(Reuters) – The Chicago Sky are aiming for even loftier heights in their title defense as the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) kicks off a new season on Friday.
The Sky snared 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman in February after picking up their maiden title, putting them in an ideal position to become the first franchise to go back-to-back since the Los Angeles Sparks two decades ago.
“(Chicago) now have three Finals MVPs that they could put on the floor in a starting lineup,” ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said in preseason remarks released Wednesday. “I don’t know that we’ve ever seen that in the league before.”
But league veteran Candace Parker said she’s taking nothing for granted, with first-hand knowledge of exactly how difficult a title defense can be.
She clinched the championship with the Sparks in 2016 but came up short against the Minnesota Lynx the next year in the best-of-five championship series.
Now, Parker is leaning on the wisdom of coaching legend Pat Riley, who famously cautioned against “the disease of more.”
“When you have success, everyone comes back wanting more individually and not wanting to sacrifice and not wanting to do the things that you did previously to win a championship,” the twice league MVP told reporters this week.
“And I think that’s kind of the barrier that we’re going to have to talk about and have to overcome.”
Their Finals opponent Phoenix Mercury will be out for revenge after signing the league’s leading scorer, center Tina Charles, and with 39-year-old Dina Taurasi eager to pick up another title before she calls time on one of the WNBA’s most decorated careers.
The team will be without seven-time All-Star Brittney Griner, whom Russia said it detained in February for possession of vape cartridges containing hash oil. The U.S. State Department said it determined that Russia wrongfully detained her.
The league will have her initials and jersey number 42 stenciled onto the courts of all 12 teams this season in her honor.
“We are keeping Brittney at the forefront of what we do,” Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement.
The start of the new season has prompted fresh calls for expansion and greater flexibility in the salary cap, after the Lynx parted ways with 2020 Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield and the Las Vegas Aces waived this year’s eighth overall pick Mya Hollingshed.
“I hate seeing so many great players being cut from WNBA teams. Salaries went up, but a very restrictive hard cap has put teams in a bind,” the Seattle Storm’s twice Finals MVP Breanna Stewart said on Twitter. “We’re at a tipping point.”
ESPN analyst and former All-Star Rebecca Lobo said the pattern reflects the “incredible” product the league is putting on the court in its 26th season.
“If you want to understand how good the players are in the WNBA, look at the waiver wire,” said Lobo. “It’s incredible the level of talent that’s not on teams.”
(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Editing by Michael Perry)