The 25th anniversary season of the WNBA will tip off Friday, with Breanna Stewart and the defending champion Seattle Storm favored to repeat and reloaded opponents like the Las Vegas Aces and Washington Mystics poised to make a change at the top.
After each team played a 22-game schedule in a bubble setting in Bradenton, Fla., due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the league returns with a 32-game schedule for each team played in home venues with limited attendance, at least at the outset.
There also will be a four-week break for the Tokyo Summer Olympics.
Stewart this week became the first WNBA starter in a decade to sign a signature shoe deal. Exploits to help her earn it included shooting almost 63 percent from the floor during October's WNBA Finals, leading Seattle to a sweep of Las Vegas and earning her Finals MVP.
Stewart will be flanked by future Hall of Famer Sue Bird and high-scoring guard Jewell Loyd, making Seattle an imposing favorite. Storm head coach Dan Hughes is back after he was not medically cleared to coach in 2020 following a bout with cancer.
The teams chasing down Seattle also will be packed with former All-Stars returning after opt-outs, including two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne (Mystics), Liz Cambage (Aces), Jonquel Jones (Connecticut Sun) and Chiney Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver (Los Angeles Sparks).
Aces forward A'ja Wilson earned MVP honors for the shortened 2020 season, when she averaged 20.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.0 blocks per contest and led Las Vegas to the finals against Seattle. The Aces are further fortified by the returns of Australian star Cambage and Kelsey Plum -- who missed 2020 with an Achilles tear -- and the free-agent signing of playmaking point guard Chelsea Gray.
"It's gonna be tough, and especially for us, we are gonna have that target on our back," Wilson said. "It's there, it's always been there, and like I said in the locker room yesterday, we're going to get everyone's A game. So why not show up with our A game, you know?"
Their title aspirations took a hit, though, when wing Angel McCoughtry tore her right ACL and meniscus in a preseason game this month. She was ruled out for the season, the second time in three years that a knee injury will cause her to miss a season. She did play one game in 2019.
The Mystics won the 2019 title and signed former league MVP Tina Charles in the following free agency period before the pandemic altered the 2020 season and Charles chose to sit out. Delle Donne, denied a medical opt-out by the league for her Lyme disease, took the season off anyway to recover from back surgery.
The 6-5 Delle Donne and 6-3 Charles finally get to team up in Washington's frontcourt, but Delle Donne is ramping up at a deliberate pace and will start the season on a minutes restriction.
"It's not a sprint. It's a marathon, and I need to be right for when we need it," Delle Donne said.
The most eye-catching move of the offseason may have been Candace Parker signing with the Chicago Sky after spending her entire WNBA career, including a championship and two MVP awards, with the Los Angeles Sparks.
The star forward, who hails from the suburbs of Chicago, will team up with a top-flight backcourt tandem of Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley and raise expectations for the franchise to deliver its first championship.
While the Sky look for their first, the Minnesota Lynx can already point to the makings of a dynasty with four titles in the past decade. Many key players from those days of greatness are gone, save for 35-year-old Sylvia Fowles and her career averages of 15.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.
Instead, Fowles said, the Lynx have not so much rebuilt as reloaded. They drafted the past two WNBA Rookies of the Year: Napheesa Collier (2019), a budding double-double machine, and Crystal Dangerfield (2020), who went from second-round pick to starting point guard in a matter of months.
"Yeah, it is go time, and I think we do have all the pieces that we need to get back to a place where we were in the past couple years, and that's competing for a championship," Fowles said.
The league will be replete with newcomers alongside those returning from opt-outs. The Dallas Wings used the first two overall picks in April's draft on Texas forward-center Charli Collier and Finnish forward Awak Kuier, who will suit up with 2020 second overall pick Satou Sabally.
Not all the fresh faces are technically rookies. Sabrina Ionescu, one of the biggest collegiate stars in years, saw her 2020 rookie season with the New York Liberty cut short by a grade 3 ankle sprain. The Liberty will seek to improve on a 2-20 season with Ionescu and fellow guard Asia Durr (opt-out) back in the fold. They also added Natasha Howard, a veteran with championship experience, in a trade.
For the Atlanta Dream, the 2021 season marks a fresh start in more ways than one. In February, former part-owner and U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler sold her stake in the team to a group of investors that included recently retired Dream guard Renee Montgomery. Loeffler had angered the players' union by criticizing the league's support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Mike Petersen will step in as interim head coach after longtime Dream coach Nicki Collen departed the team May 3 to coach the Baylor women's basketball program.
The WNBA remains at the forefront of social justice causes a year after dedicating the 2020 season to Breonna Taylor, the Black woman killed in her apartment by police in Louisville, Ky. The league's social justice council plans to continue promoting voting access, vaccine awareness and LGBT issues.
The Liberty will play host to the Indiana Fever in the season opener Friday at 7 p.m. ET, on NBA TV. Other opening-weekend games include the Phoenix Mercury at the Lynx on Friday at 9 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network and a rematch of last year's finals -- the Aces at the Storm -- Saturday at 3 p.m. ET on ABC.
Betting odds to win title via BetMGM as of May 12:
Seattle Storm 190
Las Vegas Aces 375
Washington Mystics 450
Los Angeles Sparks 700
Chicago Sky 900
Connecticut Sun 1000
Phoenix Mercury 1000
Minnesota Lynx 1100
Dallas Wings 8000
Atlanta Dream 10000
Indiana Fever 10000
New York Liberty 10000
--Field Level Media