What in the world happened to the Seattle Storm team that started the year 4-1?
Seattle was riding high entering its June 3 game against the Minnesota Lynx and sat third in WNBA’s Week 3 power rankings. Then the Storm got outclassed by the Lynx and everything snowballed. Now Seattle is 6-7 overall and eighth in the WNBA standings.
It’s still too early to begin panicking about the Storm’s playoff chances, which isn’t to stay the team’s poor play should be dismissed offhand. In some cases, aspects of the Storm’s 2-6 run speak to what were genuine concerns coming into the year.
In no particular order, here are some of the factors that explain the Storm’s slide.
Breanna Stewart’s Sophomore Regression
No Storm player carried higher expectations into 2017 than Breanna Stewart. She was the Rookie of the Year in 2016 and earned second-team All-WNBA honors after averaging 18.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.9 blocks per game.
Stewart suffered a knee injury overseas in January that forced her to miss the Storm’s season-opener. The injury could still be affecting the 22-year-old because she has taken a slight step backward in her second year.
Stewart is playing a little over three fewer minutes a night, which creates a knock-on effect for her per-game numbers.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, she’s averaging more points (20.1), rebounds (10.0) and blocks (2.1) per 36 minutes than she was a year ago. That’s the good news. The bad news is that her field-goal percentage has slipped from 45.7 percent to 43.7 percent, and she’s averaging a little over a foul more per game (2.4 in 2016 and 3.8 in 2017).
The increased fouls are particularly important because the domino effect Stewart’s foul trouble can cause. When she’s on the floor with two early fouls or four fouls late in the game, she has to be more tentative on defense. Jenny Boucek also has to take her out of the game altogether for stretches as well.
According to Synergy Sports, the Storm are seventh this year in opponent points per possession in post-up situations (0.922) and 10th in opponent field-goal percentage (49.4 percent) in post-ups. Last year, Seattle was ninth and eighth, respectively in the two categories.
On one hand, the Storm’s post defense isn’t demonstrably worse than it was a year ago. On the other hand, the absence of a decline isn’t exactly a sign of improvement. The team has also struggled when matched up with elite post scorers. Tina Charles went 21-of-44 for 49 points in the New York Liberty’s two clashes with the Storm—which the two teams split. Brittney Griner and Sylvia Fowles went for 25 and 26 points, respectively in wins for their teams.
Jewell Loyd Fell Back to Earth
Through her first three games, Jewell Loyd was averaging 26.0 points per game and had made eight of her 13 attempts from beyond the arc. It was unreasonable to expect those trends to continue considering she had averaged 13.6 points per game and shot 27.8 percent from three-point territory through her first two years.
In her last eight games, Loyd is averaging 17.2 points and connecting on 32.6 percent of her three-point attempts.
Not only did Loyd’s hot start compensate for Stewart’s struggles and the Storm’s thin bench, it also helped paper over the fact she is a poor defender on the perimeter. According to Synergy Sports, she’s allowing a 53.2 adjusted field-goal percentage on spot-up jumpers, and Loyd is particularly bad when defending the pick-and-roll. Opposing players are scoring 48.8 percent of the time when coming off a pick and they’re guarded by Loyd.
Prior to the start of the year, I questioned whether 2017 would be a breakout year for Loyd, where she’d establish herself as a true superstar. So far, that breakout hasn’t materialized.
The Secret’s Out on Sami
Sami Whitcomb’s relative anonymity worked to the Storm’s benefit early in the year when she almost single-handedly pushed Seattle over the finish line in the team’s 87-81 victory over the New York Liberty on May 26. Whitcomb made six three-pointers in that game and then went 3-of-4 from beyond the arc in a 94-70 victory over the Indiana Fever two days later.
While Whitcomb’s Liberty and Fever performances were fun to watch, one couldn’t help but wonder how sustainable they were. Once opposing teams became aware of her shooting prowess, could she continue knocking down more than 50 percent of her three-pointers?
Over the last eight games, Whitcomb has seen a bit of a market correction, going 6-of-25 from deep.
Depth was one of the Storm’s biggest problems last year. Ramu Tokashiki was the leading scorer among their regular reserves, averaging 5.3 points a game.
Whitcomb’s emergence provided a sense of optimism that the Storm could have an instant source of offense off the bench—with the Liberty game the perfect example.
Instead, Seattle’s bench is basically at the same place it was last year, especially with Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis continuing to miss time with a knee injury.
There’s No Place Like Home
Storm fans pride themselves on making KeyArena a difficult venue for opposing teams, and the Storm owe some of their early success to a mixture of home-court advantage and favorable scheduling.
Seattle is sixth in the WNBA in net rating (5.3) at home. When the Storm hit the road, their net rating falls to minus-11.4, which ranks 10th.
The Storm opened on the road against the defending champion Los Angeles Sparks. After that, though, they had five straight home games. While that early home stand helped Seattle build momentum right out of the gate, the schedule was bound to even out at some point.
And as that has happened, fans are perhaps getting a more reasonable picture of what to expect from the Storm in 2017.