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Agler's Success Adding Up
Kevin Pelton, stormbasketball.com | June 15, 2010
With the Seattle Storm's next victory, possibly as soon as Thursday in Indiana, Storm Head Coach Brian Agler will join an elite group of seven coaches in WNBA history who have won at least 100 games in their career. The milestone has come into view quickly, with the Storm starting the season 9-1, and with relatively little fanfare to date - which is, of course, how Agler would prefer it. Unaware he was approaching 100 wins when asked about it after a recent practice, Agler downplayed the pending accomplishment.
"As long as we win more than we lose and we can achieve our immediate goals," he said, "that's really what we're concerned about."
It is left, then, to those closest to Agler to discuss the significance of his 100th win. San Antonio Silver Stars GM Dan Hughes, who became the fifth WNBA coach to 100 wins with a win at KeyArena in June 2007 with Agler as one of his assistant coaches, calls the milestone "one of the most significant things" a WNBA coach can accomplish because of the longevity required.
"If you get a 100th win in the WNBA, you've been able to parlay your craft over a period of time," said Hughes. "You've been successful. The average lifespan for a coach in the WNBA, I don't know the exact number, but it's not great. It's not a lot of years."
Agler doesn't remember a lot of specifics from his first WNBA win, which came in the Minnesota Lynx's debut game against the Detroit Shock, in part because expectations were high for the expansion franchise.
"We had a very veteran team with Andrea Lloyd Curry, Tonya Edwards and Katie Smith," he said. "With those three players playing in their prime, we knew we were going to win quite a few games."
Minnesota had a successful inaugural season, going 15-17 and finishing fourth in the Western Conference. From there, the Lynx had a difficult time taking the next step, posting an identical 15-17 record in 2000 before slipping back to 12-22 when Betty Lennox was injured the following season. Svetlana Abrosimova, who played for Agler for two-plus seasons in Minnesota, remembers a young team that struggled to finish games.
"Yes, we lost some games when I was in Minnesota with him, but every game we were in the game," she said. "We never lost by 40 points or 30 points. Every game we were really close. Maybe we were not as strong or as experienced, but still we had decent seasons and we never felt embarrassed."
When Agler was relieved of his duties as head coach after the 2002 All-Star break, the Lynx stood 6-13 but had lost just twice all season by double-figures. Agler had 48 career WNBA wins and no guarantee he would add to that total.
"When you lose your opportunity once, you don't know if you'll ever get a chance to get another opportunity," he said. "What you have to keep in mind is if you don't try, you'll never get it. If you're not persistent, you'll never achieve it. I really love the WNBA, so I wanted to stay a part of it, and I was as an assistant for four years. Then strange things happened in San Antonio, where I got an opportunity to be a head coach. I guess the rest is sort of how it played out. That's why you've got to stay with things because you never know when your opportunity is going to present itself."
After one year as an assistant in Phoenix, Agler joined Hughes, a long-time friend and former foe on the WNBA sidelines who also hails from Ohio, in 2005. Agler benefited from the success of the Silver Stars, who went 20-14 in 2007 to reach the playoffs and complete the turnaround of a team that went 9-25 the year before Hughes and Agler arrived. He also got a unique opportunity to pace the sidelines again when Hughes tore his Achilles and was unable to act as head coach for a stretch of seven games, during which San Antonio went 6-1. (Those wins are officially credited to Hughes' career record, not Agler's.) The experience helped convince Storm CEO Karen Bryant the following offseason that Agler was the right choice to replace Anne Donovan as the Storm's head coach.
"Coaching's a tough profession," said Hughes. "It's not for the meek in any way, but Brian wanted and did everything he could to position himself to be a head coach again. He said, 'OK, what have I got to do? What can I do?' His persistence was rewarded. I'm glad we had a part in it, but I think the motor was Brian."
Growing as a Coach
Abrosimova has a unique perspective on Agler, having played for him both in Minnesota and now in Seattle, eight years apart.
"I can't tell if he's changed, because he's still Brian," she said. "He's still extremely, extremely aggressive, wants to get everything very strong and powerful. I like how he treats us like yes, we win games, but we can't think about it. I know in the States it's always you win two or three games and everybody says you're the greatest team ever to play. He reminds us pretty well that we're not there yet."
In part, Abrosimova struggled with the comparison because this team is so different than the Lynx ones she played for. With young players like Abrosimova in key roles, Agler was in teaching mode during practices rather than conserving his players' energy for games as he often does now. After some thought, Abrosimova did come up with one key difference.
"When he is talking," she said, "he doesn't just say, 'You guys did a great job today.' He says, 'Swin (Cash), you did a great job rebounding,' or "Lauren (Jackson), you did a great job posting up.' I think that's one of the differences. In women's basketball, you need that. He became so much better communicating with players and letting them know whether they did a good job or a bad job."
From afar, Hughes has been impressed with the way Agler has gotten the most out of the Storm's All-Star trio of Cash, Jackson and Sue Bird. Cash flourished last season following back surgery, winning All-Star MVP honors, while Bird has played some of the best basketball of her career over the last three seasons, balancing her ability to score and to pass.
"I think Brian has really embraced with working talented players," Hughes said. "If anything, I think he utilizes them even better now - Lauren and Sue and Swin and so on and so forth. As I watch Brian, he makes really effective use of those talented people."
A major part of that has been the trust Agler has placed in his veteran players, including giving Bird latitude to control the offense on the floor.
"The cool thing about Brian is he trusts me," Bird said. "He lets me run the show when I'm out there. Of course he has his input, just like every head coach, but there are times when if I want to call a play or I think something's going to work, he lets me do that. As a player, to know you have your coach's trust gives you confidence to do that."
That manifests itself not only on the floor but also when it comes to a variety of decisions involving the team. When the Storm was presented the opportunity to play in the recent Sunset Showdown against the Los Angeles Sparks outdoors, for example, Agler texted Bird and Jackson (both playing overseas) to get their feedback. That kind of input is important to Jackson.
"He's just been a great coach in terms of always listening to what everybody wants," she said. "He always takes into consideration all the girls. I think that's important with a coach, to have that sort of rapport with everybody. He's a very respectful coach with everyone, so I think that's something that is quite endearing. Right from the word go, that made me respect him."
Keys to Success
Since becoming head coach, Agler has led the Storm to a run of regular-season success unprecedented in franchise history. With Jackson sidelined and other contributors hampered during both postseasons, the Storm has been unable to translate home-court advantage into advancing in the playoffs. Still, the team has won at a .654 clip (51-27) since Agler's arrival. Included are two 20-win campaigns, a franchise-record 22 wins in 2008 and the best start in Storm history (9-1) this season.
On the court, Storm players have been on the same page all season long. When it comes to explaining why Agler has been so successful (including his track record as a two-time champion in the ABL), though, their answers diverge.
Bird: "He's a really focused, intense guy. I just know in the last three years, being able to play with him, he just has a way about him - whether it's in practice, shootaround, before a game, during a game, he's always in that moment and he's always focused on the task at hand. He generally doesn't let the team lose focus. Obviously, we take it upon ourselves at times in games to do that, but for the most part he really holds up his end of the bargain. He makes it pretty easy to do your job."
Cash: "He loves the game. He's a basketball guy, constantly trying to figure out the Xs and Os and get better. I think great coaches have to have great players who are focused and disciplined and willing to learn. I think he's had the luxury of having that."
Jackson: "The fact that he focuses on defense. You can't win games if you don't play defense. Some teams can - Phoenix has proven they can do it - but as the league gets more talented, it's going to be harder to win by outscoring opponents, so defense is a huge part of winning and he definitely stresses that."
Camille Little: "I think his knowledge of the game. More times than not, I think it's hilarious that when we talk to Brian, it's about basketball - on and off the court. He just loves the game. I think it's something that he studies. That makes him great. He knows a lot of things about us, about the teams we play, and it helps us."
Tanisha Wright: "It helps when you have good players. That's one thing. It helps when you're the type of coach players like playing for too, because they don't mind leaving it all out on the floor, they don't mind going out and playing hard for you."
Elements of all of those aspects have surely been a factor. In Bird and Jackson, Agler inherited an enviable core duo to build around. To them, in his role as director of player personnel, he's added more talent like Cash and Little, as well as rebuilding the Storm's bench. Agler's insistence and high standards at the defensive end, as well as the soundness of his system, have helped the Storm rank among the league's best defenses over the last three seasons. And his abilities as a motivator have kept the team focused and confident in the face of injuries and other adversity.
Add that up and the sum total is one of the winningest coaches in WNBA history.