Storm-Sparks Preview

The Associated Press

After falling in the Western Conference finals last year, the Los Angeles Sparks appear ready to contend for the WNBA title.

The Seattle Storm, meanwhile, could be in for tough times without two of their top players.

Both teams open their schedules Sunday night as Los Angeles hosts Seattle.

Candace Parker, still chasing a WNBA championship to add to her two Olympic gold medals and two NCAA championships at Tennessee, thought the Sparks had the makings of a title team last year. But they came up short, getting swept in the conference finals by Minnesota.

"This year, I hope we hit the ground running," said Parker, who won a title with her Russian pro team during the offseason. "We haven't changed too much. We're going to continue to base it on defense and running."

Last season, the Sparks finished 24-10, including a 16-1 mark at Staples Center, under first-year coach Carol Ross. She was named the league's coach of the year and Nneka Ogwumike won rookie of the year honors. Kristi Toliver, the league's most improved player, re-signed during the offseason. The Sparks added former All-Star guard Lindsey Harding, who played with Atlanta the last two seasons.

The win total was the team's highest since going 25-9 in 2006. Ross guided them to the conference finals for the first time since 2009, but the franchise hasn't been to the WNBA finals since winning consecutive titles in 2001 and '02 - the last time a team won back-to-back championships.

"We got our heart broken last year. It stings and stays with you," Ross said. "I would like to think we are extremely motivated. Candace is always very focused and driven. Championships are something that all these players want."

Like Parker, Ogwumike won a title with her offseason team in Poland and she was part of a perennial contender at Stanford.

"I worked more on my outside game and improved on my inside game," she said. "Last year, we came so close after throwing it together. Now we got Lindsey and that's going to make a huge difference."

The Storm got used to star center Lauren Jackson being absent because of injuries and commitments with the Australian national team.

Now, they'll have to adjust to playing without Jackson and floor leader Sue Bird.

Both will miss the entire season while recovering from major surgeries. Jackson is rehabbing her hamstring, and Bird recently had knee surgery.

The rest of the team will have to step up without two stalwarts who led Seattle to two WNBA championships during their careers. Those veterans include Tina Thompson, Tanisha Wright and Camille Little.

"I definitely think it's going to take some time," Thompson said. "The personality of our team is going to be very blue collar. We're going to be a very hard-working team. Defense is definitely going to be a staple and personality of this team."

It also provides opportunities for younger players, including Seattle's first-round pick Tianna Hawkins of Maryland and second-year player Shekinna Stricklen.

The first month of the season will be a crash course in jelling the veterans, free-agent signings and younger players. Seattle's offseason additions included guards Noelle Quinn and Temeka Johnson, and forward Nakia Sanford.

"The general public sort of sees us being is a non-factor. But I beg to differ," Seattle coach Brian Agler said. "I'm excited about this season. There are a lot of things about it that are going to be challenging, but we welcome challenges here."