Storm Benefiting From Free Agency

There's been a lot of excitement over the past week for the Seattle Storm, from a new Collective Bargaining Agreement being signed to a pair of drafts to the start of training camp. Still, from a long-term perspective, it's possible that the most important thing for the Storm may be the three free agents they've signed away from the former Portland Fire and Miami Sol - guards Sandy Brondello and Tully Bevilaqua and forward Stacey Thomas.

Brondello played two years in Miami.
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With the advent of free agency, the equation has changed for WNBA teams. Things like a team's reputation now come into play. And it couldn't be helping the Storm more so far. “I think the organization has such a tremendous reputation out there,” Coach Anne Donovan told the media last week as the Storm began its free agency process. The results back her up. In Brondello and Bevilaqua, the Storm signed two players to address the team's biggest remaining need following the Dispersal Draft, a veteran backup guard to replace retired Michelle Marciniak. By getting quality players in free agency, the Storm was free to draft the player they considered the best available during the first round of last Friday's Amateur Draft, Korean forward Jung Sun-Min.

A lot of factors go into a player's decision in free agency. Opportunity to play is critical, and money always matters to some degree or another. But when those factors are equal, the Storm has a lot to offer to free agents, starting with Donovan. She is respected throughout the league as both a player and a coach, and through her time with the Indiana Fever as an Interim Head Coach and then the Charlotte Sting, as well as in the ABL before that, Donovan has built up numerous contacts that she is now putting to use. “Your relationships with players in the league, and your relationships with agents really come into play right now,” Donovan said. “So hopefully you've developed those through the years and you can have those relationships and help you get the free agents that you want to come to camp.”

Beyond Donovan, the rest of the Storm's coaching staff is an asset to the team in free agency as well. Assistants Jenny Boucek and Jessie Kenlaw were imported from now-defunct Miami and Portland, respectively, before the season. They've proven invaluable, first during the Dispersal Draft and now for free agency. “I can't speak enough to how valuable Jessie Kenlaw and Jenny Boucek have been,” Donovan said. “Now, as we talk to free agents, they're very comfortable thinking about coming to Seattle.” Brondello confirmed that thinking, saying, “I think Anne, Jenny and Jessie, they’re one of the best coaching staffs in the league.”

Bevilaqua is known for her ballhandling.
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On the court, two of the Storm's biggest draws are their young stars, Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson. What player - well, what shooting guard, small forward or center - wouldn't want to play with the last two number one picks overall? Donovan told the media last week that Jung wanted to play for the Storm, and specifically with Bird and Jackson. “It's really been attractive for people to play with Lauren and Sue,” Storm General Manager Billy McKinney added when discussing free agency. “Sue Bird, she’s the premier point guard in the league. Why wouldn’t you want to play with someone like that,” Brondello asked rhetorically. Jackson's presence may have been especially helpful with Bevilaqua and Brondello, who will give the team a strong Australian flavor.

Not only are the Storm's young All-Stars quality teammates, their presence on the roster ensures that the Storm will be serious contenders for the next decade. The fact that the team is clearly on the rise after making the playoffs for the first time last season was cited by Thomas as important to her decision. “They made it to the playoffs last year,” she said at media day, “strong in all areas, a very talented team.”

The final key - or Key - factor helping the Storm in free agency has been the organization's and the community's commitment to the Storm. “This is one of the top organizations in terms of their support for their WNBA team,” Donovan said. With the Storm making a run towards the playoffs for the first time last season, the city of Seattle rallied behind the team, selling out the lower bowl of KeyArena repeatedly down the stretch.

Thomas is known for her defense, but drove the lane strong on this play.
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Seeing the Storm emerge as a coveted free agent destination is especially exciting because, in general, the city of Seattle has a poor track record in free agency. The Sonics haven't signed an impact free agent since Gus Williams in 1977. The Mariners have had their successes, notably Kazuhiro Sasaki, John Olerud and Bret Boone in recent years, but have never been a prime free agent stop except for Japanese players. Olerud's decision was strongly influenced by his being from Seattle, while Boone was considered to be on the downside of his career when he returned to Seattle.

The Seahawks might have the best free agent history of the city's major pro sports teams, signing players like Chad Brown and Warren Moon in the 1990s when new owner Paul Allen opened his wallet to try to buy a contender. But even the Seahawks have struggled to attract free agents recently. Just this past weekend, Seahawks GM Bob Ferguson told the media he felt that Seattle's weather had kept the team from signing any big-name free agents this spring. (Brondello, who played the last two seasons in Miami, did joke, “I don’t know if I can come here, it’s too cold here,” during media day.)

The Storm is a welcome change of pace in free agency for Seattle. The team will also benefit from the fact that the WNBA's new system allows each team to designate two “core players” who are ineligible for free agency. Barring something unforeseen, Bird and Jackson should have the opportunity to play their entire careers in Seattle, surrounded by players who want to play with them. It's no wonder, then, that McKinney said last week, “Usually, in free agency, everyone is nervous about it. We feel very confident from the signals we've received that people want to play here, and that's a great sign.”