WNBA midseason check-in: Seattle Storm

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 25: Sue Bird /

The Seattle Storm caught fire down the stretch in 2016 to make the playoffs. A similar effort may be in order to make it in again this season. That tie to last year to now has led people to pose the question: Are the Storm on a reasonable path to contention?

Both Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart were selected to represent the host city at the WNBA All-Star game this past weekend. Bird was voted in as a starter; Stewart was selected as a reserve by the coaches to appear in her first All-Star game. Fans could haggle over starters, but Bird’s presence in the game wasn’t on legacy alone.

Bird makes Seattle’s offense go. Her ability to shoot off the bounce and to spot up opens up the creases for emerging stars Jewell Loyd and Stewart to attack the basket. Bird can run the initial action or be the player on the weak side running something late in the clock to get the team a good look.

Bird is averaging a career-best 6.8 assists per game. She delivers the ball to her teammates at the right speed and from the right angle. Her lobs to rolling bigs are so much fun to watch:

Bird drops those in so well. Her big is often the only one with any chance at catching the ball and rarely has to break stride.

Loyd’s minutes have often been staggered enough with Bird that one of the two is always on the floor for Coach Jenny Boucek. Loyd’s is shooting 41% from the floor but is up nearly five percentage points from three. She’s about as explosive of an athlete as there is in the WNBA at her position. Seattle needs to get her playing downhill as much as possible:

What’s Seattle doing with her when the play call isn’t to hit her coming off a screen? Noelle Quinn sees most of the backup point guard minutes when Bird rests. More dribble handoffs or 2-person game actions would be a welcome sight to get the ball to Loyd with even more of a head start.

Same goes for Breanna Stewart. She’s already a dynamic player on both ends. How many forwards can be left on an island against a true center, block the shot and hit a deep three from a dead sprint?

But it’s worth asking if she is reduced too often to a spot up role as well. The story coming out of Stewart’s offseason was about the work she had done to improve her handle. Seattle loves to put her in a corner and run flex stuff like this to get her the ball on the move:

We’ve seen that Stewart has the green light to grab and go; she even brings the ball up and initiates some sets. More quick screening actions or split cuts could get her the ball on the move to show off her shiftiness.

The Storm offense ranks in the top half; their defense ranks 9th. I’ve seen arguments to both extremes to troubleshoot that end—play Stewart at center more or play Carolyn Swords more.  

At this point in the season, the quick fix may come by trimming things up offensively. The Storm have the highest turnover percentage in the league but are also #1 in true shooting and effective field goal percentage. They’re in the top-tier of 3PT shooting, making about 7 per game. Cutting back on a few of those turnovers could swing an individual game by 6-10 points or more.

The efficiency of Langhorne ought to be a bigger story. She shot 63% from the floor last year and bumped that up to 68% in 2017. Alysha Clark’s post game adds a nice wrinkle to their offense, and she’s versatile enough to defend all three perimeter spots.

Quinn plays upwards of 15 minutes a night and has backup PG duties, but Boucek faces tough decisions every night with her rotation. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis isn’t part of the regular rotation many nights. Sami Whitcomb is quicker, defends hard and is lights out from deep:

Now let’s kick it to you. Will the Storm snag a playoff bid? What do they need to steady the ship?

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