June 8, 2023
‘Time for us to look at things differently’: On Seattle, Minnesota, rebuilding and fandom
Both Storm and Lynx on a path to future success
Two wins. That’s how many the two greatest active franchises in WNBA history, now rebuilding, have through 12 combined games in 2023. The Storm and Lynx, since the former’s inception, have together won over a third of all WNBA titles and more than a quarter of its MVPs. And they were on pace for the worst and seventh-worst net ratings in league history among non-expansion teams, respectively, per Her Hoop Stats, until Minnesota notched its lone win over a team on the tail end of a back-to-back last Saturday. To say this is uncharted territory would be an understatement.
The Storm have had at least one player who was top-three at her position in WNBA history for the past 22 years. The last two times they missed the playoffs, they drafted Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart. The last time Seattle lacked a top-20 all-time talent, it had the No. 2 pick in the 2000 expansion draft and selected six players who would combine to play just 4.5 individual seasons for the Storm.
The Lynx arguably had a top-10 player in league history for each of the last 16 years, including a stretch from 2015-19 in which the entire starting lineup consisted of inner-circle Hall of Famers. Before 2022, Minnesota’s last losing season resulted in Maya Moore, possibly the greatest player of all time. The last time its roster lacked an at-the-time surefire superstar, it was because Katie Smith had just left and Seimone Augustus was a rookie.
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‘It will be a different vibe’
When such a jarring change in expectations occurs, everyone associated with each team has to shift their perspective. For a front office, that means downsizing its short-term goals.
“Our goal is to compete every game,” Storm general manager Talisa Rhea said after the draft. “We know we have a lot of young players that are going to come in hungry to prove themselves, and so we’re just excited to bring that group together to really have a high-energy, fun team to watch and to be competitive every night.”
“I’m energized by that,” said Cheryl Reeve, Lynx president of basketball operations and head coach, during training camp. “I think it’s time for us to look at things differently. That’s exciting.”
For a coach, it means embracing day-to-day growth.
“It’s fun, it’s challenging,” Seattle head coach Noelle Quinn said after the Storm started 0-3 for the first time since 2014. “For me, yes, we want to see the fruits of our labor, we want to see success in the box scores and get wins. … I’m not going to come every day with a terrible attitude, because I don’t have the luxury to do that. It’s about continuing to empower, uplift, and commit to doing my job, and that’s to get our players in the proper positions to continue to grow and learn how we want to play. Hopefully we find success in that.”
What about fans, who have grown accustomed to title hopes and deep playoff runs? Just ask Michael Levin, the television writer who for 10 years has co-hosted “The Rights to Ricky Sanchez,” a podcast spearheading the embattled community of Philadelphia 76ers fans who supported the team’s radical mid-2010s rebuild known as “The Process.”
“I would say tanking is way more fun,” Levin said.
It’s easy to root for a team in title contention, as most Storm and Lynx fans know. Rooting for a middling competitor is a straightforward proposition as well — it’s just more stressful and less optimistic than supporting a contender.
But how can you be a fan of a team that, almost by design, has almost no playoff hopes? How can you keep both invested and sane watching a part of your identity lose by double digits every night? That’s akin to getting fired and trying to enjoy your time on unemployment while searching for where to make a living again.
“It’s fun and relaxing to sort of opt out of the day-to-day grind and panic and stress of a team that has expectations that you need to do certain things,” said Levin. “And instead, it’s more like, ‘Okay, let’s take a broader look of: Are these players going to improve, and can we pick up a couple of assets that we can either draft foundational players next year [with] or use in a trade going forward when the next team wants to tank and trade away their best player that you can then get your hands on?’”
Seattle and Minnesota, despite the losing, have both been providing opportunities to enjoy those little things. For the Storm, Loyd is not only the league’s leading scorer, but is doing so on almost career-high efficiency. Ezi Magbegor is averaging a double-double. Rookies Jade Melbourne and Jordan Horston have each had increasingly exciting flashes of great play. The young Kaila Charles and Arella Guirantes are getting some run to show if they can be W-caliber players.
“I think they’re really poised to have seasons where maybe they break out a little bit, because there’s gonna be more opportunity for them with this roster,” Storm vet Sami Whitcomb said at her (re-)introductory presser in February.
For the Lynx, Napheesa Collier has ramped up her usage without losing any efficiency and is proving she can be a defensive anchor. Rookie Diamond Miller has had her struggles but is continually improving and looks like a future All-Star. Veterans Tiffany Mitchell and Rachel Banham both appear to have gone from replacement-level to valuable role players after switching positions.
To have any fun as a fan of a team that may be tanking, adapting to a more long-term view — The Ricky packed 3,000 people into one venue for draft lottery parties several years in a row — and embracing those smaller short-term goals is critical.
“Going backwards for them is on the one hand confusing to their fans, because they’ve never had to do that. It will be a different vibe,” said Levin. “But I think also because [they], honestly, have had such prolonged success in the past under similar ownership and management, there’s a level of trust baked into what they’re doing and [fans are] knowing, like, ‘Oh, we’ll get back there, because we’re good franchise, and we will.’”
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‘At least there’s a plan’
Among all WNBA franchises, the Storm and Lynx unquestionably have the longest view in the room. But whether Seattle has done so intentionally is actually unclear. Going into the offseason, general manager Talisa Rhea told The Next that the team’s plans for free agency were not especially contingent on whether Breanna Stewart re-signed. The Storm’s transactions played that out: After Stewart signed with New York, they continued to pursue high-priced free agents that would not have boosted them into being a contender, including Courtney Vandersloot, Marina Mabrey and eventual signees Kia Nurse and Sami Whitcomb. And even those negotiations were likely pivots from Seattle’s top targets, as a source told The Next during free agency that Stewart’s weeks of cryptic tweeting hampered the Storm’s ability to negotiate money and playing time early on.
This all paints a picture of a team that was intending to contend in 2023 as much as possible. Part of that may have been a misassessment of a roster that, ranking dead last in both true-shooting and defensive rating, is clearly more than a couple of role player upgrades away from contention. More likely, it’s about the fact that Loyd is a top-three WNBA guard and a truly unrestricted free agent this winter — she cannot be cored. If Seattle had fully committed to the tank this year, it’d be a deliberate waste of Loyd’s age-29 season. But if they simply happen to be bad enough that player development and draft position become prioritized over wins by the end of this year, that’s a much better pitch to re-sign.
Whether Minnesota intended to tank isn’t a question — they did not. Reeve repeated throughout free agency that she intended to contend in 2023, and though it never felt close to adding many elite free agents, it was technically in contention to sign Stewart, Vandersloot and Azurá Stevens. After those fell through, the Lynx basically ran back last year’s team, the major changes being the loss of its two best players in Sylvia Fowles and Moriah Jefferson and adding Mitchell and a full season from Collier.
That’s a significant net loss to a team that finished eight games under .500. And that might have been what finally moved Reeve to reassess her short- and long-term planning.
“[This season] is [a different challenge] and I’m excited about that,” Reeve said early April before the draft. “The heavy lift we’ve done since 2018 to do what we’ve done, it’s really unheard of, to go from those types of players (Moore, Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson and Lindsay Whalen) and to continue to maintain a level of success of competing. In 2019 we finished the same as the 2018 [team] did: we were sixth. In 2020, we were fourth and in the semifinals. In 2021, we were third. That’s unheard of to be able to do that. So now I’m challenged even more as Syl’s gone. … We’re in a long view.”
The flip side of how remarkable it was that Minnesota kept pace in the league’s midpack from 2019-21 is the fact that Fowles’ last years were spent on teams that combined to win just one playoff game. For the first couple seasons there, it was not unreasonable for those teams to keep treading water in hopes that Moore would return, making them a title contender once again. But that was a clear longshot by the 2021 Olympic break, at which point the Lynx were five games over .500, in fourth place and more likely to fall than rise as stars on roughly .500 Phoenix and Chicago rosters got healthy. They were also giving regular minutes to just three players younger than 27.
Had Napheesa Collier not fallen to No. 6 in the 2019 draft, the 2020-21 Lynx would have been fighting just to make the playoffs. Much like those 2007-13 Sixers, Minnesota was a franchise lacking direction.
“Those Sixers teams before The Process just had no plan. It was like, ‘We’re gonna go out there, we’re gonna have a good time!’ And it’s like, ‘Go fuck yourself, no one’s having fun,’” said Levin. “And so then it was at least, in those three tanking years, it really was like you start to fall in love with finding diamonds in the rough and knowing that we’re benefiting from other teams’ shortsightedness, in a way that other teams have benefited from our shortsightedness over the last couple years.”
Where the Storm and Lynx diverge is in finding those diamonds in the rough. That over the past few months, the Seattle front office has more effectively set itself up for long-term success than its Minnesota counterpart is undeniable: The Storm’s regular rotation features four or five players age 25 or younger, while the Lynx have only two such players on the entire roster. Instead of signing Banham, the Storm brought in the younger Ivana Dojkić from Virtus Bologna. Instead of signing Lindsay Allen, they brought over the 20-year-old Aussie Jade Melbourne. Instead of signing Damiris Dantas and Nikolina Milić to try to fill out the post corps, they went for Charles and Jasmine Walker, both young enough to still be on their rookie-scale contracts. Once it struck out on its top targets, Seattle at every turn decided to take a flier on someone who might help down the road.
The Lynx had ample opportunity to make their losing minutes more productive as well. Reeve had said after the draft that, “unlike in some years past, we are incredibly open-minded in terms of who is on our roster and why. I think all of the prospects should feel really good about coming to the Minnesota Lynx training camp because they will be given an absolute very good look and chance to be on our team.” Heading into the final days of training camp cuts, their roster included a pair of late-round 2023 draft picks in Taylor Soule and Brea Beal, the former having shown out in both of Minnesota’s preseason games and the latter having flashed WNBA-level athleticism and defensive ability. Both were cut. The players kept over them, most likely Banham, Aerial Powers, Mitchell and Milić, will almost certainly not be a part of the next great Minnesota team.
In trotting out the same roster that year after year fails to win a playoff game, the Lynx front office is not only robbing itself of the opportunity to find overlooked players who could contribute to their next contender. They’re also doing a disservice to their fans by not trying to be as competitive as possible in the long term.
“The Sixers just had never had a competitive advantage before [The Process] since like the mid-80s,” said Levin. “So the people that fell in love with the team during that [mid-2010s] era, we were greeting that with, like, ‘Thank you for picking a direction, at least there’s a plan.’”
‘The idea of hope is strong’
On the very first episode of what would become the biggest cult in basketball radio, Levin posited, “When you want to win a championship, you have to start at zero. [The Sixers] may as well lose every game; there’s no sense in being mediocre. In the NBA you can’t be any worse than mediocre.”
That’s equally true in the WNBA. The Dream, Mystics and Wings have all occupied that space for four- or five-year stretches over the past decade, stretches that only ended by bottoming-out or having a superstar unpredictably demand to be traded there. A team that wants to win a championship needs superstar-level players. Without that kind of superstar, teams are left either fighting in the midpack or focusing on the future.
Only three times has a player capable of leading a true contender ever moved in free agency — Stewart, Candace Parker in 2021 and Elena Delle Donne (technically a restricted free agent, then traded) in 2017. In each case, the player moved to join other, established stars. In each case, the players also moved closer to home.
So the fates of Seattle and Minnesota are not only tied to how their fliers develop this year and next, but more importantly, the two teams’ fates lie in the only reliable way to find a superstar: the ping pong balls drawn at the draft lottery this fall — because it’s nearly impossible to win a title without first winning the lottery. Other than the 1997-2002 and 2008 Finals, whose winners were led by an initially allocated player, all but one championship team has been led by either a former No. 1 pick or a No. 2 pick from a draft with two No. 1-caliber prospects. Twelve of the past 16 champions have had multiple such players, and five of the past seven have had three.
The Storm and Lynx may not need much luck with the ping pong balls this fall. The surefire No. 1 prospect, Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, is one of the few best prospects we’ve seen in the past decade. The No. 2 prospect, UConn’s Paige Bueckers, is an ACL tear removed from being a generational offensive point guard herself. If Stanford big Cameron Brink’s shooting accuracy returns to its 2021-22 levels, the 2023 WNBA draft will rival 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2013 for the greatest collection of lottery talent in league history. With the W using non-playoff teams’ records over the prior two seasons to determine lottery odds, Minnesota is all but guaranteed the second-best odds. But after Seattle finished third in the 2022 regular season standings, they could go winless this season and still have the worst odds among lottery teams, so they will probably need some help to get Clark or Bueckers.
Just as important as getting lucky with the lottery is getting lucky with the prospect class. The Liberty’s recent rebuild failed to produce more than one rotation player because their 10 draft picks came in the 2020 and 2021 drafts, the two worst classes of the past six years. The quality of the 2023-25 drafts puts the Lynx closer to Seattle’s 2015-16 retooling, which brought in Loyd and Stewart, than they are to the 2011-15 Tulsa Shock, whose five lottery picks earned just four All-Star nods for the franchise. Despite Reeve opting for a balanced approach this offseason, the Lynx have a clear path to long-term contention.
The Storm don’t have the same assurances. Thanks to Loyd and Magbegor, they aren’t in need of as many young, star-level talents as Minnesota, but the path to an elite prospect involves a lot of luck outside their control. If it succeeds, it could extend Seattle’s reign of contention longer than any other in W history — think Phoenix going from a Western Conference Finals loss to drafting Brittney Griner the following year to a WNBA title two years later, or the San Antonio Spurs going from first in the West to drafting Tim Duncan two years after to an NBA title another two years later. If it fails, it will cast the Storm to the wilderness, too talented to get another top-two pick but not good enough to be a contender; that was where the Sixers found themselves that necessitated The Process in the first place.
“I get nervous on their behalf if they go, like, ‘Okay, just a one- or two-year tank, just a quick one!’” Levin said. “That kind of thing starts to get you in trouble, because if your team is better than you expect and you draft fourth and you miss out on some of the great talent coming out of college basketball next year, then you go, like, ‘Well, we said would only be like a year or so, so we kind of just gotta be like “Okay, that’s over!”’ It starts to get shortsighted.”
Just because Minnesota has a clearer path ahead doesn’t make 2023 any easier for its fans. The difference between how the Lynx and Storm have built their respective rosters means that Seattleites can have more to look forward to on a game-by-game basis, with a very young team finding out who will be a part of the franchise’s next contender. But with their longshot lottery odds, the Storm are providing the day-to-day joys of The Process without carrying as much of its long-term hope.
Minnesota is mostly doing exactly what it’s done every year since Moore left, except the roster has degraded enough to finally move the franchise out of purgatory. Collier and Miller are the only Lynx younger than 27 not playing reserve roles. They’ve given their fans the hope of The Process, but without all the day-to-day joys that come along with it.
Regardless, both Seattle and Minnesota are going somewhere this year, somewhere more productive than fighting tooth and nail to be .500.
“I think the biggest thing to me is the idea of hope is strong,” said Levin. “If a fan base can have hope for the future, then that’s better than going into your fifth- or sixth-consecutive playoffs, dreading the expectations, and worried that they’re gonna fall short once again. Whereas if they’re a tanking team, it’s low-stress, you’re not committing as many hours to studying game tape and watching whatever. It’s just, like, ‘Maybe this guy’s good, I don’t know! Maybe Ezi Magbegor will step up and show that she has a more diversified offensive game and can grow in that way.’
“[It’s] the hope of improvement and of finding diamonds in the rough and allowing people to work through their mistakes. Whereas if you’re a contending team, you just don’t have that kind of time and bandwidth to let that happen.”
Terry Horstman contributed reporting.