The Storm's new roster has been built to combine youth and experience, and also features versatility. (Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images)

2012 Preview: Storm Builds Versatile Lineup

Kevin Pelton, | May 17, 2012

The last time the Seattle Storm missed the playoffs, rookie forward Shekinna Stricklen was entering eighth grade. That was nine seasons ago, 2003, when a late slump caused the 18-16 Storm to finish out of the Western Conference's top four spots on a tie-breaker. Since then, the Storm has been a fixture in the postseason to a nearly unprecedented extent. Only one other team - the Los Angeles Sparks, from 1999 through 2006 - can match the Storm's streak of eight consecutive trips to the playoffs. Never in league history has a team reached the postseason nine years in a row. That's the goal as the Storm enters the 2012 campaign with a new look.

"There's a reason why that's never been done before," said Storm Head Coach Brian Agler. "Because it's very, very hard to do."

All those playoff runs come at a cost. The Storm hasn't earned a top-five draft pick since 2002. In the modern league, where talent in the draft tends to be concentrated at the top and few players taken after the 10th pick make an impact, that made it difficult for the Storm to replenish its base of talent. Tanisha Wright, drafted in 2005, was the last Storm draft pick to make a long-term impact. As a result, no member of last year's rotation was younger than 26.

The Storm's coaching staff had to make the tough decision to trade Swin Cash to be able to add three new rotation players. (Neil Enns/Storm Photos)

When the Storm was eliminated from the 2011 postseason by the Phoenix Mercury, Agler and the rest of the team's management found themselves facing an uncertain future. With Lauren Jackson planning to sit out the first half of this year to prepare for the Olympics with the Australian National Team, the Storm had no obvious avenue for improvement.

"We had no cap space, no first-round pick and it was a situation where we weren't going to have Lauren the first half of this year," explained Agler. "So being in that position with how we looked at it, we had to make some decisions."

Trading Jackson and Sue Bird, the team's cornerstones, was never a consideration. Meanwhile, starters Wright and Camille Little represented the Storm's youngest contributors, so moving them made little sense. That left one real option in terms of returning value: Swin Cash. Parting with Cash, a perennial All-Star and key part of the Storm's 2010 championship team who was Agler's first acquisition in Seattle, was painful. But the potential upside was immense as the Chicago Sky showed willingness to trade its lottery pick.

When the Storm-Sky trade was announced on January 2, it showed the Storm sending Cash and key reserve Le'coe Willingham for the No. 2 overall pick. Trading two contributors, including an All-Star, for an unproven draft pick looked lopsided. To Agler and the coaching staff, however, the trade was the first in a series of moves. Shedding two high salaries gave the Storm room under the salary cap to go shopping in free agency.

"It gave us more opportunity to go out and get aggressive in free agency," said Agler. "We talked to a lot of free agents. We came away in the end with Ann Wauters, who was probably the most valuable free agent in the pool last year, and Tina Thompson."

Ultimately, the trade worked out as Cash, Willingham and a minimum-salary player that would have filled out the bench for No. 2 overall pick Stricklen, Thompson and Wauters - all of whom will be part of the Storm's rotation, with Thompson and Wauters likely to start.

By adding in both free agency and the draft, the Storm attempted to reconcile two contrasting goals - continuing to compete at a high level while also injecting youth into the roster to provide energy off the bench and prepare for the future.

"Now we have a team together with a good strong core," Agler said, "then we have some veteran players on our roster that can help us win championships but yet we have some good young talent coming in now."

In Sue Bird, Katie Smith and Tina Thompson, the Storm features three of the WNBA's Top 15 Players of All-Time - with a fourth, Lauren Jackson, set to rejoin the team after the Olympics. (Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images)

In many ways, Agler has built a roster perfectly suited to his style. Dating back to his days coaching the Columbus Quest to back-to-back ABL championships, Agler has always preferred versatile talents--post players who can step out and shoot and guards with size. Such players fit his defensive system, which often asks defenders to switch matchups and deal with bigger or smaller players.

Having players capable of playing multiple positions is a must with the specific situation the Storm faces - playing with just 10 players until Jackson returns after the Olympics. Agler noted, knocking on wood, that a couple of injuries could leave the team with eight players active, leaving little room for specialists. Beyond that, the makeup of the Storm roster also affords Agler great strategic flexibility. Of the Storm's 10 players, just Bird (point guard) and Wauters (center) are tied to a specific position. Everyone else can swing back and forth between at least two spots, allowing Agler to substitute almost any player in the rotation for another.

"I think Brian, Jenny (Boucek) and Nancy (Darsch) have a good idea of what they want - what we need as a team, what they want in a player," said Bird. "They've gone out and gotten that. The fact that all the players are smart, the fact that they're all versatile - you look at Strick, Victoria (Dunlap), Alysha (Clark), those players can play the three and the four and go back and forth. To play against that for other teams is difficult. We've put in a new offense just for that. It's kind of fun to have that versatility. I know Brian went out and looked for that."

The most important combination of players might be Little and Thompson, who will see extended minutes together. When Little and Thompson play forward, which one is the small forward and which one the power forward will depend on the matchups and could change from play to play. The Storm will look to exploit whichever player is matched up against a smaller defender in the post, or drive against bigger defenders.

"It's actually worked pretty easily," Little said last week. "I think every day it gets a little better. We actually sat down and talked about it some. You've played against someone so long, you know what they're good at, what they can do. You're happy they're on your team now - you don't have to guard them - and you want to use their great skills to our advantage for our team."

Little and Thompson will start on Opening Night against the Los Angeles Sparks Friday (7:00 p.m., KONG 6/16, 1090 AM, ). So too will Bird and Wright. The fifth spot could go to either Wauters or Katie Smith. With so many options at his disposal, both big and small, Agler is not emphasizing which combination of five players starts the game.

"With our team this year, we can't really put a high value on who starts because we have a lot of people who could start and we can only start five," he said. "It might be one of those things where we decide to change from game to game. If we worry about who starts or finishes games or who's in on this or that possession, that's not what this game is all about."

Those six veterans, plus rookie Stricklen, will form the core of the Storm's rotation at the beginning of the season. Ewelina Kobryn and newcomer Dunlap will also get playing time in the early going with the chance to carve out regular roles.

"We just have a lot of threats. A lot of people who can score the ball inside and outside, people who can play defense, people who are comfortable on the block and good passers. It's going to be fun."
- Smith

The best word to describe the Storm's rotation might be balanced. From one through at least seven, the team should be able to get production on a nightly basis. That could only grow if the Storm is able to re-sign wing Svetlana Abrosimova, another versatile contributor who played a major role off the bench for the 2010 championship team, later in the season.

"We just have a lot of threats," noted Smith. "A lot of people who can score the ball inside and outside, people who can play defense, people who are comfortable on the block and good passers. It's going to be fun. They're good basketball players. They know how to make the next pass. It's nice because people just know the game."

"When you have this many people on the court that can do a variety of things, it's easy," added Bird. "You don't have to call anything complicated because everyone can score from any spot. It's a matter of getting in our offenses, executing them and finding the open person. We have so many shooters - whoever's open is open. It's nice to have that."

That's not to say the Storm will be immediately successful. Wauters has just three practices with the team since arriving from her native Belgium, and with four new players in the rotation there will be an adjustment period as players feel each other out.

"It's going to be a process and we're going to progress throughout the process every single day," Thompson said. "We're pretty good at this point but we expect to be better."

The schedule for the first half of the season will test the Storm, which plays 12 out of 19 games on the road before the Olympics without Jackson. Agler calls that the most important part of the season, because if the Storm can stay competitive in the Western Conference, the schedule will even out after the break. The Storm comes back from the Olympics with seven consecutive home games, providing an opportunity to make up ground in a hurry.

Now it's up to the Storm's new roster to make good on its promise and extend the team's historic playoff run.

"I think we have the pieces," said Wright. "It's just a matter of how we put it on the court and how it works on the court. On paper, it looks pretty good, but we all know paper is nothing."

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