The Storm Kick the Can Down the Road

The Seattle Storm maintained the status quo through the WNBA trade deadline, failing to capitalize on their last opportunity reinvigorate what has been an underwhelming 2017 season.

One can understand general manager Alisha Valavanis’ desire to avoid being too reactionary following the team’s 10-13 start. Things are bad enough as is; making a shortsighted move would only compound matters.

At the same time, this past weekend demonstrated that something is fundamentally broken with the Storm.

The biggest surprise from the past few days isn’t that Seattle failed to make a headline-grabbing trade but rather Jenny Boucek still has a job.

By now, you’ve likely read Howard Megdal’s piece in The Summitt that cast serious doubt on Boucek’s future with the team. Megdal spoke to unnamed players who were openly critical of Boucek, as well as Valavanis, who didn’t offer any sort of firm commitment to Boucek beyond this year:

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. 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.

Some may see the Storm’s last two games since Megdal’s article as a sign of progress. They dropped 109 points on the Dallas Wings in a win last Friday and fell 93-82 to the Minnesota Lynx on Sunday, which at least represented an improvement after they lost to the Lynx by 23 points back in June.

However, both games arguably illustrated two major weaknesses for the Storm this season: their reliance on the trio of Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird and Boucek’s inability to react and adjust her game plan on the fly.

When things are going right for the Storm offensively, they can be one of the most devastating teams in the WNBA. They shot 61.7 percent from the field against Dallas and connected on 11 of their 15 attempts from beyond the arc. Stewart, Loyd and Bird also combined to score 62 points, with Loyd’s 27 points leading the way.

The trouble from the game stems from the fact Seattle’s five starters all played 30-plus minutes, with Stewart eclipsing 37 minutes and Alysha Clark staying on the court for 35-plus minutes.

That can work occasionally, but it’s not sustainable over a long stretch for any team, let alone one that relies on a 36-year-old point guard to run the offense. It was as if Boucek wanted to give the appearance that the short-term health of the Storm is strong without actually solving any of the long-standing issues.

The loss to the Lynx offered a stronger indictment of Boucek.

The coach deserves credit for learning from her mistakes and instructing her team to double-team Sylvia Fowles in the paint. Fowles still had 11 points in the first half, but that’s far fewer than the 26 first-half points she scored in the first matchup.

The second half was a different story. Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve made Fowles a focal part of Minnesota’s offense in the final two quarters, and the Storm had no response. Fowles finished with 29 points on 11-of-14 shooting.

Boucek used Stewart to match up with Fowles inside, which made sense. Stewart is Seattle’s best post defender and at 6’4″ presents a better physical test for the 6’6″ Fowles than would Crystal Langhorne, who stands 6’2″.

But Sunday’s game showed the futility of playing a second-year star—no matter how talented she may be—against one of the best inside scorers in the WNBA.

Stewart often attempted to deny Fowles the ball to no avail. Here, Fowles simply moves around her to get the pass from Plenette Pierson to score inside.Fowles vs. Stewie 1Here’s Fowles beating Stewart for a rebound to score off a Maya Moore jumper despite Stewart having pretty good position.Fowles vs. Stewie 3Later in the game, Fowles didn’t even need to use her vast array of post moves to make it a nine-point game.

Fowles vs. Stewie 2It’s hard to fault Stewart too much for Fowles’ big night. These games are going to happen as she improves and gains more experience in the WNBA. And Boucek doesn’t deserve too much blame, either. Carolyn Swords dealt with foul trouble in her 11-plus minutes on the floor, picking up her fifth with 3:35 left in the third quarter. The Storm didn’t have any real defensive tricks up their sleeve to counteract Fowles.

The problem lies with the fact Boucek didn’t significantly alter her offensive game plan to try and emphasize a smaller lineup that could hurt Minnesota from beyond the arc and maybe force Fowles to go off the floor. Keep in mind the Lynx were without the services of Seimone Augustus, who missed the game for personal reasons. Even at 33, Augustus remains a tenacious perimeter defender. Without Augustus, Minnesota was undoubtedly weaker guarding the three-pointer.

But while Fowles was pounding Seattle inside, Boucek did little to shift gears and try to stretch the Lynx defense. The Storm attempted 13 three-pointers in the second half, one more than they did in the first. Even worse, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis remained glued to the bench along with Alexis Peterson, who has played sparingly as a rookie but shot 34.7 percent from deep over her college career.

Maybe a tactical change wouldn’t have made any difference. But the Storm had little reason to expect as the second half unfolded that continuing to utilize Plan A was going to produce a different outcome.

If there was a time for the Storm to fire Boucek in the middle of the season, then that time has likely passed. Seattle has 11 games left in the regular season. Should the team’s overall slide continue, Boucek’s replacement would have little time to turn things around, thus defeating the purpose of changing head coaches in the middle of the year.

Boucek’s future seems rather straightforward. Barring a complete second-half turnaround and a deep playoff run, she’ll likely be out of a job at season’s end.

A little less straightforward is how Valavanis will reshape the roster and whether she has the confidence to make the one move that may be necessary to chart the course of the franchise’s future: trading Loyd.

Loyd is a lot like the Storm as a whole in that she has made progress since entering the WNBA in 2015, but you can’t help but feeling she’s not quite maximizing her potential.

Loyd’s scoring is up slightly, from 16.5 points per game in 2016 to 17.2 points per game in 2017. She’s also hitting 36.6 percent of her three-point opportunities, compared to 30.3 percent a year ago.

The bad news is that her turnovers have increased from 2.2 per game to 2.9 per game, and she hasn’t improved much as a defender. Her 104.0 defensive rating is fourth-worst on the team—and it’s really third-worst if we exclude Peterson, who has played 56 total minutes all year. According to Synergy Sports, she also ranks in the 23rd percentile in defensive points per possession.

I’ve made the comparison before, and I’ll make it again, Loyd is basically Kyrie Irving. When she’s on, she can be one of the toughest guards to defend in the WNBA. League GMs ranked Loyd as the second-most dangerous player in the open floor in their annual survey. Loyd also tied Angel McCoughtry and Glory Johnson as the second-most athletic player.

Loyd has to be super-efficient in order to compensate for her defensive weaknesses, though. Despite becoming a better long-range shooter, Loyd’s net rating remains a relatively average 0.9.

Loyd’s future in Seattle hinges on this question: Can she be the successor to Bird? That’s what the Storm likely envisioned when they selected her with the No. 1 overall pick.

Even though it would be unfair to hold Loyd to the standard of Bird—one of the greatest point guards in league history—it’s fair to wonder whether Loyd profiles as a point guard at all. She never averaged more than three assists per game over a full season at Notre Dame, and her 3.4 assists per game this year rank 18th in the league.

Some will argue that Bird’s presence depresses Loyd’s assist totals, since Bird is the team’s primary playmaker. And that’s true, but Loyd didn’t exactly make a strong case for herself in Seattle’s first two games, this season, when Bird was out with an injury. In those two games, Loyd collected seven assists and nine turnovers. Her usage rates were also 43.2 and 28.7, respectively.

Loyd is one of the WNBA’s brightest young stars, but Stewart should be the focal point of the Storm’s future. In the 2017 GM survey, 33 percent of the respondents said Stewart would be the one player they’d sign right now and build a franchise around. That was higher than Maya Moore and Nneka Ogwumike.

In a perfect world, Loyd and Stewart are the reincarnation of Bird and Lauren Jackson, leading the Storm to multiple titles. But it’s unfair to expect Loyd to be Bird because they’re not the same player, and ultimately, it may come down to the possibility Loyd needs to move on in her and the Storm’s best long-term interests.

Valavanis should at least weigh all of her trade options for Loyd in the offseason because plenty of WNBA general managers would love to have a player with her age and skill set. The move could simultaneously land Seattle its point guard of the future while also allowing Loyd to play for a team on whom she’d be the unquestioned leader for the present and future.

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