (10th). The Fever also selected Destanni Henderson (20th). Draft picks haven’t worked out so well for Indiana in recent years, as the Fever drafted Lauren Cox third overall in 2020 and was eliminated last season.
Last year, Indiana took Kysre Gondrezick fourth. She is no longer with the franchise either.
The Commissioner’s Cup is back:
The league is bringing back the Commissioner’s Cup for the second year. The seasonal tournament was won by Seattle last year.
The Storm defeated the Connecticut Sun in the championship game, which was played in Phoenix. There are 10 designated “cup games” per team: the first home game and the first away game each team plays against its five conference rivals.