Just After Midway Point, Storm Hitting Stride
After the Seattle Storm lost 76-62 to the Los Angeles Sparks at the STAPLES Center on June 24, Head Coach Brian Agler's challenge to his team was simple: get better.
"We brought some things to their attention and worked on them, rebounding being one," Agler said after the Storm's subsequent practice. "We've got hopefully a couple more days to try to get better. Our focus right now is just getting better. We've got to get better in some areas and also prepare for the next game."
That approach has worked. At home for the last two weeks with a light schedule, the Storm has put together three consecutive strong performances, beating the Washington Mystics, New York Liberty and Minnesota Lynx by a combined 53 points. On the strength of the winning streak, the Storm finds itself four games above .500 for the first time since starting 5-1 and a game out of first place in the Western Conference.
It was to be expected that, in Agler's first season at the helm of a team that added three new players to the starting lineup, it would take some time for the Storm to jell. When the team then came out of the gates 5-1, the Storm looked invincible. However, the team's comebacks and narrow victories by four points at Phoenix and one point over Houston helped conceal some issues that became more apparent over the next nine games as the Storm went 3-6.
The practice time the Storm has had over the last two weeks has helped Agler address those troublesome areas and get the team going.
Of particular importance has been the Storm's improvement on the defensive glass, a major weakness earlier in the season and one of the areas the coaching staff focused on in practice. Through the loss at Los Angeles, the Storm was rebounding 66.7 percent of opponents' misses, well below the league average of 68.9 percent. The Storm has not allowed double-figure offensive rebounds to the opposition in any of the last three games, rebounding on the defensive glass at a dominant 78.9 percent rate.
Coming up with those rebound is crucial for the Storm because the team has been as good as anyone in the league at forcing missed shots. Only Los Angeles allows a lower shooting percentage than the Storm's 39.0 percent, and the team is also third in the league in lowest opponent three-point percentage.
Overall, Seattle ranks fourth in the WNBA in Defensive Rating, allowing 94.9 points per 100 possessions. That's 3.8 points fewer per 100 possessions than the league average, which represents a major improvement over the last three years. The Storm was below average on defense each of the last three seasons. The last time the Storm defended this well was during the championship 2004 campaign, when the team ranked third in the WNBA in Defensive Rating but was only 2.3 points better per 100 possessions than league average.
The tradeoff for the improved defense has come at the other end of the floor, where the Storm's offense has struggled compared to the offenses that were annually amongst the league's best over the last five years. Seattle ranks eighth in the WNBA in Offensive Rating, though the Storm's 99.6 points per 100 possessions are slightly better than league average.
While some slippage on offense was to be expected because of the new system and the focus Agler and the coaching staff have put on the defensive end of the floor, there's also reason to believe that the Storm's offense has yet to peak. Even after making a season-high eight three-pointers against Minnesota, the Storm is still shooting 29.1 percent from long distance this season, the only WNBA team under 30 percent. For a team that features a pair of the league's better shooters in the starting lineup in Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson with sharpshooter Katie Gearlds coming off the bench, the poor shooting doesn't make sense.
Indeed, Bird and Jackson - the Storm's two biggest three-point threats - are shooting worse from three-point range than would be expected based on their past history. Bird, a 37.9 percent career three-point shooter whose 33.8 percent accuracy in 2007 was a career low, is hitting 28.8 percent this season. Jackson, who shot 40.2 percent from downtown a year ago, is down to 28.2 percent this year. There's no particular reason to believe either players' accuracy has gotten worse, but three-point shooting tends to be fluky.
Even before her career-high-tying 17-point outburst Saturday, Gearlds was shooting a respectable 35.7 percent from downtown. It's been on two-point shots where Gearlds has struggled this season, hitting 25.9 percent of her attempts. Often, Gearlds simply hasn't had the chance to get going.
"I don't think it's anything on her. It's more on us in terms of our rotation," Agler said before Gearlds' strong outing against the Lynx. "I still believe Katie is going to get some great opportunities this year before it's over with. You're only allowed to have five on the floor - it's a tough thing. She's played well, practiced well. We have a lot of confidence in her."
When the Storm shoots the ball as well as it did against Minnesota, the floor is opened up for the rest of the team. When those open looks are there, the Storm has done a terrific job of delivering the ball. Led by Bird, who is averaging a league-leading 6.3 assists per game, the Storm is assisting on 64.0 percent of its field goals, third best in the WNBA. One criticism entering the season was that the Storm's experienced starting five would be unable to share the ball. Instead, if there has been an issue it has been the opposite, with overpassing at times causing the Storm to have to rush to beat the shot clock.
While Jackson figures to shoot the ball better from distance than she has thus far, getting her to spend more time in the post and establish stronger position has paid tremendous dividends over the last two games. Jackson scored 67 points in the wins over New York and Minnesota and could have gone for more had she not sat out the entire fourth quarter of the blowout win over the Lynx. Jackson missed just two two-point shots in 15 attempts in the game, shooting 15-for-22 overall.
"About 10 days ago we talked about getting more of a balance from Lauren inside and out," said Agler after the New York game. "She's a great three-point shooter, but she's also awfully tough with her back to the basket. She's starting to buy into that."
Just as Jackson has found her MVP stride, the Storm will soon be forced to contemplate life without its go-to player. After Saturday's game against Los Angeles, Jackson will leave for Australia to train with the Opals National Team in advance of next month's Beijing Olympics. When asked last week about playing without Jackson, Agler jokingly wondered why reporters would want to force him to think about the possibility. According to numbers tracked by Paul Swanson of the Minnesota Lynx, the Storm has been 19.1 points better per 40 minutes with Jackson on the floor than on the bench so far this season - the third-largest margin in the league (Bird is slightly ahead in second, at 19.2).
Without Jackson, it will be important for the rest of the starting lineup to step up its scoring, but the Storm should be able to survive defensively without the league's reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Jackson's absence figures to mean more minutes for reserves Camille Little and Ashley Robinson, two of the team's best defenders who bring energy off the bench.
Besides Jackson's absence, the Storm will also have to overcome its difficulty winning on the road the rest of the way. Just 1-6 away from KeyArena this season, the Storm will play four out of the five games Jackson will miss on the road. Overall, 10 of the team's last 16 games will come on the road.
The last challenge facing the Storm is the difficult Western Conference playoff race. The Storm is only a game out of first place but has just a two-game cushion on the final playoff spot, and last-place Sacramento is a mere three games back of the Storm. To emerge from this group, the Storm must continue playing the kind of focused basketball, strong at both ends, that marked the recent homestand. The ability and cohesion are clearly there for the Storm to play with anyone, as shown by comfortable wins over San Antonio and Detroit, amongst others, at KeyArena. The Storm's hot streak has also given the team the league's fourth-best point differential (+2.6 points per game, trailing just Los Angeles in the Western Conference).
"I think we're playing well," said Agler, "but we haven’t played our best yet.
"I think it's helped us once we've gotten everybody together and get them in the practice setting and we can talk about things and walk through things. But we've got half of the season to go - or I guess we're one game into the second half of our season, aren't we? We'll see."