After splitting their preseason series with the Phoenix Mercury, the Seattle Storm officially tip off what is a highly anticipated 2017 campaign against the defending WNBA champion Los Angeles Sparks Saturday. Then it’ll be a quick turnaround as they travel back home for a Sunday matinee with the Indiana Fever.
While it’s not a title-or-bust kind of year for Seattle, expectations are high for a team that posted the seventh-best record (16-18) in the league a season ago. WNBA.com’s Brian Martin ranked the Storm fifth in his opening-week power rankings—an assessment shared by the 16 members on the panel for the Associated Press’ preseason poll.
Let’s take a look at some broad storylines to follow over Seattle’s first two games and a few keys for the Storm to get the year off to a strong start.
What to Watch For
How Much Will Injuries to Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird Impact the Storm?
Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart were two notable absences for the Storm during the preseason. Bird was recovering from a scope on her left knee in April, while Stewart was nursing a sprained ligament in her right knee she suffered in January.
The Seattle Times‘ Percy Allen reported Bird returned to practice Tuesday, and Stewart worked out with the team as well. Allen added it’s unclear whether Bird or Stewart will be available to play Saturday and Sunday.
While it wouldn’t be ideal to be without one or both players for a marquee game against the Sparks and Seattle’s home opener, there’s little reason to risk either player to further injury so early into the season.
Depth is by far the biggest question mark for the Storm in 2017. From 1 through 5, they have a squad that can genuinely challenge the Sparks for WNBA supremacy. When head coach Jenny Boucek needs to rely on the second unit, problems arise.
Can Sami Whitcomb Be an X-Factor off the Bench?
Rather than making a flashy free-agent signing or completing an earth-shattering trade, general manager Alisha Valavanis executed the kind of incremental moves that should bolster Seattle’s bench. Drafting Alexis Peterson and trading for Carolyn Swords were the most notable transactions, but signing Sami Whitcomb could fly under the radar.
Whitcomb led the WNBL in scoring with the Perth Lynx (24.2 PPG) and shot 41.3 percent from three-point range. In the Storm’s two preseason games, she scored 27 points and shot 50 percent from the field.
Last year, Ramu Tokashiki was the Storm’s leading scorer off the bench, averaging 5.3 points a night. Whitcomb’s preseason numbers were obviously inflated by the Mercury keeping their best players off the floor, but if she can regularly chip in eight to 10 points as a reserve, she’d give Seattle something they lacked in 2016.
Keys to Victory vs. Sparks
Establish the Three-Point Game
Assuming Stewart doesn’t play Saturday, it will be even more important the Storm can pose a consistent threat from three-point range.
The good news: Seattle made more three-pointers than any other team (244) and shot 35.5 percent from beyond the arc (5th in the WNBA).
The bad news: The Sparks were the best team in the league when it came to defending the three. Los Angeles held opponents to a league-best 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brian Agler’s team was especially good in spot-up situations—a problem for the Storm.
Especially with Bird—somebody who can run and score off the pick-and-roll—less than 100 percent, the Storm might be relying even more so on creating open shots for their shooters. According to Synergy Sports, the Storm attempted the second-most spot-up jumpers (621) and boasted a 51.8 percent adjusted field-goal rate.
The Sparks had the third-best defense (45.1 percent opponent aFG%) on spot-up jumpers. If Los Angeles continues that Saturday, then Seattle will be in trouble.
Don’t Let the Sparks Get Out in Transition
The Sparks were one of the slower teams in the WNBA last year, but when they pushed the tempo, they were very effective.
Los Angeles averaged 1.212 points per possession in transition—tops in the league—according to Synergy Sports. The Sparks have to replace Kristi Toliver, who accounted for a lot of the team’s success moving quickly up the floor. Toliver averaged 1.313 points per possession in transition, whereas her replacement, Odyssey Sims, averaged 0.937.
Still, Seattle was eighth in transition defense (1.097 PPP) and allowed opponents to score on 52.9 percent of their transition possessions—also eighth).
As much as the Storm will miss Stewart’s contributions on the offensive end—assuming she’s out—her ability to run the floor and defend may be just as much of an issue.
Keys to Victory vs. Fever
Pound the Paint
Whereas the perimeter game should be a focus of Seattle’s offense Saturday—by virtue of the Sparks’ stingy post defense—the Storm should have more success going inside Sunday.
According to Synergy Sports, the Fever allowed the second-highest points per possession (1.078) and field-goal percentage (56.3) in post-up situations last year.
The Storm, meanwhile, were an efficient squad when they worked the ball into the post, and they added one of the more underrated post scorers in the WNBA when they acquired Swords.
Swords has only averaged 4.2 points per game over her WNBA career, but she has averaged a more robust 11.8 points per 36 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Last year, Swords averaged the third-highest points per possession in post-ups (1.367) and shot 69.2 percent in the post (also third). She joins Alysha Clark, who was second in both categories (1.455 PPP; 70.0 FG%) and Crystal Langhorne, who was 18th in PPP (1.034) and fourth in field-goal percentage (68.4).
Throw the Fever Out of Rhythm
Based on her last three years with the Chicago Sky, new Fever head coach Pokey Chatman will be looking to push the tempo with the Fever. Between 2014 and 2016, the Sky ranked second, second and third in pace, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Having a versatile, athletic forward such as Elena Della Donne gave Chatman more license to play faster, but there’s little reason to think she won’t try to do the same in Indiana. The Storm need to stick to their style and keep the pace slow.
Briann January was one of the league’s best playmakers in half-court sets. Her 31.6 percent assist rate in the half court was highest among guards, and she was third in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.6).
But the Fever were eighth in points per possession in the half court (0.880), and they have to replace Tamika Catchings, who was the team’s leading scorer (12.7 points per game) last year.
By working the ball into the paint, the Storm would be limiting the long rebounds the Fever would use to get quickly to the other end of the floor and disrupt Chatman’s offensive game plan.