1 2 3 4 T
Mercury 23 9 16 20 68
Storm 16 16 24 21 77

Health issues within the team and coaching staff are expected to make the Seattle Storm's defense of their WNBA title much more difficult.

The Phoenix Mercury, meanwhile, have their own injuries concerns to deal with heading into the season.

At least three of the league's best players will not be on the floor Saturday afternoon when the Storm host the Mercury to tip off the 2019 campaign.

When these teams square off in suburban Seattle on Saturday, they'll be minus plenty of star power from last summer when Seattle needed five games to put away Phoenix in the semifinals. MVP Breanna Stewart (21.8 points, 8.4 rebounds per game in 2018) and Sue Bird (10.1 ppg, 7.1 assists per game) were a big reason the Storm outlasted the Mercury, then swept Washington to claim the franchise's third WNBA title.

However, Stewart will miss the 2019 season after rupturing her Achilles while playing overseas and Bird is out indefinitely following arthroscopic knee surgery. Both are expected to be in attendance Saturday when the Storm, who went 26-8 a year ago, receive their championship rings, but their collective absence knocks the team from a repeat favorite to serious underdog.

However, the club won't make excuses or feel sorry for itself.

"Our franchise is built to be resilient," co-owner Lisa Brummel told the Storm's official website. "We have a team that brought the city of Seattle a WNBA championship in 2018 and we will not diminish our expectation for the future."

In addition to being minus Stewart and Bird, Seattle coach Dan Hughes continues to recover after having a cancerous tumor removed from his digestive tract, leaving Gary Kloppenburg to guide the team in the interim. Not to the mention, the Storm will be playing their home games this season at the Angel of the Winds Arena in nearby Everett and the University of Washington's Alaska Airlines Arena while KeyArena undergoes renovations.

Not exactly an overall ideal scenario coming off a championship season. However, guard Jewell Loyd (15.5 ppg), forward Natasha Howard (13.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and backup point guard Jordin Canada will be counted on to pick up the slack and keep Seattle competitive early this season, and possibly throughout.

Since winning the 2014 WNBA crown, Phoenix lost in the conference final the next season and in the semifinals each of the last three campaigns. Going deep in the playoffs might prove to be a chore in 2019, especially when considering the health of star guard Diana Taurasi (20.7 ppg, 5.3 apg).

The women's basketball legend underwent a procedure on her back in late April that's scheduled to sideline her 10-12 weeks.

"We have confidence that this procedure will not only get her back on the court, but ensure she can get back to chasing around her toddler son, Leo, as well," general manager Jim Pitman told the Mercury's official website.

Meanwhile, veteran forward Sancho Lyttle could see limited time in the opener or sit entirely, as reported by, while recovering from an ACL issue.

Phoenix, though, still has two of the league's top players ready to go in superstar Brittney Griner (20.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 2.6 blocks per game) and DeWanna Bonner (17.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg). The Mercury also took versatile Stanford star Alanna Smith in the first round of last month's draft.