September 27, 2021 

This is the way the Storm ends/Not with a bang but a whimper

Massive offseason questions ahead for Sue Bird, team salary cap picture

For almost twenty minutes, it felt as if the Seattle Storm were only a few possessions away from breaking the game open. But those possessions never materialized, and it could not fight the dying of the light.

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The second-longest season in Storm history ended Sunday night, as Seattle was eliminated by the Phoenix Mercury 85-80 at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, Wash. The Storm got off to a sluggish start but managed to take control of the game by the second half. Key shots in the fourth quarter refused to fall, however, and Phoenix ended overtime with a 7-2 run to close the game.

“It’s a little bit of sadness, a little bit of disappointment, probably some thoughts of ‘I wish I would have done that,’ ‘I wish we could have done this.’ It’s a melting pot of all the emotion,” Sue Bird said following the game. “But of course, simultaneously, you can get reflective in that moment and understand, we had a lot of up-and-downs this season, but I think we can all be very proud of the effort that we put out every single time we stepped on the floor. No, we didn’t always win every game. But I think this group can really be proud of all the things we went through and, again, being able to step on the floor every night staying together.”

This was supposed to be a historic year for Seattle. Its 2020 team had an argument for the greatest non-Houston squad in league history, and though both lost notable talent off their championship rosters, this season was anticipated as the matchup between the Storm and the Mystics that fans were deprived of in 2019 and 2020.

For Washington, that hope was assailed before the season began. Elena Delle Donne’s back issues, along with Emma Messeeman staying overseas and Myisha Hines-Allen’s knee injury, were their undoing.

But Seattle held the top spot months into the season, with Breanna Stewart a top-two MVP candidate and Jewell Loyd vaulting herself atop the league’s elite backcourt players. Stewart suffered a left knee injury just a couple of weeks ago, on a routine box-out; the Storm’s subsequent loss to Los Angeles was sunlight on that broken column. Loyd shot 44.4% from the field and 37.4% from three before the Olympic break; those dropped to 36.3% and 34.2% after. Between the essence and the descent fell the shadow, as the Storm offense was crippled as a result.

This was Stewart and Loyd’s last year on sub-supermax contracts. From here on out, two of the ten best players in the league will be paid like it, costing Seattle around $130,000 more — roughly the cost of a Leilani Mitchell or Briann January. That lessened breathing room will be especially consequential with Mecedes Russell, Stephanie Talbot, and Jordin Canada all restricted free agents.

In a league where Natalie Achonwa is making $164,500, it’s hard to imagine Russell getting much less than a max offer from somewhere. And unless the Storm trade Epiphanny Prince or Kennedy Burke, matching that kind of offer to re-sign Russell leaves only enough money for Bird to return (assuming Stewart and Loyd return). Which would make Sunday Talbot and Canada’s last game in Seattle.

That surely wouldn’t have been going through either’s head as Talbot shot 3-of-6 off the bench with a crucial block on Diana Taurasi, or as Canada struggled to convert her tough looks. But it could be the lasting impression outside the court, more distant and solemn than a fading star.

Talbot and Canada could both face the possibility of returning, however, if Seattle has one less supermax to pay.

At this point in time, it’s unlikely that even Bird knows what she’s going to be doing next year. It seemed fitting that she’d return to defend the Storm’s title and consecrate their new stadium. But KeyBank Arena’s opening got pushed back so far she could only play her first game there next year. And while there’s no doubt Bird could continue All-Star play for another year — 2021 marked the third-highest points per play and effective FG% of her career — this is the first time she’s expressed the need to seriously consider whether or not she’ll keep going.

“I’ve said this time and time again, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to function this season if I thought to myself ‘this is the last one.’ I just knew it was going to impact me negatively mentally,” said Bird. “And even today, when you have the fans chant ‘one more year’ [during the on-court postgame], the minute I even let myself think about it, it makes me want to cry… And I’ll be honest, this is the first offseason where I feel like I need to weigh it. Usually I’m like ‘nope, one more year. If I feel good I’ll be there.’ And I think this is the first time where I’m really gonna have to sit back and just see how I feel, weigh some things. I know for sure that I want to let the emotion of the season die down; I don’t want to make some emotional decision.”

Commentators and talking heads have speculated for years about whether a given season would be Bird’s last. And the first time she’s cast doubt upon returning for another was Sunday evening, eight-and-a-half minutes into a Seattle postgame.

At the onset of the fourth quarter, it looked like such concerns wouldn’t have had a question to answer. Bird scored seven of the Storms’ ten points in a two-minute span, personally outscoring the Mercury by three. It was shades of 2018, a familiar sight that seemed like Seattle might finally open a secure gap. The Storm then shot 1-7 across the next four-and-a-half minutes.

Phoenix only shot a single field goal better (2-7) over that span, and Bird hit a catch-and-shoot three off a veer with just a minute left to tie it up. But Seattle’s 5-for-23 shooting across the last ten minutes of the game was too much to bear. Ezi Magbegor missing a point-blank putback with 13 seconds left in regulation was truly arrival at death’s kingdom.

Both teams ran out of gas, but the Mercury had two workhorses to throw the ball to; the Storm just had an exhausted Loyd. They seemed as hollow women.

It was apparent as overtime began that this season, almost certainly the last with half the current rotation, was over. Loyd kept trying to get three-point prayers to be answered, but it was just shape without form, gesture without motion.

This was the way the Storm ended

This was the way the Storm ended

This was the way the Storm ended

Not with a bang but a whimper.

Written by Em Adler

Em Adler (she/they) covers the WNBA at large and college basketball for The Next, with a focus on player development and the game behind the game.

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