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Breakdown: Storm at Midseason

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Kevin Pelton, stormbasketball.com | July 30, 2009
As the calendar turns to August and the WNBA enters the second half of the 2009 season, the Seattle Storm remains a team that, as Head Coach Brian Agler has put it repeatedly, is "in evolution."

The ups and downs of the Storm's first half were exemplified by the last five games before the All-Star break. After consecutive home losses, the Storm reached what point guard Sue Bird called "a turning point," and indeed it was: Even with Lauren Jackson hampered by an Achilles injury, the Storm won the next three games to reach the season's halfway point with the best record through 17 games in franchise history.

Tuesday's game at San Antonio reminded that the Storm has at times been inconsistent even within games, mixing impressive runs like the 16-0 spurt that won last Wednesday's game against L.A. and a 13-2 surge to finish the previous win over Minnesota with extended scoring droughts like the team experienced in the fourth quarter against the Silver Stars.

"Basically, we're in control of destiny," said Jackson. "I don't think that any other team can come out and make us not play well. It's on our shoulders. Obviously we have to do scouts and things like that; it's part of the game, but we control our fate in the way that we play. When we play well, we're pretty much unstoppable. When we have lapses like last game, we're not."

Despite the inconsistency, with the Storm just a tick past halfway through 2009, the overall numbers put them amongst the league's elite teams.

STORM BREAKDOWN
Year Win% Rank Diff Rank ORating Rank DRating Rank Reb% Rank Pace Rank
2008 .647 t2 +2.6 4 99.2 7 94.7 4 .511 6 74.3 12
2009 .611 3 +3.5 3 101.2 3 97.5 4 .504 7 71.4 13

Though the Storm's pace is slightly behind last year's record 22 wins, the team's point differential has actually been better so far this season than it was in 2008. A key factor has been the Storm's ability to win games handily. Seattle's eight wins by double-figures are tied with Phoenix for the most of any WNBA team, while the Storm is also tied for the fewest double-digit losses (just two).

On offense, the Storm has taken a step forward this season for a variety of reasons. A healthy Swin Cash has given the team a more consistent third scorer, while Jackson is not only healthy but scoring more efficiently than she did when she was in the lineup in 2008. Led by Jackson's 47.8-percent mark from beyond the mark, and with Katie Gearlds knocking down a career-best 41.2 percent from downtown, the Storm is hitting 37.8 percent of its threes as a team, up from 31.6 percent a year ago.

At the other end of the floor, the Storm has not been quite as potent as in 2008. Though the team's ranking in Defensive Rating is unchanged, last year the Storm allowed 4.2 fewer points than the average team per 100 possessions. This year, the Storm's defense has been 2.0 points better than average on the basis of per 100 possessions.

The Storm continues to allow fewer points per game (70.7) than any other team in the WNBA. In part, that is because of the team's pace, the slowest in the league. Last year, both Chicago and New York played slightly slower than the Storm. This season, the Storm has been easily the league's most deliberate team. The next-lowest team in terms of possessions per 40 minutes has been the Sky, at 74.4.

FOUR FACTORS - OFFENSE
Year eFG% Rank OReb% Rank TO% Rank FTM/FGA Rank
2008 .460 6 .309 7 .178 6 .261 5
2009 .488 3 .302 6 .182 6 .227 8

The 2008 Storm offense could be characterized as average across the board in terms of Dean Oliver's Four Factors of Basketball Success, ranking no better than fifth but no worse than seventh in any of the core areas of offense. This season has seen the Storm improve primarily in terms of shooting. The difference is almost entirely attributable to the Storm's accuracy from beyond the three-point line, with two-point shooting making only a small gain (.456 to .463).

FOUR FACTORS - DEFENSE
Year eFG% Rank DReb% Rank TO% Rank FTM/FGA Rank
2008 .438 3 .712 4 .173 10 .237 5
2009 .465 8 .705 8 .190 4 .254 10

At the defensive end, the Storm's transition is more interesting because the team has played a different style than a year ago. The Storm has dropped off in terms of defending opponents' shots, as measured by effective field-goal percentage (which compensates for the additional value of three-pointers by counting each one as 1.5 field goals) while taking a sizeable step forward in terms of forcing turnovers. Looking more closely at the data, it is evident the transformation of the Storm's defense started at or after the team's 86-81 loss to Chicago at KeyArena on July 12. Here are the numbers for the Storm's defense over the previous 12 games of the season as compared to the last six games.

DEFENSE - LAST SIX GAMES
Year DRating eFG% DReb% TO% FTA/FGA 3P%
First 12 Games 95.8 .434 .681 .177 .336 .328
Last 6 Games 101.0 .533 .760 .218 .320 .456

Through the first 12 games of the season, the Storm was defending more or less as in 2008 - with the exception of struggling on the defensive glass. Since then, the Storm's defense has changed its stripes, allowing higher shooting percentages but forcing far more turnovers and (despite Tuesday's shortcomings in San Antonio) limiting opponents' second chances. The only team in the league forcing turnovers at the same rate over the course of the season as the Storm has the last six games is the Indiana Fever, while no team comes anywhere close in terms of defensive rebounding.

Still, the trend in terms of hot shooting is disconcerting, and Agler was well aware of it before being asked after Thursday's practice. Over the first 12 games of the season, the Storm was allowing 32.8 percent shooting from beyond the arc, which was third-best in the WNBA. Since then, opponents are making a sizzling 45.6 percent of their triples.

When the Storm has an opportunity to practice - which will be tough with next week's stretch of three games in five days, though that will be followed by four days off - defensive rotations figure to be a key topic for improvement.

Agler continues to push his daily mantra of getting better, but as the Storm enters the stretch run of the season the team is positioned well to claim home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs for the second consecutive season. With the offense playing brilliantly at times and the defense still solid, the Storm is along with Indiana one of just two teams in the league's top five in both Offensive and Defensive Ratings. That's the most balanced performance the Storm has had since winning the 2004 WNBA championship and an encouraging sign for the rest of the 2009 campaign.