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Brian Agler for Coach of the Year

September 3, 2013

Tanisha Wright heard the question, and couldn’t help herself.

Before the nine-year Seattle Storm guard could answer it, she had to laugh. Not just any laugh – but rather, one of those “Are you kidding me?” kind of laughs.

In a season destined to be different long before the opening tip-off in May, the query to Wright nearly 30 games in was whether head coach Brian Agler was doing anything different to handle it.

“No-o-o,” Wright said – and then came the laugh – “not at all.”

“Since he has been here, he’s been the same,” she added. “He hasn’t changed much in terms of what he demands from you, what he expects from you, how he approaches every single game the same way, the same intensity the same focus as a coach.

“He wants each player to do that, as well.”

Consider it done. The Storm, who are back in KeyArena on Saturday night at 7 for the second of three straight games against league-leading Minnesota, have surpassed most everyone’s expectations by playing their way into the postseason picture.

The only question now is whether they’ll go in as the No. 4 seed out of the rugged Western Conference, or possibly overtake Phoenix for the No. 3 spot.

“I’ve coached a lot of teams. I’ve coached a lot of good teams,” said the 55-year-old, whose current total of 248 victories -- 170 in the WNBA, 78 with the Columbus Quest from 1996-98 in the American Basketball League -- continues to extend his lead as the winningest coach in women’s pro basketball history. (He's 248-165 altogether; 269-177 counting playoffs.) “We’ve won championships (two with Columbus, then in 2010 with Seattle), which are very special situations and moments – and the only thing that can match that is winning another championship.”

“But in regards to just this team and from a day-to-day standpoint, this team is as enjoyable to coach as any team I’ve had.”

ABOVE AND BEYOND

Certainly, it has succeeded against the odds perhaps more than any team Agler has had.

In a span of 35 days last winter, it was announced that Seattle’s two biggest stars – forward / center Lauren Jackson (hamstring), and guard Sue Bird (knee surgery) would miss the season. Backup center Ann Wauters, who stepped in for the first half of the 2012 while Jackson focused her attention on the Australian Olympic team, said she would not return for family reasons.

With all of that out in the open, conventional wisdom around WNBA nation was that the Storm might as well write off 2013 – even more so after Phoenix drafted all-everything Brittney Griner at No. 1, and Tulsa took Skylar Diggins at No. 3.

If Agler heard that, he wasn’t buying it. He still had eight-year veteran Wright, seven-year vet Camille Little, and seemingly ageless 16-year veteran Tina Thompson.

“Even when we’ve had Sue and Lauren, we’ve adjusted from year to year,” Agler said. “You have to adjust no matter what team you have or what players you have.”

He had time on his side to ponder potential replacements. Agler signed veteran guards Temeka Johnson and Noelle Quinn, and drafted 6-3 forward Tianna Hawkins with the No. 6 overall pick.

“He went out in free agency and created opportunities for people to come in and help put them together. That was big,” said San Antonio Silver Stars head coach Dan Hughes, whom Agler served as an assistant coach (2005-07) prior to coming to Seattle. “He has been able to create chemistry with this system and those players in a way that has kept them evolving all year.”

Having played in Agler’s system for five years before watching this season unfold from her vantage point on the sidelines, Bird isn’t the least bit surprised that he found two key veteran contributors who could join Wright, Little, and Thompson, and make it work.

“He has a way of coaching no matter who it is,” Bird said. “He’s going to get you to play at a very high level no matter who’s in the locker room.

“He definitely would be my vote for Coach of the Year,” she added. “No doubt about it.”

CONFIDENCE IS CONTAGEOUS

Wright had no doubt that Agler’s carefully considered personnel moves and his own firm belief in those moves could get the Storm where they ultimately wanted to go:

Back to the playoffs for a WNBA-record 10th straight year.

“As far as what everybody else (thought), it doesn’t matter,” Wright said. “As long as he, as a coach, felt that this team was a well put-together team that could be successful, then it’s able to happen.”

In fact, San Antonio’s Hughes was ahead of most everyone else regarding the Storm’s chances. Many figured Seattle might win 10 games, maybe a few more. But Hughes, very familiar with Agler, said that even in the Storm’s situation, “I would have seen them as a .500 team.”

That’s exactly where they are – 15-15 – with four games left in the season. They’ve put together a pair of three-game winning streaks, swept the four-game season series from Phoenix, split four with Los Angeles, won at Eastern Conference-leading Chicago, and have seven road victories altogether. Seattle ranks No. 3 in fewest points allowed, is the third-best team at the foul line, and has four of its five starters (occasionally all five) averaging in double figures.

A year ago after 30 games, the Storm were 13-17, had lost all five games to Los Angeles, won just six on the road, and had only three players averaging in double figures – Bird and Jackson being two of those upon their return from the Olympics.

“I look at it the same as we do every year: We just try to improve every day and take one day at a time and take each game at a time, and keep improving,” Agler said. “That’s really your goal. If you focus on something different than that, you lose track of what’s the most important thing.”

For Agler, personal accolades rank low on his list of “most important things.” But his name likely will be part of the discussion for WNBA Coach of the Year, an honor he first won in 2010.

“He did a great job of assembling this team this year,” Wright said. “He got players that fit the way he likes to play basketball and the way he likes to coach basketball.”

Added Bird, “The best part is that nobody really expected our team to do anything. Now ... we’ll be in the playoffs.

“I don’t know if many teams could have, quote, unquote “survived” losing two of their best players and still have been as dangerous as this team is,” Bird said. “It also speaks to the players.

“But it was Brian leading the way, for sure.”

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