The Seattle Storm’s hopes of turning things around in the second half of the season may rest largely on the decision-making of Alisha Valavanis.
The 2017 season hasn’t gone according to plan at all for Seattle. The Storm are ninth in the WNBA with a 9-12 record, and many of the team’s biggest problems from last year have carried over to this season.
Still, few expected Thursday’s bombshell from The Summitt’s Howard Megdal that cast serious doubt on Jenny Boucek’s future with the team.
A vote of confidence from ownership and the front office is often an empty gesture that is eventually undercut by the team’s actions at a later point. With that said, Valavanis didn’t even bother to offer the bare minimum regarding whether management was behind Boucek.
“I would say that I am working closely with our head coach on how we can recalibrate, how we can do everything possible to make a playoff run,” she said to Megdal. “That’s how I feel, and that’s where we’re at. I’m actively working with Jenny to see if we can make any adjustments to calibrate this for a playoff run, which has been set as a very clear goal.”
Short of having security physically carry Boucek out of the office, it’s hard to imagine a more damning response from Valavanis.
Megdal’s report coincidentally came with a few days remaining before the 2017 trade deadline expires at 8 p.m. ET on Monday.
The Storm have two games before then. They welcome in the Dallas Wings on Friday night and hit the road to take on the Minnesota Lynx Sunday. It may not be a stretch to say Boucek will be coaching for her job in those two games.
In addition to evaluating Boucek’s future, Valavanis also has to determine whether she’ll pull the trigger on a trade or two to shake up the roster.
The Storm continue to be very top-heavy. The trio of Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart are combining to account for nearly 61 percent of the team’s scoring. Sami Whitcomb is the leading scorer off the bench, averaging just five points a night.
The fact that a 36-year-old Bird still has to play 30-plus minutes a night doesn’t exactly reflect well on Seattle’s depth.
The offseason addition of Carolyn Swords hasn’t done much to help the Storm inside, either, on the defensive end. According to Synergy Sports, Seattle ranks ninth in points per possession in post-up situations (0.971).
The Storm are only two games behind the Phoenix Mercury for the fifth seed in the league, so it’s important to keep things in perspective. At the same time, it’s doubtful Seattle makes any significant improvements over the next couple of months without adding reinforcements.
Three players immediately jump out as potential trade chips: Swords, Alysha Clark and Crystal Langhorne.
Langhorne would bring back by far the biggest return.
Some Storm fans may question whether Seattle should even consider trading her in the first place. Langhorne leads the league in field-goal percentage (68.0 percent), and her 13.0 points per game are third on the team. She’s a two-time All-Star who’s having the most efficient offensive season of her career in the WNBA.
The idea of trading Langhorne is less of an indictment of her abilities and more about addressing need for Seattle, as well as the fact her trade value is almost certainly never going to be higher. If Valavanis can flip Langhorne for an elite rim protector or multiple valuable role players, then that’s a net-positive for the team.
Whereas trading Langhorne would represent a relatively major shock to the system, dealing Clark or Swords would be the kind of incremental moves that get the Storm slightly closer to title contention.
Swords has gone from starting 56 games the last two years for the New York Liberty to averaging 8.6 minutes a night for Seattle. Earlier in the year, it seemed like Boucek wasn’t trusting the 28-year-old to hold down the fort inside. With half the year gone, though, Swords simply doesn’t appear to be a good fit at all for the Storm.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Swords is averaging 8.4 fouls per 36 minutes, which is per than her scoring output (7.9 points per 36). Forty percent of Swords’ defensive possessions in post-up situations end in shooting fouls, per Synergy Sports.
Boucek’s handling of Swords has certainly been odd at times, especially in Seattle’s 100-77 defeat to the Lynx back in June. Sylvia Fowles finished with 26 points on 10-of-12 shooting, and Swords only played 15 minutes. Megdal cited the game in his piece as a critique of Boucek.
Plenty of Swords’ issues have been self-inflicted, though. Athletically, she has looked a step behind, which has played a part in her high foul numbers. Two such instances came during Seattle’s 83-79 defeat to the Connecticut Sun. Swords was unable to rotate over properly and sent Sun players to the charity stripe.But even when Swords is stationary, she has been unable to do much to prevent the opponents from either scoring or getting to the charity stripe.Swords would benefit from a change of scenery, and the Storm could potentially find a trade partner who’d be willing to send over a proven guard who could ease the burden on Bird and Loyd.
Unlike Swords, Clark is a consistent contributor to the Storm. She’s averaging 8.1 points in 28.5 points a night. She’s also a career 34.3 percent shooter from beyond the arc, though she’s only connecting on 26.7 percent of her three-point attempts in 2017.
Although Seattle can count on Clark to be a secondary scorer behind the Big Three, her defense is often a source of headaches. According to Synergy Sports, she ranks in the 27th percentile in spot-up defense, allowing a 48.5 percent opponent adjusted field-goal percentage.
Without putting too fine a point on it, Clark looks lost at times when defending away from the ball.
I shared this clip in an earlier article as an example of Seattle’s poor pick-and-roll defense. Clark’s reaction is equally as troublesome. She makes a token attempt to defend Damiris Dantas before just kind of running around aimlessly while Dantas knocks down the three.Keisha Hampton is a 40.6 percent three-point shooter this year off the bench for the Chicago Sky. Clark might have missed that in the scouting report when she left Hampton all alone in the corner.Clark has a minus-2.3 net rating, according to WNBA.com, making her the only Storm starter without a positive net rating. That’s in large part because of her 103.1 defensive rating.
In theory, Clark has the size and athleticism to guard every position but center, and she can be a solid defender when she’s facing up against an opponent. But her off-ball problems cause a chain reaction for the entire team and have made her a liability defensively.
If trading Clark meant solving the Storm’s roster problems, then Valavanis shouldn’t hesitate to execute the deal.
Broadly speaking, that’s what the trade deadline boils down to for Valavanis.
There isn’t an expendable member of the Storm roster who’s simultaneously a valuable trade asset. Valavanis will either have to get creative and involve more than one team to swing an important trade, or she’ll have to part ways with a veteran role player who supplies depth to an already thin roster.
Between Boucek’s status and the impending trade deadline, Valavanis’ actions will chart the course for the remainder of the Storm’s season.