When the Seattle Storm announced Gary Kloppenburg would replace Jenny Boucek as head coach, it was seemingly a stopgap move to get the team through to the end of the season, at which point general manager and team president Alisha Valavanis could launch a full coaching search.
Since Kloppenburg assumed the reins, though, the Storm are 4-1. Whereas missing out on the playoffs seemed a genuine threat, Seattle is comfortably inside the top eight and looking like a dangerous matchup in the first round. And with each win, the case to make Kloppenburg the permanent replacement grows stronger.
Were the Storm to promote Kloppenburg, they’d have reason to do so based on the team’s last five games.
Below is a look at where Seattle sits league-wide over the last two weeks:
The Storm’s biggest improvement has come on the defensive end. Prior to the All-Star break, Seattle was allowing opponents to shoot 44.0 percent from the floor (seventh) and 33.1 percent from beyond the arc (sixth). The team was also 10th in defensive rating.
“Klop is not someone who is going to be yelling all over the place and that type of stuff,” Breanna Stewart said earlier this month, per the Seattle Times‘ Percy Allen. “But he knows what he’s doing. His defense, that’s his specialty. He’s been around the game for a long time, and he has a knack for what’s going on.”
One look at the numbers illustrates the impact Kloppenburg has had. Less tangible but important all the same in the team’s improvement are factors such as his in-game management and trust in the Storm’s role players.
In the fourth quarter of what proved to be Boucek’s final game, the Storm were outscored 33-9 en route to an 84-71 defeat to the Connecticut Sun. In that fourth quarter, Boucek made four substitutions in the final quarter, two of which were in the final minute when the game was already over. Sue Bird and Crystal Langhorne played the entirety of the quarter, while Alysha Clark was on the floor for nine minutes. Stewart, meanwhile, played the final 8:26 of a game in which she played a little over 35 minutes.
Compare that to the final quarter of the Storm’s 62-61 win over the Minnesota Lynx. Seattle started the frame with Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Sami Whitcomb, Carolyn Swords, Ramu Tokashiki and Alexis Peterson. Kloppenburg brought on Langhorne with 7:49 remaining and the remainder of the starting five re-entered the game with 7:21 left. As a result, the starters were fully rested and overturned what was a 54-50 deficit.
And whereas Boucek began relying even more so on the starters when the season started turning sour, Kloppenburg immediately showed his commitment to easing the burden on Clark, Stewart, Bird, Langhorne and Jewell Loyd.
No one player has benefited more from the coaching change than Peterson. In five games under Kloppenburg, she’s averaging a little over seven-and-a-half minutes on the floor, nearly a minute more than in the 10 games in which she appeared under Boucek.
Injuries to Bird and Noelle Quinn meant more playing time for the rookie, but Kloppenburg has made a concerted effort to at least give her an opportunity early in games, whereas Peterson’s action with Boucek was almost exclusively limited to garbage time in blowouts.
Peterson hasn’t been very efficient offensively. She has shot 12-of-41 from the floor and 3-of-11 from deep, while she has 13 assists to 12 turnovers. That isn’t a big deal, though, since it’s unfair to expect a second-round draft pick to provide significant immediate returns.
Despite her struggles and still relatively minor role in the Storm’s rotation, Peterson has shown an encouraging level of confidence with the ball in her hands. Consider the final eight seconds of the first quarter in the win over the Lynx. Peterson receives the inbound pass and rather than dribbling out the clock or looking for a teammate, she quickly moves the ball up the floor and scores on a short floater.
The Storm’s season won’t hinge on Peterson’s contributions, but her presence on the court over the past two weeks has helped signal a fresh start for the team. And letting her get her feet wet now could provide her with invaluable experience should she figure into Seattle’s plans for the future.
Peterson isn’t the only player for whom Kloppenburg has been a breath of fresh air. Alysha Clark is playing fewer minutes but hitting a higher percentage of her shot attempts. Loyd’s assist-to-turnover ratio has climbed over the last five games (2.10) compared to her pre-All-Star break level (1.30), and the same goes for Quinn, who had a 2.90 assist-to-turnover ratio before the All-Star break but a 4.70 rate in her last four games.
Kloppenburg is not only delivering results on the court but also helping the Storm players get better. For those two reasons, it’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve a chance at coaching Seattle on a full-time basis.
With that said, elevating Kloppenburg may not be that simple.
Upon taking over for Boucek, Kloppenburg told Allen he had no preconceived notions his new post would be a long-term proposition:
I honestly don’t know. I’m not really focused on any of that. I really want to stay in the moment and try to help our team each day get a little bit better. If we’re playing good basketball, then we’re going to get our share of wins. I’m really not that concerned about next year. I’m really concerned about seeing if we can get this team to play up to its maximum potential this year.
Speaking with Howard Megdal on the Aug. 24 edition of Locked on Women’s Basketball, Kloppenburg said he “wasn’t aspiring” to get another head coaching job and was very happy working as an assistant.
Even if he was offered the full-time job, Kloppenburg may decide he doesn’t want the stress that comes with being a WNBA head coach. Coaching in the WNBA doesn’t provide much job security, either, something Kloppenburg knows well. He received his walking papers after just two years with the Tulsa Shock, and his predecessor lasted two-and-a-half years with the Storm and Sacramento Monarchs before that.
Five games doesn’t give the Storm an overwhelming sample by which they can determine whether this run can continue.
This time last year, the Storm were embarking on a 7-3 run to close out the regular season. Seattle may have lost to the Atlanta Dream in the first round of the playoffs, but the team’s final 10 regular-season games offered some hope the Storm were on the precipice of big things in 2017. Suffice it to say, that didn’t materialize, and same could happen again to start the 2018 season.
The schedule has also been somewhat favorable to Kloppenburg and the Storm.
His first game came against a Mercury team welcoming back Brittney Griner. Griner was limited to a little over 21 minutes on the floor, scoring 19 points and grabbing seven rebounds. If Griner had played 30-plus minutes, it’s not crazy to think Phoenix could’ve come out with a victory.
Finding too many holes in a win over the Lynx—without Bird no less—is hard, but Minnesota didn’t have Lindsay Whalen for the entire game or Rebekkah Brunson for the majority of it.
From there, Seattle faced off with three of the four teams outside of the top eight.
Going 4-1 over that stretch is reason for excitement, but it’s not necessarily all that much better than one would expect a team with postseason aspirations to perform.
There’s also the question about whether Kloppenburg is enjoying something of a honeymoon period following Boucek’s departure.
It sure seems like Boucek had essentially lost the locker room, otherwise why get rid of her with eight games left in the regular season? Megdal’s report on Boucek’s job security in July didn’t paint a flattering picture, either. When a player tells a reporter, “It doesn’t always look like we’re being coached to win,” there’s clearly a level of discord between the coach and some segment of the roster.
Kloppenburg was an assistant to Boucek starting in January, but he was likely insulated from the criticism directed toward Boucek.
Once that honeymoon period ends, the problems that plagued the Storm during the Boucek era could crop up again under Kloppenburg and the team would be back to square one again.
This is the danger of firing Boucek at such a late point in the season. If Seattle makes the playoffs and moves on to the second round or beyond, Valavanis could have a difficult decision on her hands. How can you fire a coach who turned a losing team into one that reached the semifinals or WNBA Finals. At the same time Valvanis would be basing her judgment on what essentially equates to a third of the WNBA regular season.
If Kloppenburg is made the full-time head coach, the worst-case scenario gets pretty dark. The Storm meander through another season or two—wasting what’s left of Bird’s career as well as prime development time for Loyd and Stewart—before Valavanis determines another change is necessary. By then, Loyd and Stewart could be on their third coach in five or six years, and suddenly what looked to be a promising franchise is spinning its wheels with no long-term direction.
Granted, that would be the same if the Storm hire somebody else who doesn’t work out, but at least the team would’ve engaged in a coaching search to fully vet all of the available candidates.
Generally speaking, the Storm are still in a good place, but the 2017 season has proven it takes more than a pair of supremely talented No. 1 picks and the WNBA’s greatest point guard to build a title contender. Finding the right head coach to lead Seattle is imperative, and that may mean casting out the guy who righted the ship in what was shaping up to be a lost season.