Storm Prepares for Life Without LJ

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Kevin Pelton, | July 17, 2008
In the afterglow of a thrilling 70-52 victory Saturday over the Los Angeles Sparks, Seattle Storm Head Coach Brian Agler was forced by the media to consider something he had largely been putting off to focus on the next game on the team's schedule. Saturday's win was Storm forward Lauren Jackson's last game before leaving for Australia to train with her national team for Beijing, leaving the Storm without the league's reigning MVP for the last five games before the league breaks for the Olympics.

"We haven't really been thinking about this, although in the back of my mind I haven't really been looking forward to this day," Agler told reporters. "At the same time, I'm also very confident with the group we have that we can stay on the path of getting better every day and being competitive in this league."

"It's not going to take one person to kind of fill her spot and score those points and get all those rebounds and do all those things that Lauren does. It's going to be a team effort at both ends."
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
There is a reason Jackson has twice been voted the WNBA's most valuable player, and her value to the team has been reflected by her absence in the past. During Jackson's sophomore season, the Storm started 3-1 with her on the sidelines due to a sprained ankle. Since 2003, Jackson's first MVP season, the Storm has won only one of the 11 games she has missed due to injury or for personal reasons. That's mitigated somewhat by the fact that nine of the 11 games have been played away from the friendly confines of KeyArena, but clearly the Storm has missed Jackson.

"You can't replace her and what she does," said Storm point guard Sue Bird. "You really can't. I don't know that any team could lose their best player and not feel like they have to make up for that. So it's going to be hard, but I think we have a lot of veterans. We have players who have the ability to step up and do those things. It will just be a collective group effort."

There's reason to believe that this year's Storm squad is better equipped than past teams to deal with Jackson's absence, starting with the team's current six-game winning streak. At 14-7, the Storm is winning at a franchise-record clip and brings momentum and confidence into the span without Jackson. In particular, the bench has played a key role in the winning streak, and it is the same reserves who will be asked to help absorb Jackson's minutes.

"It's an opportunity for somebody to step in and make some plays," said backup forward Katie Gearlds. "We've played a little bit better here in the last few games. It does great things for our confidence because we've contributed in games in the last six games or so."

This year's Storm starting lineup is laden with veterans who are used to the responsibility of creating offense. Bird, who has played her entire career alongside Jackson, is the only Storm starter who has never led her team in scoring. Bird, whose scoring average this season (13.0 points per game) is her highest since her rookie campaign, Swin Cash and Sheryl Swoopes are likely to emerge as the team's go-to scorers.

"It's not going to take one person to kind of fill her spot and score those points and get all those rebounds and do all those things that Lauren does," Bird said. "It's going to be a team effort at both ends, in every regard, in every statistical category, in every which way possible. Everybody has to pick up a little bit of that slack."

So far this season, the Storm has naturally been a far better team with Jackson on the court. The team has been 18.1 points per 40 minutes better when Jackson plays as compared to when she is on the bench according to Paul Swanson of the Minnesota Lynx, the league's third largest net plus-minus behind San Antonio's Sophia Young and teammate Bird. It's a testament to Jackson's value that this is actually the best the Storm has played without her in the last three years. Jackson's net plus-minus rating was +20.8 in 2006 and an eye-popping +27.8 a year ago.

The Storm cut into Jackson's net plus-minus during Saturday's game, when she sat much of the second half in foul trouble. The Storm was +6 in the 10:29 Jackson spent on the bench, expanding the lead on Los Angeles even as Jackson watched during the third and fourth quarters. Agler said after the game he wished Jackson had been in there, but, "It was good for us for that to happen."

The net plus-minus is revealing in terms of how the Storm can succeed without Jackson. While the offense has been much worse with her on the bench, the team's defense has only dropped off slightly. With strong defenders Camille Little and Ashley Robinson likely to pick up some of Jackson's minutes, the Storm can dominate with defense even without last year's Defensive Player of the Year.

"If we come out and play the way we have played defensively even when she leaves," said Swoopes, "there's no doubt in my mind that we're very capable of getting some of those wins while she's gone."

At the other end of the floor, the Storm loses its go-to player on offense. Jackson ranks third in the WNBA in scoring at 20.2 points per game and Bird is the only other Storm player to reach the 20-point mark so far this season. While Jackson had been struggling from the perimeter, her post-up ability will be hard to replace. Agler wants to maintain the inside-outside balance that has been effective for the Storm during its winning streak, which will mean opportunities down low for Cash and Yolanda Griffith, amongst others, but will also require the Storm's coach to be creative in his playcalling.

Agler's hope is that the Storm will continue to play relatively the same style in Jackson's absence.

"I think the change, obviously, is going to be in who and how we sort of absorb the minutes that she was playing," he said. "I don't know if we're going to play any differently. Right now, we're still up in the air in who and how we'll absorb those minutes and what people will be taking those minutes."

Depending on foul trouble, starting center Griffith could add to her 21.1 minutes per game in this stretch. Most of Jackson's 33.0 minutes a night will be divvyed up to reserves. Backup post players Little and Robinson will naturally step up, while Gearlds and guard Tanisha Wright could also step in for Jackson as starters in smaller lineups. Agler has said he plans to choose his fifth starter depending on matchups with the opponent. Wright figures to finish many games as the Storm's pseudo-sixth starter. Jackson's absence could also be an opportunity for forward Shyra Ely and center Kelly Santos to join the Storm's rotation.

"We've got to do it as a committee," said Robinson. "It's going to be me and Shyra and Camille and Kelly (up front). Between the four of us, we should be able to fill that void a little bit."

The extra playing time for the bench could be helpful down the line if it means Agler has more trust in his reserves and they are more confident on the floor. That was the case in 2004, when Jackson missed the Storm's first three games after the Olympics break. While the Storm lost all three, the team was more comfortable when Jackson was limited by foul trouble in the first half of Game 1 of its playoff series with Minnesota, stepping up to take a halftime lead and earn a crucial victory.

"It's an opportunity for us to get a little bit more playing time, a little bit more in the groove of things, confidence even," Robinson said. "When she comes back, we'll still be building off of those minutes and helping her out even more when she gets back."

The Storm will surely miss Jackson over the next five games. That doesn't mean the team cannot succeed in her absence.

"I think we all know it's going to be tough," said Swoopes, "but at the same time I think we all believe that we can get it done. We better believe that."

Lauren Jackson has missed 18 games during her Storm career. Here's how the Storm has fared without her, season by season.

2001: 0-3: Jackson missed one game in June with a mild concussion and the last two of the season with a sore right shoulder. The Storm lost all three.
2002: 3-1: Jackson missed the season's first four games with a sprained right ankle. With a rookie Bird stepping up to average 19.0 points and 6.3 assists, the Storm went 3-1.
2003: 0-1: During her first MVP campaign, Jackson missed only one game with a sore right foot and the Storm lost at Indiana.
2004: 0-3: Jackson missed the Storm's first three games after the Olympics with a sprained right mid-foot and returned home to visit her dying maternal grandmother. The Storm nearly won in Los Angeles, but lost all three games.
2006: 1-3: The Storm's lone win without Jackson since 2002 came in a seemingly-impossible situation. The team played the second game of a back-to-back in L.A., but handed the Sparks their first home loss of the season by a 75-67 final. Later, the team lost when Jackson missed one game with plantar fasciitis and rested her shins the last two games of the regular season.
2007: 0-3: The Storm played well at Sacramento without an ill Jackson, losing 81-72 on June 7. She missed two road games in August to return home just prior to the death of her paternal grandmother. The Storm, also without starting center Janell Burse, was blown out in both games.