The Seattle Storm are halfway through the 2018 WNBA season as they prepare for Tuesday’s game against the New York Liberty.
The Storm have been one of the bigger surprises in the league so far. At 12-5, Seattle is tied with the Los Angeles Sparks for the second-best record.
The skepticism was generally justified. The Storm finished eighth and lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2017. Not to mention, they fired head coach Jenny Boucek with eight games remaining.
However, Seattle has silenced its doubters for the most part in 2018. The Storm’s 91-79 defeat to the Minnesota Lynx raises some questions as to their championship hopes, but they undoubtedly look like a top-four contender.
Let’s look at what as gotten Seattle to this point.
Defense Wins Championships
Many will point to the fact the Storm sit first in offensive rating (108.2) as a big reason for their success, but Seattle’s improvement on defense has played a bigger role.
In 2017, the Storm were ninth in defensive rating (104.7) and eighth in defensive points per possession (0.921), according to Synergy Sports. Through 17 games, they sit fourth in defensive rating (99.3) and defensive PPP (0.894).
Over the past 10 seasons, only two teams ranked outside the top four in defensive rating and won a WNBA title: the 2008 Detroit Shock and 2009 Phoenix Mercury. The thing about cliches is, they’re often rooted in some level of truth.
It’s hard to win a championship without a strong defense, so it was imperative for the Storm to take big strides in that area in 2018.
Stewie Has Reached Another Level
Breanna Stewart was the Rookie of the Year and an All-WNBA second team honoree in 2016, and she made the All-Star team in 2017. In her third season, Stewart could add WNBA MVP to her resume.
Understating Stewart’s value to the Storm is impossible. She’s leading the league in points (21.9) while sitting sixth in rebounds (7.6) and blocks (1.6). According to basketball Reference, she’s also first in win shares (3.7) and second in win shares per 48 minutes (0.322).
Stewart’s scoring in particular has been a thing of beauty. She’s shooting a career-high 53.7 percent from the field despite attempting more three-pointers on average (4.5) than in her previous two years.
Stewart posted at least 20 points in 12 of the Storm’s first 17 games.
She offered a taste of her offensive potential in 2016 and 2017, and now she’s truly establishing herself as one of the league’s most dominant scorers.
Sue Bird Defies the Aging Curve
At 37 years old, Sue Bird is having one of the most efficient seasons of her legendary career. She’s second in the WNBA in assists (7.1), and she’s doing that despite averaging 25.7 minutes per game—the lowest of her career.
Both Bird and head coach Dan Hughes have been great at limiting her workload in 2018. In addition to dropping her playing time slightly, her 17.6 percent usage rate is her third-lowest ever, according to WNBA.com.
Those two things likely factor in to Bird’s incredible 4.1 assist to turnover ratio.
The Storm have lost the two games in which Hughes rested Bird, which isn’t a coincidence. She remains an elite playmaker, even in her 16th season.
Jewell Loyd Has Been a Mixed Bag
Here’s the good news: Jewell Loyd is averaging career bests in rebounds (4.8), assists (3.8) and turnovers (1.8). Here’s the bad news: Her scoring average has dropped from 17.7 to 16.5, and her shooting is regressing.
Loyd started out well, shooting 48.3 percent from the field and 48.6 from three-point range over six games in May. Then the calendar turned over to June and everything changed.
Loyd hit 36.4 percent of her attempts overall and 25.5 percent of three-pointers in 10 games. It’s shaping up to be another repeat of 2017, when Loyd was hot right out of the gate before slipping back a bit.
Despite her offensive struggles of late, one could make a strong argument Loyd is still playing the best basketball of her WNBA career.
She’s crashing the glass with regularity, and she’s much more careful with the ball in her hands. Most importantly, Loyd is posting her second-best defensive rating (98.4).
She ranked in the 46th percentile in defensive PPP (0.896) in 2017, according to Synergy. Opponents consistently exploited Loyd in the pick and roll, where she ranked in the 20th percentile.
She’s up in the 51st percentile overall (0.854 PPP) and 40th percentile in pick and roll defense (0.820 PPP).
While it’s fair to be concerned about Loyd going backward as a shooter, focusing solely on that would do a disservice to the growth she’s making in other areas.
Natasha Howard; What Else Needs to be Said?
“I’m finally being comfortable with myself,” Natasha Howard said in an interview with Howard Megdal for The Athletic. “Like I’m playing at an All-Star level, and I’m good, and I also have my teammates around me to help me out and help me grow as my game develops even more.”
The addition of Howard flew under the radar because she made just one start in her 68 games with the Lynx. Renee Montgomery’s defection to the Atlanta Dream grabbed most of the headlines as well to deflect attention away from Howard.
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Whereas Montgomery’s production hasn’t improved with her larger role in Atlanta, Howard may be on her way to the All-Star Game. She replaced Langhorne in the starting lineup after the Storm’s season-opening defeat to the Phoenix Mercury and hasn’t looked back.
Howard is averaging 13.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while shooting 58.9 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from beyond the arc.
Through her first four years, Howard was a victim of circumstance to some extent. As a rookie in 2014, she joined an Indiana Fever squad that already had Tamika Catchings, Marissa Coleman and Erlana Larkins. Then, she moved to Minnesota, where she wasn’t going to unseat Sylvia Fowles or Rebekkah Brunson.
Now that she has a true chance to shine in Seattle, Howard is making a case to be considered among the WNBA’s better two-way players.
Dan Hughes is Maximizing the Supporting Cast
Last year, the Storm had three starters averaging 30-plus minutes per game, with Langhorne and Alysha Clark playing 28-plus minutes a night. Beyond just the unhealthy degree to which Seattle relied on its starting lineup in 2017, Noelle Quinn was the only bench player who finished with a positive net rating (0.2).
This season, only Stewart is breaking the 30-minute threshold, though Loyd (29.9) is knocking on the door. Along with that, four bench players (Courtney Paris, Jordin Canada, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis) have positive net ratings.
In general, Hughes is putting a lot more faith in the supporting cast outside of Stewart, Loyd and Bird, and the results are evident.
Clark and Mosqueda-Lewis are playing better than they ever have in Seattle. Howard is on her way to winning Most Improved Player. And Paris is utilized perfectly as a rebounding specialist and rim protector.
Hughes deserves a lot of credit for seeing the potential in Howard and identifying the value Clark and Mosqueda-Lewis had in Seattle’s setup. Giving Clark and Mosqueda-Lewis contract extensions before the regular season was a show of faith, and they’re repaying that faith with their performance on the court.
Jordin Canada is a Work in Progress
Canada’s offense is another story. She’s averaging 3.1 assists to 2.2 turnovers, and she’s 4-of-25 on three-pointers.
Specifically, Canada is having a hard time operating in half court. According to Synergy, 25.7 percent of her half-court possessions are ending in a turnover. For comparison’s sake, Bird and Loyd’s turnover rates are 16.8 and 12.9 percent, respectively, in half-court sets.
Nobody is expecting Canada to be at the level of Bird or Loyd just yet, but those numbers are one indicator as to how far she needs to go to get there.
Seattle Still Can’t Stop Syl
This article has largely highlighted the positive aspects from the Storm’s season so far. Yet, one problem may overshadow everything else when it comes to Seattle’s title chances.
Fowles mauled the Storm inside when the Lynx won comfortably in their head-to-head meeting last month. The reigning MVP was 11-of-15 from the field for 28 points.
Fowles succeeded in posting up either inside the restricted area or just outside of it before she even got the ball. When that happens, she’s going to score most of the time.
Hughes and general manager Alisha Valavanis addressed most of Seattle’s roster holes in the offseason, but they didn’t do much to counteract Fowles’ presence inside.
Although Paris provides plenty of size, she still doesn’t match up well with Fowles. Seattle can only ask so much of Stewart, too, when she shoulders so much of the offensive burden.
The Storm could be in serious trouble should they cross paths with the Lynx in the playoffs.