The Biggest Offseason Questions Ahead for the Seattle Storm

No WNBA team may face more pressure to upgrade this offseason than the Seattle Storm. There are no more excuses should the Storm fail to at least earn a home game in the opening round of the playoffs.

Heading into the 2017 campaign, both espnW.com’s Mechelle Voepel and WNBA.com’s Brian Martin ranked Seattle fifth in their preseason power rankings.

But the 2017 season was nothing short of a disaster. Firing Jenny Boucek in the middle of the year provided momentary relief, but it couldn’t prevent the seemingly inevitable first-round exit—this time at the hands of the Phoenix Mercury.

It was a fitting coda to a disappointing year. Brittney Griner had 23 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks, while the Storm scored 19 points outside of their big three (Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird). All season long, Seattle struggled to guard elite post scorers, and the team’s lack of depth behind Stewart, Loyd and Bird was glaring.

More of the same in 2018 would mean wasting another year of Stewart and Loyd’s development—as well as what’s left of Bird’s playing career. It shouldn’t be a stretch to say general manager/team president Alisha Valavanis should also be out of a job. At some point, the front office has to point to more than just selecting Loyd and Stewart first overall in 2015 and 2016.

The Storm already accomplished some of their biggest tasks when they hired Dan Hughes to be Boucek’s full-time replacement and applied the core and reserve designations for Crystal Langhorne and Sami Whitcomb, respectively.

But that can’t represent the end of Seattle’s offseason—not if the team harbors aspirations of at least a semifinal run. If last year proved anything, then it was the Storm can’t solely count on the improvement of Stewart and Loyd to take the team to the next level.

With that in mind, let’s ponder the four biggest questions Valavanis and Hughes will have to answer in the months ahead.

 

Do the Storm Re-Sign Carolyn Swords and Noelle Quinn?

The Storm are fortunate in that they could easily lock up their biggest free agents this offseason. Seattle used the core player designation on Langhorne in each of the previous two seasons, so doing it a third time was the obvious choice. And Whitcomb was classified as a reserve player since she has fewer than four years of WNBA service time, which gives the Storm exclusive negotiating rights.

Noelle Quinn and Carolyn Swords are the only unrestricted free agents on Seattle’s roster. Although neither player is likely to be in high demand, Quinn and Swords will probably have some interest throughout the league.

Of the two, Swords should be the higher priority for Seattle.

Around this time last year, the Storm acquired Swords in a three-team deal with the New York Liberty and Washington Mystics. Seattle gave up the No. 6 pick—which Washington used to get Shatori Walker-Kimbrough—and swapped second-round selections with the Mystics.

Swords was the biggest addition for the Storm and provided few returns to the team in 2017. She averaged 2.6 points, 1.5 rebounds and 0.2 blocks per game. Most frustrating, Swords went from allowing 0.729 points per possession on post-ups (15th-best in the WNBA) to surrendering 1.08 PPP on post-ups (65th).

Seattle explicitly traded for Swords so she could be a rim protector on the floor alongside Stewart and Langhorne, and she failed to achieve that aim.

Still, proven rim protectors aren’t easy to find, and poor coaching could explain part of Swords’ struggles in her first season with Seattle. The Summitt’s Howard Megdal spoke to an anonymous WNBA coach midseason who said, “Seattle should play Swords and target people and not do as much five-out motion. Get tougher on defense—which having a big in there will help. Let Bird pick teams apart.”

According to WNBA.com, Swords had a 101.7 defensive rating for the 2017 season. During the team’s final eight regular-season games with Gary Kloppenburg in charge, Swords’ defensive rating was 94.2.

Assuming that trend can continue with Hughes, the Storm should push reasonably hard to get Swords back.

Quinn, on the other hand, might be more expendable. She was solid as a backup point guard, averaging 6.3 assists and 2.1 turnovers per 36 minutes. She also shot 38.5 percent from three-point range.

Letting Quinn go would allow the Storm an opportunity to elevate Alexis Peterson to a larger role. Peterson played a total of 121 minutes as a rookie, with the bulk of her minutes coming in garbage time. She had 14 assists to 13 turnovers and made three of her 12 three-point attempts.

In her senior year at Syracuse, Peterson averaged 23.4 points and 7.0 assists per game and was a 36.9 percent three-point shooter. Maybe Peterson never evolves into a solid rotation player in the WNBA, but it’s at least worth giving her a serious shot.

And if the Storm aren’t fully convinced of Peterson’s potential, then Kelsey Mitchell, Diamond DeShields and Jordin Canada could all be available with the fifth pick in the 2018 WNBA draft.

 

Can Seattle Make Any Big Upgrades in Free Agency?

I won’t belabor this question too much, because I spent an entire article examining the Storm’s prospects in free agency. The analysis in that post largely remains the same, with Tina Charles’ core player designation the biggest development since then.

Because the WNBA free agency system largely restricts player movement when compared to the NBA, Storm fans shouldn’t get too excited about the prospect of a marquee signing. The players who could make a major difference (Stefanie Dolson, Alyssa Thomas, Kayla McBride and Odyssey Sims) are restricted free agents, and there’s little reason to think their current teams will let them walk.

Amber Harris, Courtney Paris and Kia Vaughn would all be free-agent alternatives for Swords, while Sydney Colson could fill a void left by a departing Quinn.

In order to truly reshuffle the roster, Valavanis will need to get creative and package together a trade, which leads to the next question.

 

Should the Storm Seriously Shop Crystal Langhorne?

Since joining the Storm’s front office in 2014, Valavanis hasn’t had that one move she can point to as the defining transaction of her tenure.

She shouldn’t get a ton of credit for selecting Loyd and Stewart because they were widely considered the best players in their respective draft classes. And beyond those two, Seattle hasn’t gotten much value out of the draft.

One could argue Valavanis went out on a bit of a limb for the Swords trade, and that didn’t work out as expected.

Valavanis may have to take her biggest risk yet if she envisions a top-four push in 2018.

The problem for the Storm is that they don’t have a lot of tradable assets.

Stewart and Bird are untouchable, while Peterson, Lanay Montgomery and Ramu Tokashiki are at the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s hard to see how Seattle could get anything of value from any of the three. In the middle you have Whitcomb, Langhorne, Alysha Clark and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.

Speaking with Megdal on the Locked On Women’s Basketball podcast, Hughes gave the impression he sees Clark as pivotal to Seattle’s improvement in 2018:

If you’re gonna take on a respect for the defensive end and a respect for the rebounding, then I think it’s gotta encompass a little bit of the decisions you make to add to the team. I think it’s gotta encompass a little bit of focus and buy-in. Alysha Clark is very important to me, because I kind of need…she is the type of defender that I want to influence her teammates to be, and I want to add some of the pieces to this group. Because if you want true consistency in professional basketball—and I’d include the NBA—you’ve got to have buy-in.

Whitcomb and Mosqueda-Lewis, meanwhile, have separate factors at play that will likely see them remain in Seattle.

Whitcomb has become a fan favorite having played for the Washington Huskies. How many WNBA bench players have a shirsey available through the team shop? Storm fans wouldn’t begin rioting at KeyArena if Whitcomb were traded, but it’d be an unpopular decision nonetheless.

Mosqueda-Lewis left Connecticut having made more three-pointers than any player in Division I history—a record Mitchell has since broken. Surely, that shooting will translate to the WNBA sooner or later. Perhaps a new coach and a season without any injuries can help Mosqueda-Lewis have a career year in 2018.

Langhorne, on the other hand, could be an intriguing trade chip.

It would be a case of Seattle selling high. Langhorne averaged 12.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game and shot a career-high 64.7 percent from the field. She turns 32 in October, so it’s fair to wonder how much longer she can be such an efficient scorer.

And trading Langhorne on Seattle’s part would be less an indictment of her abilities and more about whether the Storm can beat the Minnesota Lynx, Los Angeles Sparks or Phoenix Mercury in the playoffs with Langhorne playing off Stewart inside.

Seattle may hope Stewart becomes an elite rim protector, but that would be asking a lot of her. Stewart has had a 26.2 percent usage rate and played nearly 34 minutes per game in her first two years. And she has played overseas, so her offseasons were basically nonexistent.

Stewart is clearly the Storm’s best player, but the team should still be wary of putting too much on her shoulders in her third season.

Flipping Langhorne for a defensive-minded center should get the Storm closer to a WNBA title and take some of the workload off Stewart.

Although the Storm made her a core player, that doesn’t preclude the team from doing a sign-and-trade.

Were Seattle to pull the trigger on a shocking trade, Langhorne is the most realistic big name out the door.

 

How Much Will the Draft Impact Seattle’s Team-Building?

Should the Storm strike out in free agency, Valavanis will probably wait until after the WNBA draft before making a major trade.

Valavanis may go ahead and trade Seattle’s first-round pick for the second year in a row. Last month, I looked at how much value the No. 5 pick has historically conveyed. Here are the average player efficiency ratings, win shares and win shares per 48 minutes over the first three years:

  • Year 1—12.8 PER, 1.2 WS, .085 WS/48
  • Year 2—14.9 PER, 1.3 WS, .112 WS/48
  • Year 3—16.1 PER, 2.1 WS, .153 WS/48

To put those numbers in perspective, the Storm would essentially be getting a player who can be a solid contributor as a rookie. That may not sound like much, but a rookie with those Year 1 metrics would’ve outperformed Whitcomb, Swords, Mosqueda-Lewis and Tokashiki in 2017.

Although Valavanis and Hughes should have some urgency in 2018, they shouldn’t completely abandon a long-term view to team-building. Barring an offer that is so obviously one-sided in Seattle’s direction, keeping the pick is the team’s best approach.

Assuming the Storm stay at No. 5, Valavanis may not want to be too hasty in the trade market and handcuff herself in the draft, especially since she should be able to address one of many different areas in the first round.

Mitchell could be a long-term replacement for Bird. A backcourt of Loyd and Mitchell would be electrifying. At 6’7″, Teaira McCowan would offer the size the Storm need inside, and the same would be said of 6’6″ Mercedes Russell. You can throw Canada and Gabby Williams in the mix, too, with the former a more stylistic facsimile of Bird and the latter basically a younger version of Clark with a far higher upside.

What is a pretty strong draft class should give Valavanis and Hughes some level of comfort if they strike out in free agency. They don’t need to go into panic mode if they’re unable to significantly bolster the roster by the spring.

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