January 11, 2023
2023 WNBA free agency preview: Seattle Storm
Will Breanna Stewart stay or go?
The 2022 season was certainly one that Seattle Storm fans will remember. The brand-new Climate Pledge Arena brought fans back to downtown Seattle after a couple seasons of traveling to Everett, Washington, for Storm home games. The returns of guard Jewell Loyd, forward Breanna Stewart and center Mercedes Russell and the additions of guard Briann January and forwards Gabby Williams and Jantel Lavender to the Storm roster after a tumultuous 2022 free agency period made for an entertaining and exciting season.
But the most notable memory from the Storm’s 2022 season was the farewell tour of Seattle basketball legend Sue Bird, arguably the best point guard in WNBA history. Now that Bird has retired, Storm Crazies are forced to face the future of Seattle’s roster.
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Seattle had some big decisions to make in free agency last year. Both Loyd and Stewart, considered Seattle’s best players, were free agents, meaning that the Storm had to choose which of them to give the core designation. They ended up coring Loyd, and she re-signed to a two-year supermax deal with the Storm.
Meanwhile, Stewart was exploring other options. She met with New York Liberty owners Joe and Clara Tsai and head coach Sandy Brondello before deciding to re-sign with Seattle, but only for one year. That short-term deal signaled a potential openness to leaving the Storm, which caught many Seattleites by surprise.
As 2023 free agency draws near, the future of Seattle basketball is unclear. Bird and January retiring after the 2022 season left a big hole in Seattle’s roster in terms of point guards. The signs all seem to point to Kent, Washington, native and 11-year WNBA veteran Courtney Vandersloot being the next floor general for the Storm. This move would take her away from the Chicago Sky, the only WNBA team she has known, and possibly her wife and long-time teammate, Allie Quigley. While Seattle does have the cap space to sign Quigley as well, she would potentially have to give up a starting spot and play behind Loyd at shooting guard.
There is also a possibility of former Storm backup point guard Jordin Canada returning to Seattle, the team that drafted her in 2018 specifically as a replacement for Bird. Veteran guards Erica Wheeler and Kristi Toliver have been in the conversation as well.
Currently, Loyd and Russell are the only Storm players under contract, so almost every other player on the roster is a question mark. Reserves Epiphanny Prince, Stephanie Talbot and Tina Charles are unrestricted free agents, allowing them to discuss terms and sign contracts with any team. Williams is a restricted free agent this season, but her overseas commitments could impede her return to Seattle. The Storm’s front office has a lot of work to do, but ultimately, this offseason will be judged on whether Stewart stays or goes.
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When Loyd and Stewart were drafted as No. 1 picks in 2015 and 2016, respectively, many fans assumed that they would follow in Bird’s footsteps and stay for their entire careers. Bird’s unwavering commitment to the franchise was somewhat of a security blanket for fans and supporters throughout her 21-year career. In past years, it didn’t seem to matter who else was on the roster; fans knew their team was in good hands if No. 10 was in the lineup. With the loss of that security blanket so fresh in fans’ minds, the thought of Stewart, the current face of the franchise, leaving Seattle is bringing up lots of feelings.
From talking to Storm fans, there are a few factors that give them hope that Stewart will find her way back to the Emerald City in 2023. Fans and supporters trust that the Storm organization, the ownership team, and general manager Talisa Rhea understand the key role that Stewart plays and will do everything they can to keep her in Seattle.
Storm fan Miles DeCaro said, “It’s not inconceivable that [Stewart] leaves, but I don’t think that would really be on the organization, as they’ll do and have done pretty much every thing they can to show their commitment and quality. In the end, it’s [Stewart’s] decision.”
Fans are also confident that Loyd’s decision will be a big factor in Stewart’s, but with her two-year contract up after the 2023 season, Loyd staying in Seattle isn’t guaranteed, either. Stewart and Loyd have been an unstoppable duo for the Storm for the past seven seasons, and it is possible that if Loyd decides to stick around for a few more seasons, Stewart will do the same. But like Stewart, Loyd (a Chicago native) seems not to be opposed to potentially returning to her home city in the future.
Outside of the business aspects of free agency, Seattleites hope to win Stewart over by sharing their pride in their city. While familial ties are one of the factors pulling Stewart back to her home state of New York, fans argue that Seattle is the perfect place for Stewart; her wife, Marta; and their daughter, Ruby. Storm fan Walli Weston pleaded with Stewart in a Facebook post on a Seattle Storm fan page, “Please stay in Seattle. It’s a great place to raise a family. This is your home now.”
Storm fans are also incredibly proud of the support that they have shown their home team since its founding in 2000 and hope that that will sway Stewart. In 2009, then-head coach Brian Agler said, “We probably have the best fans in the league. I’ve been to all of the arenas, I’ve coached in four or five different places and there is no comparison. No comparison.” This echoed Bird’s sentiments about Seattle’s support of her retirement. In her final season and the debut of Climate Pledge Arena, Seattle was head and shoulders above any other WNBA team in attendance in 2022, averaging nearly 4,000 more fans per game than the second-closest team, the Minnesota Lynx.
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While Storm fans have given many reasons for Stewart to stay in the Rainy City, it’s not just the Big Apple that they fear will steal their star player away. One of the biggest concerns that Storm fans expressed was the WNBA’s new prioritization rules. In 2023, players who arrive late to training camp will be fined 1% of their base salary for every day that they miss. If they have not arrived by the start of the regular season, they will be suspended for the entire season. In 2024, a player must report to training camp on the first day or they will be suspended for the entire season.
Both Stewart and Williams have been outspoken in their opposition to prioritization. It’s no secret that players can make a lot of money overseas, and prioritization is forcing many players to choose between overseas and the WNBA. As mentioned earlier, Williams’ overseas commitments may get in the way of her returning to the Storm in 2023.
While Storm fans would be sad to see Stewart go to New York or another WNBA team, the possibility of her never returning to the WNBA is what is most feared. Amethyst Aitken, another active Storm fan in the Facebook group, wrote, “I kind of get this feeling that it’s going to be like playing chicken between the players overseas and the commitment that [WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert] has to sticking to players needing to report to training camp. I’m trying to be open minded that the league might not look anything like what I’ve imagined it to be from years prior, including key players like Stewart possibly abstaining.”
Fellow fan Becky Resnick chimed in on the same post, “I think we are at much higher risk of losing [Stewart] to Europe than to another WNBA team.”
As we enter the 2023 free agency period, it is clear that Storm fans will do everything they can to convince the 2022 WNBA MVP runner-up to continue her legacy in Seattle. But will she stay or will she go?