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2013: A Season of Defying Expectations

October 3, 2013

Maybe they never heard the naysayers.

Or maybe they just never listened to them.

Doesn’t matter. In almost every imaginable way, the Seattle Storm had the last word this summer.

Written off by almost everyone following the back-to-back announcements that injuries would sideline All-Stars Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird for the entire season, the Storm instead defied those expectations – and met their own – by qualifying for the WNBA playoffs for the 10th consecutive year.

No other team in league’s 17-year history - not the four-time champion Houston Comets, not the arch-rival Los Angeles Sparks, not the star-studded Phoenix Mercury - ever made it to the postseason that many times in a row.

But from that very first Sunday in May when the Storm gathered for the start of training camp, it was abundantly clear that none of their many doubters were inside the lower gym at Seattle Pacific University’s Royal Brougham Pavilion.

Only believers were on the floor. Among them were Tina Thompson ... Tanisha Wright ... Camille Little ...

... and Brian Agler.

“In the offseason when we realized we weren’t going to have Sue and Lauren, we could have handled this situation a little bit differently,” Agler, who came within one vote of winning the WNBA Coach of the Year award, said in winding down his sixth season in Seattle. “But we decided to be very fair to Camille and Tanisha and Tina and to our fans that we were going to give every effort to make the playoffs – that was our goal. We never talked about who we didn’t have. We always talked about who we did have.

“It’s not our organization’s philosophy to make excuses. We approached this like any other season: with high expectations.”

Agler built his roster toward meeting those expectations, signing free-agent veterans Temeka Johnson and Noelle Quinn to bolster the core of Thompson, Wright and Little.

Johnson became a season-long starter in the backcourt, bringing a tenacious, no-fear style to the floor. Quinn began the season as a starter, then became a huge boost off the bench in multiple facets of the game, especially rebounding.

Second-year forward / guard Shekinna Stricklen played her way into a starting role and set career scoring highs on multiple occasions. Alysha Clark added some sharp shooting in a reserve role; fan favorite Ashley Robinson rejoined the team early in the season, and rookie forward Tianna Hawkins showed flashes of her potential.

It all added up to a 17-17 record, including a four-game sweep of Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and the rest of a Phoenix team that was chosen by some to win it all. ... a four-game split with L.A. ... a road victory at Eastern Conference champion Chicago. ... a homecourt triumph against defending champion Indiana ... and a playoff berth that was secured with nearly two weeks still remaining on the schedule.

“This has been one of the most rewarding seasons I’ve ever had in my whole career,” said Wright, who has been with the Storm for each of her nine years as a pro, including the record-setting 2010 championship campaign. “The type of people we had on this team, the character, the determination – everything about each and every person on this roster this year was absolutely amazing.”

TREMENDOUS SEND-OFF FOR THOMPSON

Tina Thompson
Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images

Tina Thompson receives a hug from Brian Agler as she exits the floor for the last time during a regular-season game.

Of no one was that “amazing” adjective more true than Thompson. The 38-year-old was the last remaining WNBA original, having played all 17 years of the league’s existence. She announced on May 31 that this season would be her last, then promptly went out and put together the kind of year that left many people saying she shouldn’t hang it up just yet.

Thompson wound up leading the Storm in scoring (14.9 per game) and rebounding (5.8). She was No. 9 in the league for 3-point shooting (.370), No. 10 for free throw shooting (.874) and had five double-doubles.

But it wasn’t just about the box score for Thompson.

“One thing I always tell myself and tell my teammates is play with no regrets,” Thompson said after the season-ending 58-55 loss to the Minnesota Lynx in the Western Conference semifinals. “You can always say that you could have made a shot or you could have made a free throw or you could have executed a possession. But we didn’t. The thing that we absolutely know is we left everything out there.

“When you play with everything you have, you can sleep at night.”

That, in Agler’s view, was perhaps a bigger contribution than all of those points and all of those rebounds.

“She didn’t come here to Seattle to play and necessarily to be in this situation. Her expectations were that we would be a healthy squad and would be playing for championships,” he said. “Even though we lost Sue and Lauren, she, to her credit, didn’t lose that approach or that mentality. She kept the focus.

“This wasn’t an easy season for us by any means,” Agler added, “but we stayed focused on the goal, and Tina led the charge that way.”

WHERE TO FROM HERE?

Conventional wisdom got it wrong – way wrong – about the Storm in 2013. Instead of eight or 10 or 12 wins and a lottery draft pick, they got 17 wins and a playoff berth.

Sure, Thompson is retired now. But Wright, Little, Quinn, Johnson, and Stricklen are all back.

Bird and Jackson will be, too.

Given all of that, conventional wisdom in 2014 is likely to be far different.

“We’ve got some reinforcements,” Wright said with a laugh and a grin about the impending return of the international star pair. “For us to come into this season without two of the best players in the game and be able to accomplish what we accomplished is absolutely amazing. Obviously, to have them back is going to be something special, especially because we do have a lot of people from this roster coming back next year. That’s exciting.”

Added Johnson, “What we finished with and just thinking about what will be added to the puzzle – or added back to the puzzle – it’s very scary to think about (how good we can be). I’ll just be excited to play alongside both of them. I’ve competed against them for eight years, so it will be fun.”

But on what became the final day of the season as the rain poured outside the Tacoma Dome after the Game 2 playoff loss to Minnesota, Wright wasn’t ready to let go of 2013 just yet.

“It’s hard to describe the feeling I got playing with these ladies,” Wright said. “We kept talking about enjoying this moment, because we’ll never have it again. I doubt I’ll ever have again what I felt this year – the spark, the energy, whatever you want to call it. ... I do think we realize how special this group was.”

Agler certainly did.

“I’ve been a part of three championships in professional basketball, and all of those years are very, very special,” he said. “But I can’t tell you that any of those years were more special than this season with some of the obstacles we had to overcome.”

Besides the obstacles, one might be inclined to add that the Storm also overcame the naysayers. But that might be a bit of a stretch ...

... because they clearly never listened to them in the first place.

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