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Is This "The Perfect Storm?"
When the Seattle Storm wrapped up the 2007 season last August, it was with a sense of disappointment in the air. The Storm had entered the season with legitimate championship aspirations, but followed up a 17-17 regular season with a two-game playoffs sweep at the hands of the Phoenix Mercury. As players departed for their offseason homes, it was with the knowledge that the Storm would make moves to end the team's streak of losing in the first round of the playoffs three straight seasons. Yet no one could have imagined the sweeping changes in store for the Storm over the next eight months.
By the time players returned to The Furtado Center to begin 2008 training camp, the Storm had a new ownership group, a new head coach and three new starters with All-Star track records. Most importantly, all the changes produced a new sense of optimism that was palpable for players and observers alike.
"Last season we kind of left on a bit of a low, obviously not winning," MVP Lauren Jackson said after arriving late to training camp following her season in Russia. "It feels different because it's just a fresh start. It feels like everything's completely changed and I think that's why it feels so different right now."
The Storm's offseason was, in every sense, unprecedented. Aside from a couple of announcements related to USA Basketball, the team had not held a press conference out of season since introducing Anne Donovan as the Storm's new head coach in December 2002. The first one of the 2007-08 offseason came when then-COO Karen Bryant addressed Donovan's decision to resign in November. Starting in January, the news came in rapid succession. The sale of the team was announced Jan. 8, followed by Brian Agler's introduction as Donovan's replacement a day later. On Feb. 19, the Storm traded for Swin Cash. March brought Sheryl Swoopes to Seattle as a free agent, and Yolanda Griffith followed in April.
The news reverberated around the world as Storm players spent their offseasons overseas. In Moscow, Spartak teammates Jackson and Sue Bird learned about the team's makeover together.
"Sue and I, every morning, we'd get up and discuss what happened yesterday," recalled Jackson. "We were together when we heard everything - when we got the e-mail from Anne, when we heard about the new ownership, signing these guys [Cash, Griffith and Swoopes]. It was great."
THE WEIGHT OF EXPECTATIONS
When it comes to the Storm's starting lineup of Bird, Swoopes, Cash, Jackson and Griffith, the numbers are staggering. 26 All-Star appearances. 16 All-WNBA First Team selections. Six MVPs. Five Defensive Player of the Year awards. Seven Olympic gold medals and two silver medals. Nine WNBA championships.
Inevitably, the combined success of the Storm's stars has produced a great deal of hype about the team. Griffith compared the Storm to the NBA's Boston Celtics, who posted the league's best regular-season record, and later called this "a dream team." Meanwhile, while the Storm's marketing tagline, emphasizing that this is "The Perfect Storm," isn't necessarily meant to be taken literally, it's hard to miss the implication.
WINDS OF CHANGE:
When it comes to managing expectations, Agler can draw on his experience coaching the ABL's Columbus Quest. After the Quest came out of nowhere to dominate the league's first season and won the inaugural ABL championship, the team entered year two expected to repeat.
"We had a similar type of hype there," Agler recalled. "Locally, expectations were high. You've just got to keep people focused, hungry, driven."
Agler also learned with Columbus the importance of reading how his players handle expectations. The Storm's players have embraced them, to an extent. During their initial press conferences in Seattle, both Griffith and Swoopes spoke openly about their desire to win another championship and their belief that they could achieve that goal in Seattle.
At the same time, because the Storm's stars have all won WNBA championships, they realize that nothing will be given to them. They understand the kind of work and sacrifice that is required to play at a championship level.
"It's an amazing roster Brian and the coaching staff put together," Griffith said at media day. "This is a lot of talent, but talent doesn't win championships. There's going to be a lot of sacrifices each individual is going to have to mark. We have to have a great starting lineup; we have to have a great supporting cast. We all have to do something every night to make this work. It's going to be interesting."
Ever the cautious coach, Agler isn't willing to make any kind of bold proclamations about the Storm. At the same time, there is a quiet confidence in the way he talks about the team.
"I'm not concerned about the hype so much because we are who we are," he said. "We're not going to approach it where we're going to be afraid to lose, and we're not going to approach it where we're going to be afraid to win. We're just going to go out and play and try to do the best that we can. I'm confident, though, that if we can collectively play together and defend and execute our offense, we'll have an opportunity to win a lot of games. If we don't, then we won't."
When the Storm added Cash, Griffith and Swoopes, not all of the reaction around the WNBA was along the lines of planning the route for the championship parade. Critics wonder whether five players used to being the face of their respective franchises can coexist and about the age of Griffith (38) and Swoopes (37).
"My feedback from people like other coaches and GMs is, 'How are you going to coach this team with all those egos? How are you going to fit those players together? You've got players who are over the hill,' and things like that," Agler said at Media Day. "I think there's respect for these players, obviously, throughout the league, but I think people have some question marks about us also."
For their part, the Storm's stars seem insulted by the argument that they cannot coexist. Jackson finds it ignorant considering the relationships she built with the newcomers, notably Griffith and Swoopes. The latter in particular has become a close friend to Jackson.
"I think it's a crazy comment," she said. "Obviously people don't really know the relationships we have off the court. For me, Sheryl and Yo were mentors of mine for a long time, so there's a massive respect level that I have for them and I know that I have that in return for them. I don't think it's going to be an ego problem at all, so when I heard that, I was like, 'What? Who would say that?'"
Swoopes sees it as a situation where critics have to find some flaw to pick apart in the Storm's roster.
"I can sit here today and tell you I think that is the least of (Agler's) concern is having to worry about egos and attitudes and people getting upset for whatever reason," she said. "Personally, I really don't see that being a problem.
"I think a lot of teams around the league look at this team and say, 'Wow, that's a nice roster.' On paper it is, but it doesn't matter what it looks like on paper. All that matters is when we step out on the floor. But I think they have to find something to say about it. There's got to be something wrong with it - the age or the egos or whatever."
Admittedly, the Storm's stars will have to make adjustments. However, veterans Griffith and Swoopes seem to welcome a situation where they can share the responsibility of being a go-to player and the face of their franchise. Everyone is willing to make some adjustments because the lure of a potential championship is so strong.
In Cash, Griffith and Swoopes, the Storm has also added three leaders. Their ability has demanded Bird and Jackson be leaders for the Storm, but this has not always been an entirely comfortable role for them. The veteran leadership provided by the newcomers should help a Storm team that has struggled at times to maintain its composure when things have gone wrong.
"We have five people on our team right now who are used to being the leaders on the team and being vocal, by example, whatever," said Bird. "For Swin, it was six years in Detroit. For Sheryl and Yo, it was nine, 10, 11 years on their teams.
"To be honest, let them be vocal. That's cool by me. When we're on the court, to use the football analogy, I'm definitely the quarterback. When it comes to telling people where to go and what not, that's probably my job. If people want to be vocal, the more the merrier. Once we figure out how everybody fits in and how that's going to work, I don't see it being a problem. If anything, it's going to be a huge plus."
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
All the changes mean a great deal of adjustment for the Storm's holdover players, starters Bird and Jackson and the rotation players off the bench - Tanisha Wright, Katie Gearlds, Shyra Ely and Ashley Robinson. There is the process of learning Agler's system. There's also the process of learning to play with the new players. On top of that, the Storm only got Bird and Jackson into camp within the past week. Clearly, it is going to be a while before the Storm comes together.
"I think we'll be a team that steadily gets better as the season goes and I think we have a lot of potential," said Agler. "I hope we meet that potential sometime. We've got a lot of new players. Even though they're great players, they still have to play as a team and play together. It's not that they don't want to; it's just really understanding how each other move out there on the floor and how they can work together. It's going to take some time."
"I think the good thing about it is I look at it as everything's new, from ownership to the coaches," said Swoopes. "You have the players that have been here, but even for them it's like a new start. And I think everybody's really excited about that. The good thing is, because it's a new system, I don't think anybody's going to come in here expecting certain things to happen because I don't think anyone knows what to expect."
So, Agler was asked at one point this week, when the team does come together, what will it look like?
"I hope we are as good as anybody in the league defensively," he answered, "and that we play together and we work to get open shots for our teammates and we're real cohesive out on the floor. I hope that's what we accomplish. Will we get there? I don't know, but that's what we're going to push for."
As much as anything else, it was defense that was the Storm's undoing in 2007. The team finished second to Phoenix in the WNBA in terms of points scored per 100 possessions, but was 10th in the league in per-possession defense. That was a steep drop-off from where the team once was. In 2004, when the Storm won the WNBA championship, the team had the league's second-best Defensive Rating.
In large part, Agler was hired by the Storm because of the emphasis he puts at the defensive end of the floor. In Griffith and Swoopes, the Storm brought in two players who were voted Defensive Player of the Year in their prime to team with Jackson, last year's Defensive Player of the Year. While Griffith and Swoopes have lost some of the athleticism that made them so formidable on defense, they make up for it with their basketball IQ. The veterans believe in defense because they have seen what it can do.
"I honestly feel like the team that's going to win the championship is going to be the team that can play defense," Swoopes said. "I think all of us, as players, have to take our defensive game to a whole another level. Not everybody is a great defensive player, but as a team, when you bring all of that together and you put your trust and faith in the coach and his system, then we just go out and we get the job done."
During a remarkable offseason, the Storm put all the pieces in place. The combination of talent and experience on the Storm's roster gives the team the ability to dream big. Now, starting tomorrow on Opening Night against the Chicago Sky, the Storm will look to translate that potential into results.
"The focus is there," said Cash. "The bar is set really high. We understand what the goal is and what the destination is at the end. You have to take steps every single day to get to that goal, and that's what we're doing."