Challengers eye the throne as 2018 WNBA season tips off
Hannah Foslien / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Thirty-four games. That's it.

That's how long the WNBA regular season runs for, from Friday's season opener, where Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner's Phoenix Mercury hope to hold off Skylar Diggins-Smith and the Dallas Wings, until August 21 when the postseason tips off.

"It's funny," Seattle Storm veteran Sue Bird told theScore during the preseason. "You can blink and five games have gone by."

With the FIBA Basketball World Cup taking place this year in Spain in September, the 2018 WNBA season is even more compressed than usual, leaving no room for slow starts for the 11 teams looking to knock the reigning champion Minnesota Lynx off their throne.

Washington Mystics superstar Elena Delle Donne concurs, telling theScore: "If you get hot at certain times throughout the season, teams can get into that playoff run. It's different and it's quick. We have to be ready for game one because if you fall off at any point, you could fall off too far."

The strong start is crucial for rising teams like the Mercury, Wings, Storm, and Mystics. To truly be the best, after all, they must eventually conquer juggernauts like the Lynx and runner-up Los Angeles Sparks; Neither powerhouse appears to have suffered major attrition since the end of last season.

The term "offseason" doesn't really exist in WNBA parlance, as most players supplant their North American salaries with lucrative jobs in Europe during the appropriately coined "overseas season." That grueling, year-round commitment leaves little time for banged-up bodies to recuperate, making the Lynx's dominance over the past seven years all the more impressive. Minnesota has made the WNBA Finals in six of the past seven campaigns, winning the title in 2011, 2013, 2015, and most recently, last summer.

The Lynx continue to field the league's most complete starting unit. Guards Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus, forwards Maya Moore and Rebekkah Brunson, and center Sylvia Fowles account for 25 career All-Star Game selections, three Defensive Player of the Year awards, and a pair of MVP trophies. Add two-time Coach of the Year, Cheryl Reeve, to the mix, and the parts are all there for a repeat. It would be difficult to walk down the back hallways at the Target Center on game day without bumping into a future Hall of Famer.

As a whole, the Sparks are not quite on that dynastic level yet, but they have made the Finals in each of the past two seasons, winning it all in 2016. Led by two-time MVP Candace Parker, one-time MVP Nneka Ogwumike, the league's reigning 3-point queen in Chelsea Gray (48.2 percent), and offseason acquisition Cappie Pondexter, L.A. once again poses as big a threat as anyone to win it all.

But between their first rematch on Sunday and the possibility of an unprecedented third straight Finals meeting, the Lynx and Sparks will have to conquer a field of worthy challengers hoping to make the jump from the WNBA's middle class into their haughty stratosphere.

"Minnesota is always the team to beat, along with L.A.," said Delle Donne, whose Mystics were swept by the Lynx in the conference finals last summer. "They've been the two powerhouses the other teams haven't been able to get by. They're definitely tough competition."

"But a lot of teams have made a lot of big moves this offseason," she added, "so it should be a very competitive league - every single game."

While the compact schedule doesn't leave much room for error, it does occasionally enable quick turnarounds. For that reason, the Storm are an interesting team to watch in 2018 as they attempt to make a monumental step forward.

Despite Bird having one of the best passing seasons of her Hall of Fame career and 2016 No. 1 draft pick Breanna Stewart ascending to her first All-Star selection, Seattle's 15-19 record last year was the worst mark among postseason participants. Though their offense ranked among the WNBA's best, the Storm struggled to finish off defensive possessions, allowing opponents to feast on the glass. They ranked second-to-last in team rebound rate (47.5 percent).

Stewart believes that's now in the past.

"We don't think about what happened last year and the year before," she said. "We're here to win - I'm here to win - and I'm not trying to waste any more time losing. Losing is not why I play basketball."

To stop the bleeding on the boards, the Storm brought in defensive-minded coach Dan Hughes and bolstered the frontcourt rotation with proven rebounders Natasha Howard and Courtney Paris. Furthermore, the team has been experimenting with Stewart playing down a position as a small forward, allowing three legitimate rebounding forces to occupy the court for stretches.

"It's not a permanent move," Stewart explained. "I'm still at the four and that's where most of my mismatches are, but in case we want to make the lineups a little more difficult for other teams, go a little bit bigger and a little bit longer, we have the option to."

To maintain the spacing on offense, Stewart says she's been focused on improving her outside touch this offseason. It's a terrifying thought for the rest of the league, considering the barely defendable 6-foot-4 forward has already shot 35.5 percent from 3-point range in her career to date, but these are the sort of creative solutions all teams must contemplate to try to close the gap on the league's ruling class.

No matter where each team is on its trajectory toward contention, the final goal remains the same for every player in the league.

"We're trying to win a championship. That's the type of mindset we need," Stewart proclaimed. "Yeah, it's a high goal, it's a lofty expectation, but we're in the WNBA for a reason. We're not trying to just have a mediocre year."

Delle Donne echoed Stewart's sentiment: It's championship or bust.

"It's truly the only goal that matters in my mind. The only one that I want so, so bad," she said. "The hunger is as high as it could possibly be," Delle Donne said.

After the season opener between the Mercury and the Wings on Friday night and a matinee match between the Chicago Sky and Indiana Fever on Saturday, all 12 teams will be in action Sunday for the league's "WNBA All Day" celebration.

Then fans will finally see if the challengers are up to the test.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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Challengers eye the throne as 2018 WNBA season tips off
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