August 18, 2022 

‘Peak at the right point’: Seattle Storm enter the playoffs as strong title bet

The Seattle Storm are playing their best basketball of the season as they head into the playoffs

For three months, Seattle Storm head coach Noelle Quinn has been repeating the same idea over and over again: May and June are for growing pains and August is for the Storm’s best ball.

“Last year, Chicago won a championship being 16-16 [in the regular season]. And what they did was got hot at the right time,” Quinn said after a May loss to Phoenix. “You want to be playing the best basketball at the end of the year… We’re going through our growing pains right now and our adversity right now. Check us out in a couple of months and see where we are.”

“[We’re showing] sign[s] of a team getting better,” Quinn said after a June win in Dallas. “And our goal is to continue to peak at the right point, to where we’re playing some good basketball down the road.”

“The thing that I always think about going through the adversities is [that] Chicago won a championship at 16-16, so not just trying to look at the record and panic by any means,” Quinn said after a June loss to the Sky. “But it’s just encouraging to know that you don’t want to be great in June — we want to be great in July and August.”

“In general, you want to be playing your best basketball toward the end of the season. I don’t think that we’ve peaked quite yet,” Quinn said after a July win over Indiana. “We’re still trying to figure things out.”

The Storm have indeed peaked at the end of the regular season; Seattle went 2-1 over its last three games with a 12.0 net rating, third-best in that span, per WNBA Advanced Stats. It crushed Chicago in one of the greatest offensive showings in league history, walked over Minnesota, and went back-and-forth with Las Vegas in an instant classic. But the biggest positive to the run has been the play of center Tina Charles.

When Charles replaced down-ballot Defensive Player of the Year candidate Ezi Magbegor in the starting lineup on July 22, many were skeptical of the move, including myself. The Storm’s starting lineup to-date was one of the greatest defensive units in league history and the team was coming off a loss to the Sky in which Charles had arguably shot them out of the game. The skepticism only grew louder after her first start ended in a 16-point loss to a then-11-16 Mercury squad, with Charles a team-worst -17 plus-minus.


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Since then, Charles has been simply fantastic for Seattle. The midseason import averaged 14.3 points on 57.3% true-shooting (48.6% FG% and 37.9% 3P%), 8.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists with a two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio, and 1.8 stocks1 over the Storm’s final nine games.

But it’s not just that Charles is playing well — she’s working within the flow. Because while Charles might’ve had 16 points for a crucial July win in Washington, every point felt like the Storm had to work to deliberately get the ball to her. For the past three games, on the other hand, almost every bucket has come within the flow of the offense. Jewell Loyd is no longer being minimized, Gabby Williams hasn’t had to sacrifice on-ball reps, and Sue Bird is challenging as an off-ball shooter even more.

“I think it’s just key for me to have learned in such a small window how to play off of the ball,” said Charles. “I’ve been on teams where everything is just going through me, so I know all the play calls, I know where I have to be, post-ups, I know double teams; but here it’s very different, with the talent load that’s on this team. So just learning how to find my spots, find my gaps, running the floor hard, just trying to find easy positions, easy options to get a bucket. So I think that was just the turnover.”

With Charles’ full integration into the starting lineup, there’s frankly little weakness left for Seattle. There may be games where teams force Williams to beat them as a shooter, but the Storm can just replace her with Stephanie Talbot. There may be games where teams can target Charles in pick-and-roll (PnR), but the Storm can just replace her with Magbegor.

Seattle Storm center Tina Charles holds the ball in a triple-threat stance just inside the left corner as she stares at the hoop, while Washington Mystics center Elizabeth Williams holds a defensive stance from a couple feet in front of her with an arm outstretched towards Charles to prevent a pull-up shot.
With Tina Charles (31) a well-oiled cog in the Seattle machine, the Storm are a strong bet for the 2022 WNBA championship. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

So if there’s little to be worried about in the macro, what are Seattle’s micro-adjustments?

Defense

Get ready to cross-match

If there’s one thing that Seattle and Washington have in common defensively, it’s their uniqueness among a sea of hedge- and drop-heavy teams across the W. The Storm still run the patented Kloppenburg SOS system — though less aggressively than they did while Gary was on staff — and the Mystics go switch-heavy while varying their frontcourt assignments from lineup to lineup. So neither team is a stranger to cross-matching (when a defense deliberately assigns a number of defenders to opposing players who don’t play the same position in their respective lineups).

Quinn and co. have a tough choice on their hands regarding Washington’s frontcourt. Elena Delle Donne, who was the third-or fourth-best player in the league this year on a per-minute basis, will play next to a fairly limited big for somewhere around 32 minutes a night. That big would be Shakira Austin, their center who is startlingly good at defending all over the halfcourt and finishes well, Myisha Hines-Allen, a stout post defender who can hit threes and set good ball screens, or Elizabeth Williams, an excellent defensive center with little offensive game to speak of. Those are all players you can help off of — Hines-Allen’s outside shooting is the most dangerous offering any of them has and that’s the sort of thing coaches tend to say “we’ll live with the chance they hit 38% of their threes in exchange for being able to slow Delle Donne.”

The question then becomes: How will Seattle try to slow Delle Donne? The first answer is probably playing straight-up and letting the best defender in the league take the assignment. That puts Charles on a low-usage big, meaning she’ll have to keep her head on a swivel to watch out for cutters. That’s not her strength, but it is something that suits Magbegor in her minutes.

The other option is to cross-match: put Charles on Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart on the other big. This would allow Stewart to account for cutters and clean up when Charles gets beat, but it allows Delle Donne to get shots up against Charles simply by working away from Stewart. This series is bound to be full of push and pull and Seattle alternating between having Stewart on Delle Donne and having Stewart play help will probably be needed to keep the Mystics’ superstar off-balance.

Let Bird get hunted

In late-game situations, Seattle often deploys arguably the most talented defensive lineup in league history. Excluding instances of intentional fouling or running out the clock, Quinn has turned to a Briann January-Loyd-Williams-Stewart-Magbegor lineup in the fourth quarter eight times this year. That unit has held opposing offenses to just a 33.3 rating over 18 possessions. That’s nearly twice as good as the next-best defensive unit to have played as many fourth quarters, per WNBA Advanced Stats.2 Looking not just at fourth-quarter substitutions but at the entire game, that lineup actually has a worse defensive rating than the Bird-Loyd-Williams-Stewart-Magbegor lineup (mainly because the Bird lineup is much better offensively, so it has to defend in transition less often). Replace Magbegor with Charles and the defensive rating falls from “historically excellent” to “fourth-best in the WNBA” (minimum 100 minutes).

This is all to say that the Storm’s third-best defensive unit (Bird-Loyd-Williams-Stewart-Charles) has been better than all but two other teams’ best defensive lineup. Each player is a positive contributor, even if not an All-Defense contender. But Charles and Bird do present weak points. Charles’ aren’t unmanageable, as she fights well enough to avoid being a Teaira McCowan– or Stefanie Dolsonlevel liability. Bird, on the other hand, has been someone teams have targeted for years. She’s a plus-plus off-ball defender and communicator, but her on-ball defense is among the worst in the league.

For Washington, targeting Bird can take two forms: forcing her to switch onto Natasha Cloud or Ariel Atkins and going from there, or having Alysha Clark attack her. With how good Seattle is at scram switches, it’s unlikely that it would let Bird get switched onto Cloud or Atkins repeatedly; but Clark, a former Storm off-ball guard, is likely to be Bird’s primary assignment (more cross-switching!). Clark doesn’t have much burst off the dribble but has a very good post-up game for a guard. If she repeatedly puts Bird in the cup, it’d be tempting to switch the assignment or send more help, which would create opportunities for Cloud and Atkins.

Instead, consider simply letting the Mystics repeatedly get away from their primary offensive actions as much as they want. Every uncommon action to target Bird is an action that isn’t Elena Delle Donne working the post or an Atkins-led PnR. And every action that isn’t one of those is one where Washington doesn’t learn more about what will and won’t work in this series.

Sue Bird face-guards Shey Peddy, whose back is towards the viewer, crouched with her arm straight up as Peddy holds the ball over her own head
Sue Bird (10) giving up points isn’t the worst thing in the world for Seattle. (Photo credit: Neil Enns | Seattle Storm)

Offense

Keep Loyd and Williams attacking off the catch

This one’s simple; Seattle has recently figured out both how to play Charles within the offense and how to play the guards around Charles. Ensuring that this breakthrough is maintained requires keeping the backcourt threatening the Mystic defense off the catch — Loyd putting up catch-and-shoot jumpers or flowing into quick-hit PnRs, Williams putting her head down and getting to the basket as soon as the ball touches her fingertips. Maintaining this level of explosiveness is physically demanding but forces Washington to stick closer to Loyd and Williams off the ball. That opens up (isos) for Stewart and Charles while putting the Mystics in scramble mode when they try to help.

Don’t get baited

If there’s one thing that can get the whole Storm offense bogged-down, it’s poor shot-selection. A lineup of Stewart and Bird guarantees the shot-selection can never be too bad, but in Charles and Loyd and Williams, Seattle has two players who are far too happy taking long twos and one who shouldn’t be taking jumpers in the first place. Prior to Charles’ arrival, the Storm offense ran extremely hot-and-cold, depending on whether they were able to get to good shots or whether they settled for low-efficiency looks.

Working to get good shots doesn’t necessarily mean slowing down. Seattle ranks third in pace since adding Charles, per WNBA Advanced Stats and it’s quite palpable; when the Storm find a shot they like, they take it. With the best group of shot-makers and playmakers outside Vegas, there’s a lot of shots they like and every reason to find them as many of those as possible.

Washington isn’t necessarily built to force the Storm into the worst-possible shots. Seattle took the fourth-most threes in the league — the difference between it and the fifth-ranked Wings was greater than the difference between the Wings and the ninth-ranked Fever — while the Mystics were relatively average at allowing threes. However, they allowed the fourth-worst shooting percentage mark from three, per WNBA Advanced Stats, compared to the Storm leading the league in three-point accuracy.

When its initial looks are turned away, Seattle has two options: take a two-dribble midrange pull-up, or drive into the paint and either finish or kick to a more-open shooter. Whether players opt for the former or the latter may decide the series.


Footnotes

  1. Steals + blocks
  2. The January-Loyd-Williams-Stewart-Magbegor lineup appears in the WNBA Advanced Stats table with a higher defensive rating than what is stated here because that table measures all fourth-quarter minutes, whereas the article looked only at times when the Storm substitute into that lineup in the fourth quarter

Written by Em Adler

Em Adler (she/they) covers the Seattle Storm and college basketball for The Next, while also writing for The Chronicle, Duke's independent student paper

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