For Seattle Storm, a ‘team of fighters’ has them in contention

Minneapolis, MN-July 17: Minnesota Lynx center Temi Fagbenle (14) and Seattle Storm forward Alysha Clark (32) battle for a rebound during the first half at Target Center. (Photo by Leila Navidi/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
Minneapolis, MN-July 17: Minnesota Lynx center Temi Fagbenle (14) and Seattle Storm forward Alysha Clark (32) battle for a rebound during the first half at Target Center. (Photo by Leila Navidi/Star Tribune via Getty Images) /

The 2019 Storm have made the best of a bad situation. But it’s still a bad situation.

SEATTLE — All things considered, the bottom could have absolutely fallen out for the 2019 Seattle Storm.

There’s a cautionary tale at the bottom of the WNBA standings right now: one year after pushing the Semifinals to a decisive Game 5, the Atlanta Dream now sit at 5-17, running out of options and time as franchise player Angel McCoughtry still recovers from a knee injury. Before the season began, the Storm seemed to face a steeper path to contention with their own killer duo of injuries, losing Breanna Stewart for the entire year, and Sue Bird for most of it. Even the 2018 Storm, as they ran away with the 2018 championship, struggled against their opponents when both Stewart and Bird were on the bench. Covering about a fifth of Seattle’s overall minutes, the 2018 Storm without Stewart and Bird were outscored by their opponents by more than six points per 100 possessions — a rate that is similar to this year’s 6-16 Dallas Wings.

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In that context, it’s clear that, despite clocking in with a potentially underwhelming 12-11 record, the healthy members of the 2019 Storm have made dramatic improvements to their games even since last. Forced to play 100 percent of their minutes without Stewart and Bird, the 2019 Storm are cumulatively outscoring their opponents, and have taken up residence in a mid-tier of playoff teams including the Minnesota Lynx (10-11), Phoenix Mercury (11-10), and Chicago Sky (12-9).

There are individual stories of improvement all up and down the Storm roster:

Mercedes Russell, the No. 22 pick in the 2018 Draft, was quietly picked up by Seattle last summer when the New York Liberty cut her after just two appearances. After spending most of last season observing from the end of the Seattle bench, Russell has been the main recipient of Stewart’s lost minutes, starting every night and working as the primary interior presence in Seattle’s still-elite defense.

Fellow second-year player Jordin Canada has risen to the unenviable challenge of taking Bird’s spot in the starting lineup: Canada has been assisting the ball at a rate similar to what legendary passers Lindsey Whalen and Courtney Vandersloot accomplished in their own age-23 seasons.

Alysha Clark — a franchise institution in her eighth season with Seattle — is competing to be the league leader in 3-point accuracy while also shooting more from downtown than she ever has before.

Natasha Howard has a legitimate claim to follow up last year’s Most Improved Player trophy with another one in 2019. Last year, Howard took the leap from rotation player to crucial starter, a perfect compliment to Seattle’s other four 2018 starters with skillful interior cuts and high-percentage finishes. This year, she’s taken the next step by shouldering the responsibility — and the defensive attention — of being the primary scorer: Howard has taken a higher percentage of her team’s shots than every player in the league except Tina Charles.

The good news is: provided Bird and Stewart don’t run into any setbacks while rehabilitating, the Storm are absolutely a premiere title contender for 2020, no matter how many other teams around the league reload with their own superstars. The bad news is: yes, this many things had to go right in order for the Storm to inch their way up to .500.

Without Stewart and Bird on the floor, Seattle’s devastating offensive flow has turned into something much more methodical — an offense that a capable defense can track. After tying for the league lead in assists per game in 2018, the 2019 Storm have slipped to ninth in the same category, losing about four baskets a game from efficient, defense-demoralizing sets. In this set from Seattle’s home loss to the Washington Mystics last weekend, watch how the off-ball Mystics defenders are watching Jewell Loyd run off screens before she even receives the ball. The Mystics can see ahead of time where the offensive threat is going to be, and practically wait it out:

While the Storm have proved their impressive depth by firmly holding on to a playoff spot without Stewart and Bird, no team has unlimited depth. Without new leading scorer Howard on the floor, Seattle gets thoroughly rinsed, outscored by opponents by 23 points per 100 possessions.

This is on offense. The 2019 Storm are able to keep themselves in games thanks to unrelenting effort on defense — as is the case for almost all of Coach Dan Hughes’ teams, one of the quietest through lines in WNBA history. (It’s a tradition that goes back to the 2001 Cleveland Rockers, who only allowed an incredible 55.9 points per game. Surely that was a typo, and I meant 59.5? No: 55.9.) Seattle leads the league in steals per game, ahead of even second-place Connecticut by a steal per game.

This was an inevitability, maybe, when all-time ballhawk Canada was promoted into the starting lineup — but it goes to show how well Seattle’s roster is suited to their coach. As Clark put it after a narrow win in July: “We have a team of fighters. Whether they had to fight to get in the league, they had to fight to be where they’re at, to get in the spot, to earn playing time. Whatever it is, somebody’s had to fight to be at this level.”

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The Storm may head into the playoffs with a winning percentage not much better than it is now. They will probably have to go through the gauntlet of one or both single-elimination rounds, instead of luxuriating in the double-bye they had last year. The same thing can be said about the 2018 Phoenix Mercury, who went a relatively underwhelming 20-14 before beginning their postseason journey — a postseason where they pushed Seattle to Game 5 in the Semifinals, nearly ending Seattle’s dream season by trusting their deep veteran experience to grind them through each obstacle. Last year, Seattle might not have been fully prepared for gut-check realities of playoff basketball. This year’s Storm team has already gone through the gauntlet.

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