The 2017 WNBA season tips off on Saturday afternoon, when the San Antonio Stars travel to Madison Square Garden to take on the New York Liberty.
The 21st season of the league does not lack storylines. There's the off-season move of Elena Delle Donne to Washington, giving the Mystics a lineup featuring three of the league's top four three-point shooters from last season. There's top overall pick Kelsey Plum, now in San Antonio and part of an ambitious experiment in going small. There's the young, deep lineup in support of Tina Charles in New York, where the Liberty are still chasing the franchise's first-ever WNBA title, and Breanna Stewart's otherworldly talent and continued development in Seattle.
But the conversation about the 2017 WNBA season starts with 2016's two super teams.
Last year, both the Minnesota Lynx and the Los Angeles Sparks started the season 11-0 before meeting in a pair of late-June games, which they split. Both teams far outpaced the rest of the league: Minnesota ended the season 28-6, just ahead of Los Angeles' 26-8. After each earned a double bye in the league's new playoff system, the Lynx and the Sparks played the best WNBA finals anyone can remember, with Nneka Ogwumike scoring in the last three seconds of Game 5 to give the Sparks the title, 77-76.
Most believe this season will also come down to either the Sparks or the Lynx, who won the 2015 WNBA crown (and 2013, and 2011).
With the exception of sharpshooting guard Kristi Toliver, a free-agent defection to Washington, Los Angeles has virtually everybody back, including Ogwumike, just off the most efficient shooting season in the history of the league; the versatile and brilliant Candace Parker; and defensive stopper Alana Beard. They've also added Odyssey Sims in a trade with Dallas and Sydney Wiese with their first-round draft pick, a pair of perimeter players who should help patch the Toliver hole.
As for the Lynx, Maya Moore, who turns 28 in June, already ranks sixteenth all-time in win shares, and rested this past off-season so she'd be even fresher for the WNBA season. Sylvia Fowles, the team's center, finished in the top five in the league in both offensive and defensive win shares. Other Olympians like Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen fill out the starting lineup, and coach Cheryl Reeve has additional depth on her roster, including a useful backup for the aging Whalen in Alexis Jones, the team's first-round pick out of Baylor.
In its infinite wisdom, the WNBA chose not to schedule the rematches of these two teams on opening night, or close to the playoffs as a teaser. Instead, the Lynx and the Sparks will meet again on July 6, a Thursday night, and August 11, a Friday. Both matchups are marquee events, and barring something truly unexpected, expect five more of them come WNBA Finals time.