Storm Play It Safe Again by Hiring Dan Hughes

Nothing screams excitement more than hiring a coach you coaxed out of retirement.

That’s exactly what the Seattle Storm did when they announced Dan Hughes as their next head coach, which the Associated Press Doug Feinberg reported late Tuesday night. The team confirmed the hiring Wednesday.

“In conversations with Alisha and the Storm ownership group, it quickly became evident that this was a good fit,” Hughes said in the Storm’s official press release. “Beyond the incredible talent Seattle has on its roster, I am very excited to have the loyal fan base supporting us. In watching the team over the years, coaching against Storm teams, it’s been clear that the fans in Seattle create an advantageous home court at KeyArena and have been a huge part of the evolution of their storied success.”

It’s easy to see the Storm’s reasoning in selecting Hughes.

The 62-year-old boasts a wealth of experience in the WNBA, having coached the most games (524) in league history. His 237 wins are third only to Mike Thibault and Brian Agler as well. Over a career spanning 16 years and three franchises, Hughes led his team to the playoffs on 10 occasions, including a WNBA Finals appearance with the San Antonio Stars in 2008, where the Stars got swept by the Detroit Shock.

Plus, he’s an Ohio native, like Agler—M-Town represent—which is always an admirable quality. In fact, you know who else is from Ohio and would’ve been a great fit? Katie Smith, but we’ll get to that in a little bit.

The Storm likely see Hughes as a steady hand who can lead the team after what was a turbulent 2017 season. Not only did Seattle barely slide into the playoffs, but Jenny Boucek was fired mid-season amidst rumored tension in the locker room.

All things considered, Hughes is a fine hire, which conversely makes it all the more frustrating when factoring in some of the front office’s decisions over the past few years.

Hiring Boucek as Agler’s replacement in January 2015 was unquestionably a gamble to some extent. The Sacramento Monarchs were 37-31 in her first two years and she was fired as the team began the 2009 season with a 3-10 record. However, she had also worked under Agler for five years. Replacing your head coach with one of his assistants isn’t exactly thinking outside the box.

Last offseason, Carolyn Swords was the biggest upgrade to the Storm roster, with Seattle sending the sixth and 18th overall selections in the 2017 WNBA draft to the Washington Mystics. Swords was supposed to be the rim protector the Storm desperately needed. She averaged 1.3 blocks per 36 minutes for the New York Liberty in 2016, and she ranked in the 84th percentile in points per possession allowed in post-ups (0.729), according to Synergy Sports. On paper, Swords represented an incremental improvement to the team’s defense and ideally was supposed to take some of the pressure off Breanna Stewart.

Then, as the Storm were mired in an underwhelming 2017 season, Valavanis opted against making any moves ahead of the trade deadline. One could argue the season was essentially lost at that point anyway, so why throw good money at bad and give up assets with little short-term return when you can wait until the offseason.

Separately, hiring Boucek, trading for Swords and doing nothing at the trade deadline are all defensible choices. Put them together, however, and it arguably shows a pattern of the Storm taking as little risk as possible while still trying to progress toward title contention.

And what does Seattle have to show for it? Boucek was gone after two-and-a-half seasons, Swords struggled to get into the rotation and averaged 8.7 minutes a night and making Gary Kloppenburg the interim coach only provided a momentary bump as the team’s personnel issues were laid bare in the opening-round playoff defeat to the Phoenix Mercury.

Hiring Hughes may be a continuation of that trend. It makes complete sense in theory and then we’re all looking back wondering what in the world happened.

The Storm could’ve opted for somebody who cut their teeth in the college ranks or hired an assistant who hadn’t yet received the opportunity to coach his or her own team in the WNBA. Either strategy would’ve been much riskier but had a higher upside.

Cheryl Reeve was an assistant for nearly a decade—having coached Indiana State before that—prior to getting the Minnesota Lynx job. That’s worked out pretty well since then.

The bulk of Curt Miller’s experience came in college between Bowling Green and Indiana. The Connecticut Sun hired him after he worked one season as an assistant under Agler with the Los Angeles Sparks.

Sandy Brondello was a head coach for one year with the Stars in 2010. Before that, she was an assistant for the Stars and then moved on to the Sparks after leaving San Antonio. The Phoenix Mercury made a 10-game improvement in Brondello’s first season en route to a WNBA title in 2014.

It will be interesting to see if Smith was ever a target for the Storm. Her playing career speaks for itself. She’s one of the biggest legends in women’s basketball history when considering her college, ABL and then WNBA success. And since 2014, Smith has been an assistant under Bill Laimbeer with the New York Liberty.

Smith has made her ambitions clear as well, telling For The Win’s Nina Mandell she wants to be a head coach in the women’s game:

I do want to be a head coach at some point, how that path goes, I’m not sure. … I have a great situation now, but we’ll see. I definitely want to give it a try one day. …

The NBA is interesting. I think you think about it especially with Becky Hammon as a trailblazer and Nancy Lieberman. But for me, being in the women’s game, something that gave me so much is something I’d like to give back. For me I think my heart lies with the women’s game.

It’s hard to see how Smith would’ve turned Seattle down if offered the chance to coach there, but she may be waiting for a different opportunity.

Going down a level, the Storm would’ve had little to no chance of prying any marquee coaches from a Division I powerhouse, but coaches from smaller universities may have been willing to move to Seattle. The Summitt’s Howard Megdal threw out Charlotte Smith of Elon and Aaron Roussell of Bucknell as possibilities. Jennifer Rizzotti not only coaches George Washington but also serves as an assistant on the women’s national team. Whether she would’ve been willing to leave George Washington after only a year may have been a deal-breaker.

Of course, hiring a head coach isn’t as simple as identifying your top target and giving him or her a contract. And Valavanis may have sounded out Smith and others about their interest only to be rebuffed.

But hiring a coach who had already retired before the WNBA Finals are even over comes off as lacking ambition when it follows what has been a risk-averse approach from Valavanis since she became the general manager in 2015.

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