Storm Confident Entering Free Agency

Sept.: Storm Hoping for Continuity in 2009 Player Movement Central
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Kevin Pelton, | December 15, 2008
What promises to be one of the most interesting offseasons in WNBA history tips off in earnest today with free agency opening for business. Teams and players can begin negotiating contracts now, and can start signing them on Jan. 5. Seattle Storm Head Coach and Director of Player Personnel Brian Agler already knows what the team's goals are entering free agency.

"Our number one priority is to re-sign Lauren Jackson," said Agler. "Second is to sign Tanisha Wright, and then find players that can support us at the point guard position. Those are the priorities. Now, does it time up exactly like that? Probably not. The free-agent situation and putting your roster together is like trying to put a puzzle together with the pieces constantly moving and taking shape. It's a situation that does take time."

"Putting your roster together is like trying to put a puzzle together with the pieces constantly moving and taking shape."
Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images
While Agler is preaching patience, he has wasted no time making sure Jackson knows how important she is to the Storm's future. Agler traveled to Moscow over the weekend to see three of the team's players - Jackson and point guard Sue Bird (who is under contract) of Spartak Moscow Region and Dynamo Moscow center Janell Burse, whose rights are owned exclusively by the Storm after she chose not to play during the 2008 season.

Agler plans to, "Spend time with Sue and Lauren, watch them play and practice," he said. "See Janell practice - I won't watch her play, but I'll watch her practice, visit with her a little bit. I have good relationships with all three of those people and want to talk with them about this coming year and the years beyond."

Jackson is an unrestricted free agent for the first team thanks to the WNBA's new Collective Bargaining Agreement. After one additional year where teams were allowed two core designations, as under the old CBA, teams are now limited to one apiece. The Storm's core player is Bird because she is still playing out a contract signed as a core player last offseason.

That means that Jackson is a free agent with no strings attached, able to sign wherever she wants. It's also possible Jackson could elect to take a season off from the WNBA, as she has mentioned in the past. Agler will make the case for Jackson to return, and he's certainly not shy about discussing her importance.

"Top priority for our team," he said. "I think I've been on record as saying that from the end of last season. Lauren is vital to our Storm franchise. She's important, she's one of the top players in the world if not the top player in the world. A tremendous competitor, an excellent person. A tremendous ambassador for the Seattle Storm. I don't know if I can really tell you how important she is, because I would be repetitive. I'm not sure I have enough adjectives. We're just going to be proactive with it and keep talking with her. She understands what the Seattle Storm is all about."

With Wright and the Storm's other restricted free agents - Shyra Ely, Ashley Robinson and Kelly Santos - the team is in position to match any offers, having tendered each player a qualifying offer. After a breakout 2008 campaign, Wright is sure to draw plenty of attention on the open market, and the team has planned accordingly.

"We know that Tanisha for sure is going to be at a level higher than the minimum," said Agler. "We're prepared for that. I know she wants to be here. Obviously had a great year for us, a very impactful player. We'll just keep talking with her representative."

Burse could be another important domino. The Storm's starting center from 2005-07, she was replaced by veteran Yolanda Griffith (now an unrestricted free agent) as she decided to take a summer off to rest from the grind of playing basketball 12 months a year. At times, the Storm missed Burse's scoring presence in the paint, especially in Jackson's absence.

"If we would have had Janell a year ago in the playoffs without Lauren," Agler said, "it could have made a difference for us. She's a very good player, playing very well right now. We'll talk with her and her agent and see if we can't get her back in a Storm uniform."

Under contract for 2009:
Sue Bird
Swin Cash
Katie Gearlds
Camille Little
Sheryl Swoopes

Unrestricted free agents:
Yolanda Griffith
Lauren Jackson

Restricted free agents (Storm has the right to match any offer):
Shyra Ely
Ashley Robinson
Kelly Santos
Tanisha Wright

Reserved players (Can negotiate only with Storm):
Kimberly Beck
Janell Burse
Kristen O'Neill

At the same time the Storm is attempting to bring its own free agents back in the fold, the team will also be exploring possible additions. There are a handful of veteran point guards on the market, a group headlined by a familiar name in Seattle - Tully Bevilaqua, an unrestricted free agent after spending the last four seasons as a starter in Indiana. Shannon Johnson, who played for Agler in the ABL, became an unrestricted free agent when she went unselected in last week's Houston Comets Dispersal Draft. Connecticut's Jamie Carey, a restricted free agent, is another available veteran option.

The breakup of the Comets threw another curve into free agency, with players like Johnson suddenly on the market. Houston surely would have cored either Tina Thompson or Michelle Snow, but both players are now unrestricted and looking for new homes (assuming Thompson wishes to continue playing in the WNBA). There is one less team competing for free agents, and a handful of teams bolstered their rosters with the addition of former Comets in the Dispersal Draft. The effect of the league contracting to 13 teams may not entirely be felt until this spring, when roster spots will be hard to come by.

"It's going to be very competitive for some of these players that are free agents to land spots on teams," explained Agler. 'It's going to be very demanding, whether it's free agents, players that don't have guaranteed contracts or rookies coming into the league to land spots on teams. That's how I see it playing out. It's tight."

As free agency opens, there are many variables in play and an uncertain timeline as free agents make their decisions. If that sounds complicated, that's because it is. However, the Storm has spent the last couple of months going over the possibilities in order to be prepared for what transpires over the coming weeks and months.

"It does take quite a bit of strategy and you have to have plans A, B, C, D and E and be ready to go to plans F, G, H, I and J," Agler said. "It's ever-changing. But knowing that and going into it sort of gives you a good perspective. We feel confident we can put a very competitive team on the floor and there's a strong chance it could look very similar to the team we had last year."