WNBA Eastern Conference Preview: Liberty ascend to contender status
The New York Liberty stole headlines during the WNBA off-season, acquiring the superstar trio of Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot as the franchise, one of the WNBA’s original clubs, still searches for its first championship.
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While the Liberty have separated themselves with the amount of star power, don’t count out the Washington Mystics, who have a deep roster led by Elena Delle Donne, who declares herself fully healthy after years of injuries.
The Eastern Conference is full of teams who have something to prove, from the squads looking to fulfill their championship potential to the ones looking to take the next step forward.
2022 season: 26-10 (playoffs)
The Sky had an off-season where they saw several key pieces of their core that won the 2021 WNBA championship move on.
Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot and Azura Stevens all departed during free agency and Allie Quigley decided to take the year off from playing basketball.
Chicago stepped up to make a massive trade for guard Marina Mabrey in what was a four-team transaction also involving the Liberty, Phoenix Mercury and Dallas Wings as Chicago dealt away two first-round picks. She is coming off career highs in points (13.6) and assists (3.7).
In free agency, they added Courtney Williams, who averaged 11.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 2022 with Connecticut.
Kahleah Copper continues to be the star in Chicago as her career has taken off big time since 2020. She won finals MVP when the Sky captured the 2021 championship and found new heights last season with career highs in points (15.7), rebounds (5.7) and assists (2.3).
2022 season: 25-11 (playoffs)
After making the WNBA finals last season, the Sun had a busy off-season full of changes.
Behind the bench, Curt Miller moved on to the Sparks and the Sun brought in Stephanie White, who has previously coached with the Indiana Fever and Chicago Sky as well as in the NCAA.
On the court, the Sun dealt Jones to the Liberty after she requested a trade. However, the core of DeWanna Bonner, Alyssa Thomas and Brionna Jones all return.
In free agency, they picked up Tiffany Hayes, who had spent her entire career with the Atlanta Dream. In 2022, she averaged 16.2 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists.
Shatori Walker-Kimbrough Natasha Cloud Elena Delle Donne Washington Mystics
2022 season: 22-14 (playoffs)
Injuries have largely kept the Washington Mystics from competing for another title after winning it all in 2019 but if they remain healthy, the Mystics have a shot at going far.
Back problems have affected Delle Donne the last several years. She played in 25 games last season after appearing in just three in 2021, averaging 17.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists. Delle Donne says she is stronger and healthier than ever before after a full, healthy off-season. A two-time WNBA MVP winner, a healthy Delle Donne places the Mystics as a team that could cause a lot of damage.
Natasha Cloud, one of the best playmakers in the WNBA, is back for her eighth season, after a career season where she averaged 10.7 points, 3.6 rebounds and 7.0 assists.
Shakira Austin has the potential to take a step forward as a sophomore. Austin, the 2022 third overall pick, made the WNBA’s All-Rookie team last season after averaging 8.7 points and 6.4 rebounds.
In the off-season, the Mystics added a trio of veterans in Brittney Sykes, Kristi Toliver and Amanda Zahui B.
New York Liberty
2022 season: 16-20 (playoffs)
The Liberty owned the off-season, as they transformed their team from up and comer to one expected to be in the finals.
In a free agency decision that changed the entire power balance in the WNBA, Stewart left the Seattle Storm as the Syracuse, N.Y., product chose her home state. A two-time WNBA champion and Finals MVP winner as well as league MVP in 2018, Stewart instantly transforms the Liberty into a contender.
Jonquel Jones, 2021 WNBA MVP winner, was acquired via trade while long-time Sky point guard Courtney Vandersloot joined as a free agent.
The star trio joins a Liberty core consisting of 2020 No. 1 overall pick Sabrina Ionescu, who averaged 17.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 6.3 assists last season, and All-Star Betnijah Laney.
The challenge for the Liberty and head coach Sandy Brondello is how to make sure all the pieces fit together with this core all used to being the No. 1 option.
Laeticia Amihere Atlanta Dream
2022 season: 14-22 (missed playoffs)
The Dream feel like a team that’s not far from breaking out after rebuilding for the past few seasons.
Rhyne Howard, the 2022 first overall pick, had a strong rookie season for Atlanta, averaging 16.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists en route to winning rookie of the year. She earned rookie-of-the-month honours every month from May through August.
2021 third overall pick Aari McDonald took a step forward last season, playing in 36 games while averaging 11.1 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists.
At the draft, the Dream selected Canadian Laeticia Amihere from South Carolina after a strong senior season (7.1 points and 3.4 rebounds) had her rising up draft boards.
Atlanta made an under-the-radar trade during the off-season, getting guard Allisha Gray from the Dallas Wings. She is coming off a career season where she averaged 13.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists.
2022 season: 5-31 (missed playoffs)
The Fever have carved out a clear message of what kind of team they want to be as general manager Lin Dunn has targeted players who are tough to play against with an emphasis on the defensive side of the ball.
That identity is personified in 2023 first overall pick Aliyah Boston, who wrapped up a successful four-year NCAA career playing under Dawn Staley at South Carolina. A national champion in 2022, she won tournament MOP and the Naismith College Player of the Year and was a unanimous First-Team All-American three times.
Boston is expected to step right in and contribute right away alongside fellow youngsters NaLyssa Smith, Lexie Hull and Queen Egbo.
Kelsey Mitchell is going into her sixth WNBA season and coming off a career year averaging 18.4 points per game. Veteran guard Erica Wheeler was brought in after averaging 8.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists last season in Atlanta, bringing another element of leadership to a young team still finding its way.