Storylines to watch as players, teams return home for new WNBA season

The last WNBA game played featured the Seattle Storm celebrating a championship in front of an empty stadium in Florida. When the 2021 season tips off on Friday, the league will look much different. Here's everything you need to know.

Prevalent player movement across league, but Seattle Storm remain favourites

Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart's Seattle Storm mostly remained on the sidelines amid a wave of big WNBA off-season moves. But the Storm are still championship favourites. (Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

The last WNBA game played featured the Seattle Storm celebrating a championship in front of an empty stadium in Florida.

When the 2021 season tips off on Friday, the league will look much different.

Candace Parker left Los Angeles to go home to Chicago. Washington is adding not one, but two, former MVPs to its lineup. Minnesota brought in three-time all-star Kayla McBride. Dallas piled a trio of top-five picks onto a roster already including budding star Arike Ogunbowale.

And yet it's still the Storm who possess the highest championship odds, with reigning MVP A'ja Wilson's Las Vegas Aces second and the Parker-less Sparks third.

It all adds up to what should be a fascinating season, with teams out of the "wubble" and set to play the season out of their home markets — and there's a four-week Olympic break mixed in, too.

Here's everything you should know for the season, starting with Friday's four-game slate:

If 2020 was about opt-outs, 2021 represents returns

Multiple players chose to skip the 2020 season, which was played entirely from the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Some cited COVID-19 and health reasons, while others chose to devote their time to the fight for equality in wake of the murder of George Floyd.

Some of those opt-outs won't be back — Minnesota's Maya Moore won't compete for the third straight season, while Atlanta's Renee Montgomery chose retirement.

Even still, the 2021 campaign will welcome back former MVPs Tina Charles and Elena Delle Donne to Washington, two-time all-star Chiney Ogwumike to Los Angeles and three-time all-star Liz Cambage to Las Vegas, just to name a few.

By the end of last season, almost every team was missing key pieces. Phoenix will get Brittney Griner, a six-time all-star who bowed out after just 12 games for personal reasons, back in the fold. 2020 top pick Sabrina Ionescu played three scintillating games for New York before suffering a season-ending injury.

The biggest return of all might be Parker's move to hometown Chicago after spending her entire 13-year career in Los Angeles. The 2008 MVP is still going strong, coming off a defensive player of the year award having led the Sparks to the third-best record last season.

But that's all without mentioning last season's champions. Superstar duo Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird led the Storm to championships the last two seasons both were healthy, with the exception of each missing the entire 2019 season.

WATCH | Storm take 2020 championship:

Storm sweep Aces to claim 2nd WNBA title in 3 seasons

2 years ago
Duration 1:17
Seattle Storm beats Las Vegas Aces 92-59 to sweep their WNBA Finals series in 3 games.

Stewart then went and won Euroleague Finals MVP with Russia's Ekaterinburg, got engaged to long-time girlfriend and fellow player Marta Xargay and just recently returned to Seattle. Not a bad year.

Finally, there's the return of teams to their home markets, and the return of fans to the stands for 32 games of action — two less than usual due to the Olympics, but 10 more than last season. No games are scheduled between July 15 and August 11 to allow players to compete in Tokyo.

Canadians could play key roles on contenders

Three Canadians will begin the season on rosters: Kia Nurse with the Mercury and Natalie Achonwa and Bridget Carleton with the Lynx.

Centre Kayla Alexander, who spent last season with the Lynx, remains a free agent. Sharpshooter Aislinn Konig failed to make a stacked Mystics roster out of training camp. Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe's rights are still held by the Liberty, but the centre won't play as she focuses on the national team.

Nurse finds herself in a completely different situation from last year. Traded from New York to Phoenix in the off-season, the 25-year-old moves from the youngest roster in the league to a team immediately ready to contend. That should help Nurse, who struggled to 31 per cent shooting as the top option with the Liberty.

She'll be asked to do less while playing alongside WNBA all-time leading scorer Diana Taurasi, four-time all-star Skylar Diggins-Smith and Griner.

Achonwa signed in Minnesota following six seasons with Indiana. The reliable big will likely come off the bench to provide a stabilizing interior force behind the likes of Sylvia Fowles, Napheesa Collier and Aerial Powers.

Carleton may have a harder time seeing the court due to the signing of McBride, but her versatility defending across guard and wing positions and plus-shooting mean she should get an opportunity after breaking through last season.

Can anyone challenge the U.S. at the Olympics?

Probably not. 

The Americans boast a 49-game winning streak that dates back to the 1992 Barcelona Games when they were stunned by the Soviet Union in the semifinals before bouncing back for bronze.

That means the U.S. has won six straight gold medals. In the group stage in Tokyo, the top competition for the Americans will be fifth-ranked France, who boasts Mercury guard Bria Hartley as its only WNBAer, to go along with a strong pipeline at home.

Belgium's Emma Meesseman may have a claim as the top non-American player in the world, having been part of the EuroLeague championship alongside Stewart.

Meesseman, a Mystics centre, won't play in the WNBA at least through the Olympic break due to overseas commitments.

At the 2019 FIBA AmeriCup, fourth-ranked Canada won silver after losing by 21 to the U.S. in the championship game. A well-oiled Canadian side, with Nurse firing on all cylinders, could pull off the upset.

No. 2 Australia and No. 3 Spain may also be able to give the Americans a run for their money.

The fight for social justice marches on

WNBA players have always been at the forefront of the fight for social justice, and together with the league began a social justice council last year. The group will focus on a range of issues from anti-Asian violence to LGBTQ+ rights and gun reform.

The 2020 season was dedicated to Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was shot to death by police in her Kentucky home.

Memorably, the players led an on-court protest featuring a moving statement read by Atlanta's Elizabeth Williams.

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert pledged that 2020 wouldn't be "one-and-done" for the league in the social justice arena. Regardless, you can bet on the players continuing their push for equality.

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