Hoisted by Her Own Petard

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A visual representation of Jenny Boucek turning in her KeyArena ID and Starbucks Rewards card at Storm HQ.

I started working on this before going to work Thursday afternoon, and while I was working, the Seattle Storm went ahead and fired Jenny Boucek, naming Gary Kloppenburg as the interim replacement.

As a result, this transformed from an another airing of grievances with the Storm’s direction into a treatise about what went wrong for Boucek.

During a 2017 season that has been disappointing in virtually every facet for the Seattle Storm, the team’s lack of offensive adventure is one of the most underwhelming aspects and arguably most justified Boucek’s firing.

When Boucek replaced Brian Agler in January 2015, she had already spent years as a player and then on the sidelines—both as an assistant and a head coach.

“I’ve already experienced the steep learning curve of just being a first-time head coach,” Boucek told espnW’s Mechelle Voepel in an interview shortly after taking the Storm job. “All the ‘firsts’ of that experience won’t be around this time. There’s still a lot of unknowns, but not the inherent challenge of doing it for the first time.”

Boucek also made it clear she had a clear affinity for the offensive side of the game: “Offense is something I’ve enjoyed studying and learning about. 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.”

The selections of Jewell Loyd and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis in the first round of the 2016 WNBA complemented Boucek’s hiring. Loyd averaged 19.8 points a game as a junior for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and Mosqueda-Lewis left the Connecticut Huskies as the all-time leader in made three-pointers. If you’re a rebuilding team focusing on offense, a dynamic scorer and three-point specialist are two solid foundational pieces.

Then came Breanna Stewart in the 2016 draft. Stewart is the perfect player for today’s game in that she’s equally adept playing inside or bringing the ball up the court. Stewart can feasibly play all five positions.

That trio joined a roster that already had Sue Bird, one of the greatest point guards in WNBA history, and Crystal Langhorne, an underrated low-post scorer.

Yet, despite Boucek’s knowledge and experience, as well as the talent at her disposal, the Storm haven’t shown a significant jump in offensive efficiency in her tenure. According to WNBA.com, Seattle has ranked sixth, fifth and sixth in offensive rating over the last three seasons.

The Storm’s defense is arguably the single biggest reason they’re 10th in the WNBA. Even in a 12-team league, contending for the playoffs is difficult when you rank 10th in defensive rating (105.5) and eighth in opponent true shooting percentage (53.3 percent).

But Seattle’s offensive struggles are more galling because it shouldn’t be like this. Offense should be the team’s greatest strength, and while Boucek doesn’t deserve all of the blame for why that’s not the case, she has done herself few favors this year.

She seemed either unwilling or unable to embrace what might help maximize the Storm’s potential on the offensive end.

For one, Seattle continues to be in the bottom half of the league in pace. The team ranks ninth in that regard, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

The Storm are eighth in defensive rebounds, which can limit their transition opportunities. With that said, playing an uptempo game doesn’t mean going on the fast break after every defensive stop. Sometimes it can mean working with a bit of urgency to catch a defense napping. The beauty of this bucket from Langhorne is the simplicity. In fewer than six seconds, Bird brought the ball up the floor and found a cutting Langhorne for the layup. Langhorne transition

With a regular frontcourt trio of Langhorne, Stewart and Alysha Clark, the Storm should be looking to run opposing teams off the floor, similar to the Connecticut Sun and Dallas Stars.

Instead, the Storm can look like Hickory High circa 1952 with the number of passes they execute before getting off a shot.

Along with that, Seattle’s offense is so structured that it can be constricting. The Storm are 11th in isolation possessions per game despite having Loyd and Stewart—two players who can create their own shot and score in a variety of ways.

The isolation offense has its obvious drawbacks. The outcome leans heavily on just one player, and few things can be more aggravating than watching somebody dribble out a possession, which ends in a turnover or a contested jumper.

At the same time, you have to let your best players cook occasionally and trust in their ability to make something out of nothing.

I’m far from Loyd’s biggest fan and have reservations about her long-term fit alongside Stewart. With that said, it’s impossible to argue with how electrifying she can be with the ball in her hands.

The numbers back up how good Loyd can be when she’s basically freelancing on the floor. She’s 18th in points per possession (0.875) and 25th in adjusted field-goal percentage (36.1 percent) in isolation situations. Loyd isn’t an elite scorer in isolations, but she’s efficient enough that she deserves some autonomy on the floor.

Stewart, on the other hand, has been such a non-entity in isolation that it’s basically impossible to draw any judgments. She has registered seven isolation possessions for the entire season, according to Synergy.

Stewart has the athleticism and ball-handling capabilities to operate in a way similar to how the Washington Mystics use Elena Delle Donne, who averages a league-high 2.5 isolation possessions per game and is ninth in PPP (1.08) in the isolation. Emphasizing Delle Donne’s offensive versatility, she’s also seventh in post-up possessions per game (2.7).

Instead of that, Stewart has been a hybrid stretch 4/traditional center. She’s fifth in post-ups (3.4 possessions per game), per Synergy, and third among forwards in three-point attempts (4.4 per game), according to WNBA.com.

Coupled with Boucek’s failure to think outside the box with regard to Stewart as a ball-handler, Seattle has failed to utilize the kind of small-ball lineups that could be devastating from beyond the arc.

For stretches, the Storm could potentially run out a lineup of Bird and Loyd in the backcourt and Stewart, Mosqueda-Lewis and Sami Whitcomb in the frontcourt. Those are five players who are all capable of consistently knocking down opportunities from beyond the arc.

That quintet may potentially be a sieve at the defensive end, but one could counter that’s hardly different from how things are anyway. Rather than embracing all of the skilled shooters on her roster, Boucek seemed reticent to experiment.

The 93-82 loss to the Minnesota Lynx on July 30 was one example. The Storm had no answer inside for Sylvia Fowles in the second half of that game, and she finished with 29 points on 11-of-14 shooting.

To her credit, Boucek learned from past mistakes and had her players double Fowles inside and brought Carolyn Swords off the bench. Those strategies weren’t effective in stopping Fowles, though. Swords battled foul trouble, and Fowles had little trouble beating Seattle’s double teams.

Rather than trying to use Fowles’ size against her on the defensive end and go with a super-small lineup of perimeter shooters, Boucek stuck to her guns and opted for what proved to be a losing strategy.

Perhaps everything the Storm could’ve thrown at Fowles and the Lynx was doomed to fail. But Boucek arguably didn’t try every method at her disposal to turn the game around.

And Boucek’s puzzling inflexibility was never more evident than in the Storm’s capitulation to the Sun on Tuesday. Seattle was outscored 33-9 in the fourth quarter and lost 84-71.

In the entire fourth quarter, Boucek made four substitutions—two of which came inside the final minute when the game was already over. And the two substitutions of consequence were a starter replacing a bench player.

As her team was crumbling late in the game, Boucek went with the safest possible approach and hoped her starters could arrest the slide.

Just as puzzling as Boucek’s late-game substitutions was the fact Whitcomb didn’t play a minute after the first quarter against Connecticut, which appeared to be a direct result of Mosqueda-Lewis’ hot start.

After scoring 14 combined points in her five appearances since returning from injury, Mosqueda-Lewis went off for 13 points in the first half.

Rather than seeing Mosqueda-Lewis as another three-point specialist to join Seattle’s regular rotation of players, Boucek seemingly slotted KML into Whitcomb’s place, which actually changed nothing for the Storm offense.

Between Boucek’s comments when she received the job in 2015 and the roster general manager Alisha Valavanis built through the draft, there were explicit and implicit promises made that the Storm would be on the cutting edge offensively. Instead, Seattle’s inability to fulfill those promises has resulted in Boucek being out of a job after two-and-a-half seasons.

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