Neil Enns/Storm Photos

2011 Preview: It's Not About Repeating

Kevin Pelton, | June 1, 2011

Let's get this straight up front: there will be no repeat of the 2010 WNBA championship. That doesn't mean the Seattle Storm won't win another title, but in the minds of players and coaches, what happens this season is not connected to last year's championship. While Head Coach Brian Agler realizes talk of repeating and defending is inevitable, none of it will come from him.

"We don't talk about it, but that doesn't mean you guys won't bring it up and ask; people from the outside will ask," said Agler. "From our approach, it's a totally new year and our desire is to play for this season."

For point guard Sue Bird, thinking too much about going back-to-back can be dangerous.

"I think a lot of teams who are trying to repeat," she said, "can get caught up in that."

Both Agler and Bird speak from experience that has helped shape the Storm's attitude entering the 2011 season.

Agler and Smith won back-to-back championships with the Columbus Quest. (Neil Enns/Storm Photos)

Lessons of Columbus

All nine veteran players on the Storm's final roster have won at least one WNBA championship. Yet the only repeat winners come from the ABL, where Agler and newcomer Katie Smith helped the Columbus Quest to titles in both full seasons of the league's existence, 1996-97 and 1997-98.

Like the Storm, the Quest dealt with high expectations after a record-setting romp. However, it was always clear that Columbus would be a different team in 1997-98 because league MVP Nikki McCray had defected to the WNBA, leaving Smith as the Quest's top scorer. Following a start that was only decent by Columbus' high standards, the team came together after dealing for University of Washington product Traci Thirdgill. The Quest finished the regular season 36-8 and outlasted the Long Beach Sting Rays in a five-game final series to win the title.

Agler and Smith took similar lessons from the experience, highlighting the unique nature of each individual season.

"I think you just have to understand it's not going to be the same," said Agler. "That doesn't mean it's going to be better; doesn't mean it's going to be worse. It's just not going to be the same. You have to be open to figuring out ways to get your team to excel."

"You've really got to allow last year to be last year," added Smith. "Things are going to be different, the way this whole journey is going to be. It takes a lot of mental toughness, a lot of preparation discipline every night to not take anything for granted and not think that you can just walk out on the floor and win games. You've got to prepare and go into every night with something to prove.

"It's a mindset of basically having amnesia when it comes to what you've done. Everything's all about right now and how do we find our way and how do we get it done every night?"

In 2005, Bird and Jackson were left to defend the championship without the likes of Vodichkova. (Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty Images)

This is Not 2005

The experience was very different the last time the Storm won the championship in 2004. With just a handful of players under contract the following season, the Storm was targeted by rivals in free agency. Starters Sheri Sam (Charlotte) and Kamila Vodichkova (Phoenix) signed elsewhere, as did key reserve Tully Bevilaqua (Indiana). The cast around Bird and Lauren Jackson changed dramatically as part of a transition from a veteran-laden squad to one that could grow with the young superstars.

"I think that there was a lot of pressure on them to play well and to do well," recalled Tanisha Wright, a rookie in 2005. "I don't feel that some pressure. We have our core back. We added great pieces and people have upped their game and their focus and their intensity this year."

During the offseason, Agler was able to re-sign free agents Swin Cash, Camille Little and Ashley Robinson. The Storm lost just two rotation players, reserves Svetlana Abrosimova and Jana Veselá. And while their departures should not be minimized, the Storm was able to replace them with WNBA veterans Smith and Belinda Snell. The newcomers should allow the Storm to maintain the improved depth that was crucial to last year's championship run.

In Smith and Le'coe Willingham, the team has two experienced players who have started for championship teams coming off the bench. That's a luxury for Agler.

"The way I look at our team, we've got seven starters, basically," he said. "In terms of roles, I think we've got seven starters. We'll have a group that starts - and that's the people that played last year and started - but I don't see us dropping off when we substitute. "

The Storm's stars share a hunger to win additional championships. (Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images)

Staying Hungry

Last year's Storm championship was especially meaningful for Bird and Jackson because of everything that transpired between 2004 and 2010 - first-round playoff exits, injuries and even ownership changes that briefly threatened the franchise's fate. Can 2011 provide the same motivation?

For Smith, winning repeatedly is even sweeter.

"It does feel good when you get back, because I think it is harder," she said. "People are eyeballing you, people are wanting to knock you off. They want to put it to you, basically. They're going to be up for that game. In that sense, it should make us excited to play because we're going to get everybody's best shot. That's why we play. That's why we do this."

Smith sees that same kind of attitude in her new teammates, who have won repeatedly at other levels - the NCAA for Bird and Cash and internationally for Jackson, among others.

"They've won all kinds of things, and that's why they keep winning - because they want to compete and they want to win," Smith said. "Whether they've won two straight or three straight, it's a pride thing. What are you going to do every night? You want to perform and take pride in what you do."

For Jackson, that's part of what has made this team so special.

"I guess that's why we're so good - because everyone motivates themselves," she said. "We don't really need to be pushed. It's something that just happens naturally."

Recent WNBA history does suggest that Smith is right about the difficulty of getting back to a championship level. While two of them (including the 2007 Shock with Cash and Smith) have reached the WNBA Finals, no team has repeated since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001 and 2002.

"It's human nature to sometimes relax after you've experienced success," said Agler. "Only the special teams can avoid it. Do we have that? I don't know. If we do, great. If we don't, it doesn't mean we have a bad team. There's a lot of good teams, just like there were a lot of good teams last year."

Agler's approach has kept the Storm focused. (Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images)

One Day at a Time

Agler's response is that the message stays just what it was a year ago: focus on the task at hand and finding ways to improve on a daily basis.

"We saw that if we worked together and stuck to the gameplan, it can produce a championship at the end."
- Cash

"You don't change that," he said, "because that's just to me how our team operates best in our league and our environment."

Last year, that mentality helped the Storm overcome a host of possible distractions. On the outside, expectations soared as the Storm strung together victories and challenged WNBA records. Among the team, there was never any thought of those accomplishments until the final buzzer sounded in Atlanta.

"We try to live in the moment," said Wright. "We worry about what's next, whether it's practice or games. We don't really think about the big, big picture. Obviously, that's in the back of your head, but for the most part we focus on what's immediately up next."

That mentality has helped the Storm throughout Agler's tenure, but last year might have been the ultimate testament to it. Now, players know exactly what is possible if they follow the lead set by the coaching staff.

"We saw that if we worked together and stuck to the gameplan and everyone plays their role within our system, that it works and it can produce a championship at the end," said Cash.

Bird credits the ability to think like that to the Storm's maturity; Jackson calls it an unspoken thing among the team's veterans. Whatever is responsible, it will be critical this season as teams try to knock off the Storm.

"I think that we've been there, done that, but it's going to be amped up 20 times more, especially for teams in the West who have gotten better," said Wright. "They're going to take their shots at us. We've got to go out and throw the first punch. If we do that, we'll let people know that we're here and we're ready for the challenge."

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