2010 Storm Preview: Looking for a Playoff Breakthrough
The Storm's Game 2 win over L.A. set off a wild celebration, but the series ended in disappointment. Aaron Last/Storm Photos
Improved Depth will Help, but Health is Key
Kevin Pelton, stormbasketball.com | May 14, 2010
When the Los Angeles Sparks eliminated the Seattle Storm from the postseason with a 75-64 Game 3 victory at KeyArena last September, there was a feeling of déjà vu. It was the second time in as many years the Storm had fallen to the Sparks, and in similar fashion. Both times, the Storm had home-court advantage in the series but was playing short-handed, with two-time MVP Lauren Jackson only able to sit and watch from the sidelines.
The playoff losses, and the Storm's string of first-round exits, have overshadowed the team's regular-season success. In the two years since Brian Agler took over as the Storm's head coach, the team has gone 42-26, the league's best record in that span. The Detroit Shock was the only other team to total 40 wins in 2008 and 2009, and no one else reached 20 wins both seasons. The Shock, which moved to Tulsa during the offseason, is also the lone WNBA opponent that can match the Storm's streak of six consecutive playoff appearances.
Still, Agler entered the offseason with work to do in his role as the team's director of player personnel. It was evident that upgraded depth would be needed for the Storm to reach the next level. The result is an improved squad that hopes to succeed where its predecessors have fallen short.
Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images
A Strong Starting Lineup
The highlight of the 2009 season for the Storm was the establishment of one of the league's best starting lineups. When Camille Little won a starting job alongside Jackson during training camp, it completed a fivesome that was balanced and effective at both ends of the court. Jackson and guard Tanisha Wright both made the All-Defensive First Team, while all five starters scored double-figures and Sue Bird, Wright and Swin Cash all averaged at least 2.6 assists per game.
With Cash, Little and Wright under contract, Agler needed only to lock up the starting lineup's cornerstones. Bird signed a multi-year contract extension last September, just before the end of the regular season. Jackson would have signed an extension then, but because she was playing on a one-year contract league rules forced her to wait until she became a free agent. Jackson finalized her own new multi-year deal in March.
In terms of bringing back its starting lineup intact, the Storm is something of an exception. No other West team can claim the same thing. Two East teams can - the conference's champs, the Indiana Fever, and the Atlanta Dream - but Dream forward Chamique Holdsclaw has requested a trade.
The familiarity the starters have built playing together since Little was acquired midway through the 2008 season should be an advantage for the Storm.
"Training camp is an interesting time because you really don't have a lot of time," said Bird. "You have to come together quickly. Whenever you have a core group stay together from year to year - especially your five starters - it's really helpful because you tend to pick things up quicker, you're familiar with each other, you know the system. Everybody else can kind of feed off that."
"It's really nice having that, because you know what to expect coming into it," added Wright, who did not join the team until last weekend because she was finishing her season in Poland. "You know what you're going to get. The cohesiveness is already there. It's a matter of reforming that and getting it back to peak cohesiveness."
From left to right, Willingham, Abrosimova and Lacey are newcomers who will anchor the Storm's bench. Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images
Rebuilding the Bench
With the starting lineup taken care of, Agler could turn his offseason attention to the second unit, which has almost completely turned over. After today's final cuts, just one reserve - center Ashley Robinson - remains from the 2009 season. In part, Agler's hand was forced. Guard Shannon Johnson retired at the end of the 2009 season, forward Katie Gearlds decided to sit out the year because of the lingering effect of a knee injury suffered last summer and center Janell Burse agreed to a contract buyout after asking to be a traded. Still, the Storm had the opportunity and the flexibility to upgrade the bench.
The marquee signing was forward Le'coe Willingham, a starter for the WNBA champion Mercury last season who will move into a sixth woman role in Seattle, playing behind both Little and Jackson. The Storm used some of the cap room saved in the Burse buyout to sign eight-year veteran Svetlana Abrosimova, a wing with size and athleticism as well as three-point range. First-round pick Alison Lacey will step in as a long-term solution as a backup behind Bird, a spot that has proven problematic for the Storm in recent years.
Those three players will form the core of the bench, with Robinson (shot blocking), Euroleague veteran Jana Veselá (the little things) and Australian rookie Abby Bishop (floor spacing from the post position) bringing different skills that complement the team.
"I saw a lot of other teams making changes, and I was waiting to see what we were going to do," said Little. "I'm excited. I think that's one of the things we really needed was people to come off the bench so when we make substitutions, the game won't change. I think that gives the team more confidence. People won't have to play 35, 40 minutes now."
"I can already see that our bench is going to be completely different - obviously in terms of personnel," added Bird. "We have veterans coming off the bench. We have players who have played in the league and played significant minutes, been starters, coming off the bench. Right away, that experience from them is going to give us much more of a lift from the bench than we've gotten in the past."
Willingham saw first hand the role depth played for the Mercury, which brought Sixth Woman Award winner DeWanna Bonner and former All-Star Penny Taylor off the bench and frequently wore opponents down by sustaining its pace of play over four quarters.
"It's a short season, but it's a long season," explained Willingham. "There are a lot of games compacted together. You're playing games every other day at some point in time during the season. It's tough on your body. You have to do a lot of recovery just to take care of your body. Sometimes, having to play a whole lot of minutes, your body may wear down. It's so important to have a second unit that can not only keep the pace up but sometimes bring the pace up a little bit more."
Aaron Last/Storm Photos
Ultimately, no factor has been more important for the Storm the last two seasons than the team's health. That goes beyond Jackson. Cash was severely limited during the 2008 postseason by a back injury that ultimately required surgery, while Gearlds missed last year's playoffs, leaving the Storm with just nine healthy players.
"Stay healthy," said Agler, asked what he wanted to do differently in 2010. "We stay healthy and see what happens and then we can go from there."
Some of that is out of the Storm's hands. To the extent the team can control health, it wants to do even more this season.
"We are trying to keep an eye on certain things," explained Agler. "People are training differently in the weight room with the physical aspect, they're doing a better job of resting when it's time to rest. We'll help that with how we practice and maybe days off here and there."
Jackson took a day off last Friday before the Storm traveled to Tulsa for a preseason game, and Agler plans to keep a particularly close eye on her practice workload.
Game minutes will be involved too. Because of the poor bench play and a series of overtime games, the starters carried a heavy workload in 2009. Bird led the league, playing 35.5 minutes a night. Cash was in the top five and every starter averaged at least 30 minutes per game. Oddly, the player whose minutes did not really go up was Jackson. Other than 2006, when she was under strict playing-time restrictions, her average of 32.4 minutes per game was her lowest since 2002.
Agler notes that in a league where a game or two can be the difference in terms of making the playoffs or home-court advantage, he has to play to win each night. Still, he added, "I think having a deeper bench could factor in and help us that way."
Aaron Last/Storm Photos
While the WNBA's hype machine is focused on the major offseason moves made by teams like Connecticut, Minnesota and New York, there is a quiet respect for what the Storm has done. 90.9% of the league's GMs picked the team to advance to the postseason, tied with Phoenix for the most favorable assessment. Nationally, the question remains the same: Can the Storm advance once in the playoffs?
"Obviously, we can go well in the regular season," said Cash, "but I think until we do well come end of August, September, people will still be talking about when the health issues are going to be a problem."
"I think right now, the focus for me personally is I want to see us get past the first round," noted Wright. "That's a big goal. The ultimate goal is always the same. You always enter the season, especially when you have a team of this caliber, wanting and knowing that you want to take it all."
Internally, while the expectations are not bold, they are there. Agler is, per his custom, confident but unwilling to make any predictions. He knows that the team's ultimate success is dependent upon far more than the talent that has been assembled.
"I think we helped our perimeter shooting," he said. "I think we helped our toughness. I think we are deeper now. I think we can potentially be better. But on paper doesn't mean anything; it's how you play on the floor."
"I think our play will speak for itself this year," added Jackson. "We'll do what we've got to do to win games and hopefully go through to the championship. I think we have all the pieces to be a championship team. If we stay healthy, we'll do well."