Aaron Last/Storm Photos
A Remarkable Run: Storm at the 2010 Break
Kevin Pelton, stormbasketball.com | July 9, 2010
As the Seattle Storm steps away from the WNBA schedule this weekend for Saturday's Stars at the Sun matchup between the U.S. National Team and a team of WNBA stars (12:30 p.m., ESPN), it does so having put together a remarkable first half of the 2010 season. A game past the midpoint, the Storm's 16-2 record is good for the third-longest run with just two losses in league history. The Storm remains unbeaten at KeyArena (10-0) and has opened up a nine-game lead on the rest of the struggling Western Conference.
Yet as Storm players look back on the first half, it's not so much the records that stand out.
"If you would have told me right now that we'd be whatever - I don't know what we are - and two, I would have said, 'Yeah, right. You're crazy.' It's been great and the best part is we've really had fun with it," said guard Sue Bird. "It's a great team, we have great chemistry, we really get along. It's been a pleasure."
"I couldn't have pictured a better first half," added forward Swin Cash. "Not so much because of the record, but how well we've played together and finding our chemistry and finding our stride."
Continuity has been a key for the Storm. Just one other WNBA team, the Indiana Fever, brought back its starting lineup intact. Change was the order of the day throughout the league, with blockbuster trades and coaching moves. In particular, the teams that made changes on the sidelines have had a tough time building chemistry. None of them has a record better than .500.
Even the additions to the bench rotation the Storm has made - veterans Svetlana Abrosimova and Le'coe Willingham and WNBA newcomer Jana Veselá - have fit in relatively seamlessly. The result has been a cohesive, talented unit that has proven capable of beating opponents in any number of styles.
The Storm has been more dominant than in the last two years, both of which saw the team win at least 20 games. Already, the team has nine double-digit wins, more than 2009 (six) and nearly as many as in 2008 (10). And the Storm's four wins by 20-plus points are more than the team had in 2008 and 2009 combined.
At the same time, the Storm has shown a remarkable ability to persevere through more challenging situations. That includes wins in the second games in both of the team's back-to-backs thus far, three wins in games Bird was limited by injury and Tuesday's victory without Lauren Jackson. Perhaps most impressive is how well the Storm has played from behind, going 7-2 when trailing entering the fourth quarter. Contrast that to 2007, when the Storm came back from a deficit after three quarters just once in 16 games.
"We're resilient," said Bird. "Beyond that, we're mature. We're a veteran team. We've been in the league long enough, everybody here, where you have to play through injuries, you have to play through bad games and you have to figure out a way to win."
From a basketball standpoint, the biggest difference for the Storm this season has been improved bench production. Last year, only one Storm reserve (center Janell Burse, who started eight games) averaged more than 4.1 points per game. The team's depth was further compromised when Burse replaced Jackson in the starting lineup late in the season and Katie Gearlds was sidelined by a torn PCL.
The bench almost entirely turned over during the offseason. Abrosimova and Willingham are both experienced starters in the WNBA who have capably filled the same role when the Storm has been struck by injuries and have been overqualified as reserves. Meanwhile, Veselá has quickly adapted her international experience to the WNBA game. When Jackson missed Tuesday's game, Veselá scored a career-high 10 points, including a pair of key three-pointers.
Even though the starting lineup features the same players as 2009, it has been more effective as a unit. A healthy Jackson has improved her averages in both scoring (19.3 to 21.4) and rebounding (7.0 to 9.0) in virtually identical minutes. Having won Western Conference Player of the Week presented by Kia Motors four of the seven weeks thus far, as well as both West Player of the Month awards to date, Jackson looks like the MVP frontrunner thus far.
Also healthy, Cash is having her best offensive season since tearing her ACL in 2004. She's increased her scoring average from 12.2 points to 15.6 points per game entirely by improving her shooting percentages. Not only is Cash's 46.6 percent shooting from the field the second-best mark of her career, she's developed three-point range. Having shot 45.5 percent from downtown thus far, Cash will participate in the Three-Point Contest before Saturday's Stars at the Sun game.
Health isn't a factor for Camille Little, but in her fourth WNBA season she continues to make strides in her development. Little is shooting 51.0 percent from the field this season, good for ninth in the WNBA, while she has suddenly become a major threat in the passing lanes, ranking second in the league with 2.1 steals per game. Tanisha Wright's progress has come as a point guard, a position she successfully handled as a starter in Bird's absence with 32 assists in a three-game stretch. Wright is seventh in the league in assists per game (4.7) while Bird (5.6) is on track to lead the WNBA in that category for the second consecutive year.
Added together, the improvements have meant a drastically different Storm offense. Seventh in the WNBA in per-possession scoring in 2008 and ninth a year ago, the Storm has led the league in Offensive Rating throughout this season. The team has also been dominant on the glass, leading the league in offensive rebound percentage and total rebound percentage.
Still, Storm Head Coach Brian Agler isn't remotely satisfied.
"I know from the outside looking in, it looks like things are absolutely perfect, but on the inside it's a grind where you just try to keep getting better and stay focused," he said. "It's probably a good time for us to get a vacation from each other from the standpoint where they're probably getting tired of hearing my voice a little bit. I told them that. It's time for some of them to get refreshed. Some of them need to keep working at it.
"It's an interesting point in the season. We feel really good where we're at, but we want to come back ready to finish this thing off when we come back on Monday."