Jenny Boucek isn’t running for elected office, but Seattle Storm fans may need to start asking the question, are the Storm better off than they were four years ago?
When Boucek replaced Brian Agler in January 2015, the Storm were in need of a rebuild. They finished the 2014 season with a 12-22 record and had been trending downward since winning a title in 2010.
With two of the top three picks in the 2015 draft, Seattle selected Jewell Loyd and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis to serve as cornerstones for the rebuilding effort. The Storm proceeded to finish with the second-worst record in the league that season (10-24). The draft was again a source of hope for Seattle since it meant having the opportunity to bring Breanna Stewart aboard.
Stewart was an immediate hit, earning Rookie of the Year and second-team All-WNBA honors. She also helped the Storm finish seventh in the WNBA, thus qualifying for the postseason.
Between the team’s young core and unexpected success in 2016, big things appeared to be on the horizon for the Storm in 2017. Instead, they headed into the All-Star break with a 9-11 record and in ninth place.
Generally speaking, the WNBA is a far less reactionary league than the NBA. Player movement is much more restricted, so there isn’t the constant worry that one bad year could mean losing your biggest stars. In addition, fortunes can change rapidly for a franchise in a league with only 12 teams—and one where two-thirds of the league makes the playoffs.
Only the hottest of hot-take artists would call for Boucek’s firing, and luckily, the WNBA is largely free of the brand of analysis reserved for the Skip Baylesses of the world.
At the same time, it seems fair to question whether Boucek is getting the most out of the talent at her disposal. The numbers bear out the fact that the Storm have spun their wheels in 2017. Their poor defense is far offsetting their improvement in offensive efficiency.
Boucek deserves credit for recognizing the offensive revolution that has seeped into the WNBA.
“Offense is something I’ve enjoyed studying and learning about,” she said in an interview with espnW’s Mechelle Voepel in January 2015. “The analytical side of my brain likes the science of offense. And while I obviously believe in the importance of defense, I really enjoy offense and the evolving strategies that are going on in the game.”
One can’t help but wonder whether her emphasis on the offensive side has come at the expense of Seattle’s defense. The Storm ranked in the top half of the league in defensive rating last year but are one of the worst this season.
And if you watch the Storm enough, you start to notice their number of defensive breakdowns. Far too often, Storm players are either caught out of position or fail to communicate with one another when they’re changing assignments.
That lack of communication led to this entertaining image from Seattle’s 79-70 defeat to the New York Liberty on July 6. All five players converged into the paint to stop Tina Charles, but nobody was actually in a position to prevent her from scoring.
This issue is never more evident that when Storm players have to react to screens. According to Synergy Sports, Seattle ranks last in opponent points per possession (0.865) and 11th in adjusted field-goal percentage (51.6 percent) when guarding the roll player in pick-and-rolls.
One example came during overtime of the Storm’s 91-86 defeat to the Atlanta Dream. Damiris Dantas sets a pick on Loyd. Both Loyd and Crystal Langhorne leave Dantas to guard Tiffany Hayes, and as a result, Dantas is wide open on the perimeter. Also notice Alysha Clark running nowhere in particular.Poor reactions to screens can also cause a chain reaction for the rest of the defense. Here, Bird is forced to move over and guard Sylvia Fowles when Loyd and Stewart double up on Seimone Augustus. That leaves Lindsay Whalen all alone to hit a three-pointer.Boucek can’t be held solely responsible for every mistake her players make when defending the pick-and-roll, but she shoulders some of the burden since this year isn’t an outlier. Against the roll player, Seattle was 10th in defensive points per possession in 2015 and seventh in 2016.
Shifting gears back to offense, the Storm have yet to reach their potential in terms of pace.
During a chat with fans for the Seattle Times in 2015, Boucek said, “We would like to emphasize energy, movement, fluidity and pace.” A month later, the Seattle Times‘ Jayda Evans wrote about how Boucek’s hiring represented a tactical change from Agler: “Agler’s staple was blue-collar defense. Thanks to Boucek’s study of the evolution of basketball, the Storm now is all about uptempo offense.”
According to WNBA.com, Seattle has ranked fifth, seventh and seventh in pace over the past two-and-a-half years.
Ultimately, one question comes to mind when judging Boucek’s work so far: How much is her coaching improving the Storm players?
Stewart and Loyd are two of the WNBA’s brightest young talents. Beyond the pair, though, there aren’t many other Storm players who have shown drastic improvement over the past three years.
Mosqueda-Lewis has been a big disappointment given her track record for the Connecticut Huskies, and she wasn’t helped by the fact she averaged 12.3 minutes a game in each of her first two seasons in the WNBA.
Langhorne leads the league in field-goal percentage, but she was a two-time All-Star long before Boucek took the reins
Clark may be Boucek’s biggest success story in terms of a role player getting better, but Clark still has a negative net rating (minus-1.5) and an 11.2 player efficiency rating.
This is when a wins above replacement-like statistic for head coaches would be extremely helpful. Sure, the vibe around the Storm is more positive—despite the team’s record—and the team is in a good place for the future. Yet, how big a role has Boucek played in that progress and how much of that is down to drafting Loyd and Stewart? Would anything change for the Storm if they fired Boucek and hired a replacement-level head coach?
That’s not to say firing Boucek should be a realistic consideration right now. Seattle is only out of the playoffs on a tiebreaker with the Dream, and just three games separate the Storm from the third-seeded Connecticut Sun.
Another early postseason exit would unquestionably be a disappointment, though, and it could very well happen since the Storm could very easily finish outside of the top four. Only the San Antonio Stars have a worse road record than Seattle, which is 2-5 away from KeyArena. That’s concerning for a team with 10 road games and just four home games after the All-Star break.
Although putting Boucek on the hot seat would be a stretch, her seat should arguably be at least on a slow simmer until the regular season finishes.
Thanks so much for this. I have a hard time understanding how defense works, and your detailed analysis of specific plays was super helpful!