Aaron Last/Storm Photos
Sue Bird: The Storm's Leader on the Floor
Kevin Pelton, stormbasketball.com | Sept. 9, 2010
When he spotlighted Sue Bird for the role she played in winning him Coach of the Year, Seattle Storm Head Coach Brian Agler pointed to one trait of Bird's in particular that made her such a pleasure to coach. "She doesn't get caught up in the numbers game," Agler said. He was slightly off.
As much as any player on the Storm, Bird is aware of her statistics. After most games, she'll survey a box score before talking to the media. But Bird won't bother glancing at the points column, or even her shot attempts. Bird's primary concerns are how many turnovers she's committed, and how many assists she's handed out.
"When you have the ball in your hands the majority of the time with people trying to pressure you, forget assists for a second - if you can just not turn the ball over, that's huge," explained Bird. "But if you can have assists double your turnovers, that's great. Triple them? Even better."
Bird has seen some sparkling numbers when she's looked at box scores this season, like an 11-assist, no-turnover outing against Phoenix in June that tied her own franchise record for most assists in a game without a turnover. By the end of the regular season, Bird finished as the league's leader in assist-to-turnover ratio, handing out 3.2 assists for each turnover, far and away the best ratio of her career.
"It meant a lot," she said of leading the league. "I know that I play a lot of minutes, and I bet if you look at who has the ball the most as a percentage of minutes, I'm definitely up there. So to know that I create more for my team than hurt, it's definitely something I'm proud of."
It's that kind of team-first mentality that led both Agler and teammate Lauren Jackson, the WNBA's 2010 MVP, to praise Bird while accepting their awards last week.
"Sometimes, she flies under the radar," said Agler. "She gives everybody the opportunity to just do their jobs the best they can. She's a very low-maintenance person, but she's a high-maintenance player. She does a lot of work."
"I think Sue doesn’t necessarily get the recognition that she should be getting," noted Jackson. "As a point guard, she really is a general and floor leader. She distributes the ball. She does everything. I would not have won that award without her. I wouldn't have won any of them without her. She's that good of a player. She makes everybody better."
When Agler arrived in Seattle before the 2008 season, he made it his task to make Bird better by making her more of a scoring threat. She had averaged a career-low 10.4 points per game in 2007, losing some of the willingness to attack that made her dangerous as both a scorer and a passer.
When Jackson was sidelined down the stretch in 2008 and 2009, Bird had no choice but to look to score, and that experience and Agler's guidance have helped her find better balance. The result has been not only more scoring but also more assists - Bird led the league last season with 5.8 per game and maintained that same average this year, slipping to second in the WNBA.
"Sue's a great point guard," said Agler. "You don't want to ever take away the point guard instincts that she has because they're as good as you get, but obviously when she has the ability to score it helps us as well. She can create her own shot, she's dangerous in pick-and-rolls, she's good in the open floor. I think so far it's worked out alright."
One subtle change Agler has made is giving shooting guard Tanisha Wright ballhandling duties in late-game situations. On paper, it seems odd to have Bird off the ball instead of looking to score or distribute, but her shooting ability makes her a factor from the wings. Over the last two seasons, Bird has hit a series of clutch three-pointers, none of them bigger than her game-winning shot with 2.8 seconds left in Sunday's Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals at Phoenix.
"If you want the ball to be in anyone's hands at the end of the game (for a shot), it would definitely be her," said Jackson. "She's good at it. She's proved it all year. She's hit a number of shots that have gotten us back into games, that have won us games, over the years. Out of anybody in the world that I've played with, her and Diana (Taurasi) are the two people whose hands I'd want the ball in if I was playing with them."
"We've seen her do it many a time," said Agler, explaining why he wasn't surprised Bird made the shot. "Sue, she's hit multiple big shots. She has the ability to focus in these types of situations."
The big shots and sure-handed play begs the question - is Bird, in her ninth WNBA campaign, playing the best basketball of her career? While her per-game averages have been more impressive in the past, this was Bird's best season as a passer. She also enjoyed some of her best efficiency as a shooter, hitting 39.9 percent from beyond the arc.
"I don't know," she said. "I think I'm definitely a different player than I probably was eight years because I'm more experienced and I've been around longer. Situations are a common experience as opposed to being new. So yeah, I think I'm probably a different player. Whether I'm better I don't know."
Jackson, meanwhile, is unwilling to entertain the notion. To Jackson, Bird has always played at this level. It's simply the success of the Storm as a team that has allowed her to shine.
"I remember when she came out of college how great she was then," Jackson said. "She's still great now. She's a very consistent point guard. Every year, you know what to expect from Sue, and you get it every year. I think it's difficult to say this is the best she's played because we haven't been in position like this in a long time. I think she played great last year; we just didn't have this opportunity. I think Sue's been playing awesome her whole life. I think she's the best point guard in the world, no doubt about it. What you're seeing out of her now is what you would expect of somebody with that amazing ability."