May 11, 2021
2021 WNBA season preview: Seattle Storm
Four questions for the upcoming season
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Sue Bird raised a good point during the Storm’s media day on Sunday. She was asked about how she dealt with the years between the 2010 and 2018 championships. In her answer, Bird mentioned her commitment to the team and how you can never know you will reach that level again. Because of this, she made a point to appreciate the years between and appreciates how the additions of Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart expedited their rebuild.
The Storm are at another potential crossroads for the franchise. Though they are the reigning champions, Seattle lost two franchise cornerstones in Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard. Traded with Howard to New York was Sami Whitcomb who played key minutes off the bench and as a spot starter in 2020.
Make no mistake, there is still talent here. Stewart, Loyd, Bird and Jordin Canada remain. Yet, the Storm had five of their own free agents last winter and retained just Bird and Epiphanny Prince. The fact that Loyd, Stewart, and Canada are in contract years may have influenced this, but the 2021 Storm look dramatically different.
Replacing the outgoing players is Katie Lou Samuelson, Mikiah “Kiki” Herbert Harrigan, Stephanie Talbot and rookie Kitija Laksa. Seattle drafted Kiana Williams and traded another pick to Indiana for Kennedy Burke. Finally, veteran Candice Dupree was signed in free agency to fortify the frontcourt rotation.
Let’s take a look at some lingering questions as the Storm near the beginning of another title defense.
How will the pieces fit?
Teams tend to benefit from talent when there is continuity. The Storm’s core remains intact but the surrounding talent is in flux. A part of the problem is that we have not seen the new roster play together. Herbert Harrigan, Stewart, Burke, and more players were tardy or absent from camp because of overseas commitments.
All the new faces and absences have made for an interesting training camp. The team has relied on veterans like Bird to help get her teammates on the same page. By all accounts, the integration of younger players like Laksa has gone well and the team has not had to slow down practices for the rookies.
Unsurprisingly, 15-year veteran Dupree has also fit in well. It’s reasonable to believe that an experienced player who has played for a few teams would have an easier time adapting.
Yet, what remains to be seen is how the Storm will play with their full roster. Burke and Herbert Harrigan figure to feature prominently in the rotation. Not having as many players as possible makes it hard to see which lineup combinations work best. One combination Coach Dan Hughes discussed was Stewart and Dupree together while talking about limiting Stewart’s time defending centers. Hughes likely has a good idea on how to use Stewart, Magbegor, and Mercedes Russell but has not seen which lineups work best with Dupree.
Smart teams learn to adapt to complicated situations. This situation will certainly force the Storm to be creative. Repeating as champions is a tall order in any season but this one will be no different.
How does Seattle compare to the rest of the WNBA?
Whether the Storm repeat or not may have as much to do with what other teams have done as any other factor. The Storm are still talented and well-coached but the league has become more formidable around them.
That’s not to forget teams like Los Angeles, Washington, Connecticut and others. There are almost no games where any team can afford to lose focus because the talent is as strong as ever.
Other teams will have to account for the Storm, too, especially if their roster plays as well together as it should. No matter what, this is shaping up to be an exciting season.
Which new acquisition could have a big impact?
Though she was a late arrival to camp, Hughes has big plans for Burke. Burke told the media on Sunday coach Hughes told her that he wants her to become an elite defender. After all, defensive versatility has been a hallmark of recent Storm teams. Losing Howard and Clark hurts that facet of the team, but players like Burke and Herbert Harrigan are young enough to improve in this area.
Now, expecting either player to replace Howard and/or Clark themselves would be unfair. However, Hughes telling Burke that could mean we see her take on some of the tougher perimeter assignments. If she is successful, or even capable for now, Burke could prove to be a valuable part of this team.
What should we expect from Sue Bird?
The Storm likely did not re-sign Bird for June. No, they wanted Bird back for September and hopefully another deep playoff run.
A part of this is ensuring Bird is fresh for the playoffs. This worked out last year when Bird missed half the season with a bone bruise. When she was healthy, Bird enjoyed one of the most efficient seasons of her illustrious career, proving she is still a start on a contending team.
That’s where this season gets tricky. Bird has been healthy and free of all restrictions in training camp. Any rest, at this point, would be preventative. If Bird did rest, the Storm still have Canada to start and bringing back Prince means they would have another ball handler.
Rookie Williams could be another candidate for backup point guard minutes if she makes the team. Hughes has raved about how Williams does not play like a rookie, which helps her case, but has also talked about how competitive her roster spot is. Should Williams stick, she could provide good depth.
Of course, the Storm could continue to scale Bird’s minutes back. In the last three seasons, she’s played, Bird has gone from 30 minutes per game to 26.6 and down to 23.4 last season. Given the Storm’s depth, they could keep her to 18-20 minutes per game too.
No matter what, it seems that Bird will be effective no matter how much she plays.
New challenges for a new season
There was little doubt about the dominance of the 2020 Storm, a team that began the season 11-1. That was also a team with exceptional depth with the convergence of multiple eras of Storm basketball. Will the 2021 team be able to replicate that? It’s possible but their road is likely tough.
How this team feels relates to another thing Bird mentioned on media while reflecting on her career: fresh. The new faces, uncertainty and possibilities give this team a fresh feel. Wondering where they wind up, in the end, is just part of the excitement.