When reigning regular season and Finals MVP Breanna Stewart went down with a torn Achilles tendon during the EuroLeague Women title game in April, most WNBA observers wrote off the defending champion Seattle Storm as title contenders. And when they lost Sue Bird as well due to knee surgery, there were questions about whether they'd even make the playoffs.
Thus far, however, the Storm have remained quite competitive. They took down one of the favorites to win it all -- the Phoenix Mercury -- on opening night, sit in fifth place at 2-2 and boast the fourth-best net rating in the league.
Much of the credit for the Storm's solid start must go to Natasha Howard, who has stepped up in Stewart's absence. Howard burst onto the scene last season as the Most Improved Player, and was awesome in the Finals, but she's shown early this season that she's more than capable of handling a much bigger role on both ends of the floor.
"I'm ready for this moment. This is my moment," Howard told the Seattle Times earlier this season. "This is my time to show what everybody has been waiting for. And also for me, this is what I've been waiting for. I've always had this in me, but I was just being patient and waiting for my time to come."
Playing over 31 minutes per game, it's clear that Howard's time has indeed come, and she's taking advantage. Through the first four games, she's putting up 19.8 points, 11 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 1.8 blocks per game, which are good for fourth, fourth, fifth and eighth in the league, respectively. The Storm will need her to keep it up if they want to get back to the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
1. Minnesota Lynx (3-0)
Despite Lindsay Whalen's retirement, Maya Moore's sitting out the season for personal reasons, Seimone Augustus undergoing knee surgery and Rebekkah Brunson's concussion symptoms keeping her sidelined, the Lynx are the only undefeated team left in the league. Rookie Napheesa Collier has been impressive.
2. Connecticut Sun (3-1)
The offseason trade that sent away Chiney Ogwumike is working out well for the Sun. Back to their optimal starting lineup, which features Jonquel Jones at center instead of Ogwumike, the Sun are crushing teams. They're 3-1, and their starting lineup boasts an outrageous plus-33.1 net rating through the first four games.
3. Washington Mystics (1-1)
The Mystics opened the season with a loss to the Sun, but they were playing without Elena Delle Donne. With EDD back in the lineup for their second game, they crushed the Dream and showed why they're a title contender yet again this season. Few teams will be able to keep up with them on offense.
4. Seattle Storm (2-2)
The Storm's demise without Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird may have been exaggerated. Though they aren't a title contender, they're still going to be a solid team with Natasha Howard and Jewell Loyd leading a deep supporting cast. Their season-opening win over the Mercury was impressive.
5. Indiana Fever (2-1)
The Fever started out 0-10 last season, and it took them until early July to win their second game of the season. No such trouble this campaign, as they've picked up two early wins to jump out to a 2-1 start. It must be said that both were against the Liberty, who may be the worst team in the league, but still. Wins are wins.
6. Los Angeles Sparks (1-1)
Like other teams who have a significant injury, we've seen the good and bad from the Sparks early on this season. They looked like an unorganized and chaotic mess in their first loss against the Aces, then responded with a big win over the Sun. Candace Parker's eventual return will do wonders for them.
7. Phoenix Mercury (1-1)
Already we've seen the ups and downs that will come for the Mercury while they wait for Diana Taurasi's return to action after offseason back surgery. On opening night they lost to the Storm, then bounced back to secure a nice win over a much-improved Aces team. They're a work in progress, especially with so many rookies.
8. Las Vegas Aces (1-2)
Liz Cambage is still on a minutes restriction due to her Achilles injury, so this is another team we don't have a great feel for yet. The early returns, however, suggest they are quite talented, but it's going to take a while for everything to fall into place. This isn't much of a surprise, though, considering their youth and new acquisitions.
9. Chicago Sky (1-1)
Like so many teams early in the season, we've seen both the good and bad from the Sky, who were crushed in their first game by the Lynx, then bounced back with a nice win over the Storm. One thing that has been consistent, though, is the speed they play at. Their current 103.5 pace would be the highest in WNBA history.
10. Dallas Wings (0-2)
The Wings are perhaps a bit unlucky to have started out 0-2 this season after close losses to the Dream and Lynx. Expectations were pretty low after the Liz Cambage trade and Skylar Diggins-Smith's early absence due to pregnancy, but the Wings are going to be much more competitive than many thought.
11. Atlanta Dream (1-2)
The Dream have easily been the most disappointing team to start the season. Playing without Angel McCoughtry, their offense wasn't expected to be too dynamic, but their defensive lapses to start the season are concerning. They were the best defensive unit in the league this season, but are the worst so far.
12. New York Liberty (0-2)
It appears that fans in New York could be in for another rough season with their beloved Liberty. Tina Charles is still Tina Charles, and they have some nice young pieces in Kia Nurse, Asia Durr and Han Xu, but it's going to be a while before they put everything together. Two season-opening losses to the Fever is rough.