After the Storm's big win over Los Angeles, Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson were all smiles. It would be Jackson's last game of 2008.
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Kevin Pelton, | June 5, 2009
Last July 12, the Seattle Storm dominated the Los Angeles Sparks at KeyArena. In front of a sellout crowd of more than 10,000 fans, the Storm's defense limited Lisa Leslie to 2-for-11 shooting and forced both Leslie and eventual MVP Candace Parker to turn the ball over five times in a 70-52 victory that was the lowest point total for Los Angeles all season long. The win was the Storm's sixth straight, all of them by double-figures. It was also the last game the team would play at full strength the remainder of the season, which ended when the Sparks were able to come into Seattle and win the decisive Game 3 of the teams' playoffs series.

After the game, Lauren Jackson bid her teammates goodbye, headed to Australia to join her national team to train for the Olympics. What she did not know was that she would injure her ankle in training, ultimately requiring season-ending surgery after the end of a run to the silver medal. At the same time, the condition of Swin Cash's back was worsening. She would miss the Storm's last three regular-season games and was limited to 15 minutes a night in the playoffs. Sheryl Swoopes was also limited during the postseason, having suffered a serious concussion late in the regular season.

"Our health didn't help us any. We had a series of bad luck there."
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
The Storm battled through it all, exceeding even optimistic expectations for their play without the two-time MVP by going 8-5 over the last 13 games of the season and handing Los Angeles another crushing defeat in Game 2 of the first-round series. Ultimately, though, injuries limited the Storm's run a year ago.

"Had we stayed healthy? I don't know," says Storm guard Sue Bird. "Anything could have happened. It's not to say that one player makes a team, but Lauren's a pretty important part. When she went down and then Swin was having her injury problems, same with Sheryl, it was really difficult for us. Every day we didn't know who was going to be on the court. At one point, we found out Yo (Griffith) couldn't play the day of a game, I believe at Minnesota.

"It was a tough year. The cards just didn't fall the way we wanted them to last year, but I think we easily could have gotten to the conference finals. Stuff happens. You've just got to deal with it."

"Our health didn't help us any," adds Head Coach Brian Agler. "We had a series of bad luck there with obviously Lauren, with Sheryl being in and out late in the year, with Swin's issues. I don't really reflect on that. I try to look at the good things that happened and build on that."

During the season, Agler's example kept the team focused on the players who were on the court and not those who were missing due to injury. He credits that mentality for the Storm's success down the stretch. But even he admittedly considered what might have been had the Storm stayed healthy over the course of the long offseason.

The best reference point for that might be the Storm's play in the month of July. By that point of the season, the Storm's starters had enough time in Agler's system that they were beginning to feel comfortable. The Storm's lineup was also bolstered by the addition of Camille Little in a trade with Atlanta in late June. It was Little's first game in a Storm uniform, a loss to the Sparks in L.A. in which an unsatisfied Agler benched his starters in the fourth quarter, that served as a turning point.

The Storm returned home and, after four days of practice, held Washington to 49 points in a 64-49 victory. That kicked off the six-game winning streak that saw the Storm win by an average of 16.2 points per game. It was the play in that stretch, in which the Storm clicked at both ends of the floor, that leads Bird to say that when healthy the Storm was as good as any team in the league in 2008. It's also what, at the time Jackson re-signed, Agler said he wanted to build on.

Stay tuned all week as previews the 2009 Storm:

Tuesday: Cash Enters 2009 Feeling Better After Back Surgery
Wednesday: Johnson's Addition Completes Storm Backcourt
Thursday: Storm Deep in the Post

Then get your tickets now for the Storm's 2009 Opening Night Sunday against Sacramento.

"I really felt like a year ago, the last six games or so before she left, we had a good thing going," he said. "I'm hoping we can pick up from that point on."

As was the case last season, the Storm will probably not play its best basketball until midway through the season. Last year, the Storm was noticeably better with a chance to go through several practices in a row before taking the floor. The team's worst stretches came when the schedule became compact, with back-to-back games or games every other day with travel in between. The Storm now has a core of players with experience in Agler's system, but must integrate a handful of newcomers, with Suzy Batkovic-Brown having yet to arrive from Australia.

"It's going to take some time, because we don't have everybody here, first of all," said Agler. "To get there, we had a few weeks of practice. We haven't gotten that yet with everybody on the court. If we can get that under our belts, I think we will really improve."

The Storm's mix won't be exactly the same in 2008. Janell Burse and Batkovic-Brown step in for Griffith in the post, while Shannon Johnson will be part of a three-guard rotation with Bird and Tanisha Wright, a similar role to that filled by Swoopes a year ago. The expectation is the improved post depth and greater flexibility on the perimeter with Johnson's ability to play either guard position will give the Storm a stronger lineup.

"Looking at our roster, on paper, you can potentially this start this lineup, you can start that lineup," says Burse. "When we won the championship, we had a group of players who could all start somewhere on any WNBA team and they were on the bench for us. Having a team like that where your bench players can be starters - and yeah, it has something to do with the 11-player roster - it's going to make our team so much tougher."

"Having a team like that where your bench players can be starters it's going to make our team so much tougher."
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As Burse alludes, most teams throughout the league are feeling good about their groups because there is more talent to go around with the dispersal of former Houston Comets players, a group that includes Johnson, and the reduction of rosters to 11 players per team.

"Everybody's better this year," says Agler. "You look at everybody's team and everybody's roster, everybody's stronger."

In the Western Conference, Los Angeles and San Antonio again loom as the top threats to win the conference title. While the Sparks will start the season without Candace Parker, who gave birth last month, Los Angeles has added WNBA legend Tina Thompson as well as former Storm guard Betty Lennox for Lisa Leslie's final WNBA season. The Silver Stars, the defending West champs, will bring back their core group of players after Ann Wauters returns midseason from representing Belgium in Eurobasket 2009. San Antonio will also have a healthy Shanna Crossley after she missed all of last season with a torn ACL. It would be a mistake to overlook Sacramento, which holds the longest active playoff streak in the West at six straight seasons, and Minnesota (Renee Montgomery) and Phoenix (DeWanna Bonner) have both added lottery picks.

To stand out from that group, the Storm will need to reach a similar level to last July, particularly in the defense that emerged as the team's strength last season.

"I think the one message that we all keep talking about and saying to each other is defense," says Cash. "We have to be solid on the defensive end. That's something that, throughout my whole career, I've been an avid fan of because I know it can win championships. I feel like if we buckle down defensively, we can play with anyone in this league."

The moves have been made. The preseason preparation is complete. Now, the Storm begins to work to achieve its goals on the floor.

"We feel really good," says Cash. "Obviously we don't have everybody in yet, still waiting for Suzy, but I think the energy is very upbeat. Everyone's just looking forward to the season and the people who were here last year feel like we really have some things that we need to try to establish and accomplish this year. So we're eager to get it started."