A little over eight months after their 2017 season ended at the hands of the Phoenix Mercury, the Seattle Storm will open their 2018 campaign at home May 20 against Phoenix.
Before that, the Storm and Mercury will meet twice for a pair of preseason games in May.
To some extent, Seattle’s disappointing first-round playoff exit may benefit the team this year. The Storm could be the biggest post-hype sleeper in the WNBA.
Mechelle Voepel of espnW.com and Brian Martin of WNBA.com both listed Seattle at No. 5 in their preseason power rankings in 2017. Expectations were high, and the Storm got fans even more excited with a 4-1 start to the regular season. Then came a humbling 100-77 defeat to the Minnesota Lynx at KeyArena, and things were never the same for Seattle.
Now, fans and WNBA experts may be slightly more hesitant about jumping onboard the Storm as a top-four team, which in turn means a little less outside pressure on the players. Throw in the motivation for the players to atone for last year, and a home game in the first round of the playoffs should be within reach.
With training camps having opened Sunday, it seems as good a time as any to look at the season ahead.
Offseason in Review
The Storm didn’t undergo a drastic change in the offseason, which was the sensible approach, even after a disappointing 2017 season. Replacing Jenny Boucek with Dan Hughes, a coaching veteran who has spent 16 seasons in the WNBA and racked up 237 career wins, set the tone.
The Storm re-signed Noelle Quinn, Sami Whitcomb and Crystal Langhorne, with Langhorne designated as a core player. The team also had exclusive negotiating rights with Whitcomb since she had fewer than four years of service time in the WNBA,
In terms of outside additions, Seattle signed Courtney Paris and worked out a sign-and-trade with the Minnesota Lynx to acquire Natasha Howard. Paris replaces Carolyn Swords, who signed with the Las Vegas Aces, and the Storm likely see Howard as a fill-in for Ramu Tokashiki, who’s sitting out the 2018 season to focus on her national team duty. The Storm also gave Brittney McPhee, Khaalia Hillsman, Emily Potter and Aleksandra Crvendakic training camp contracts.
Seattle selected UCLA Bruins guard Jordin Canada with the fifth overall pick in the WNBA draft and added West Virginia Mountaineers forward Teana Muldrow in the third round. They surrendered their second-round pick to the Lynx in the Howard deal.
Swords and Alexis Peterson are the only notable departures from last year’s team. Swords was an unrestricted free agent, while Seattle waived Peterson one year after selecting her in the second round of the draft.
Key Number: 18.2
In 2015, Sue Bird finished with a career-high usage rate (23.2 percent). The Storm were in the second year of their total rebuild and thus relying on a number of young, inexperienced players.
It’s a testament to Seattle’s overall progress Bird’s usage rate fell in both 2016 and 2017, hitting 18.2 percent last year. Although Bird is one of the best guards in basketball history, the team can’t afford to rely too heavily on a player who turned 37 last October.
Key Number: 0.515
As much as Canada will help the Storm offensively, her defense may be more important after the team’s struggles on that end in 2017.
Canada was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and finished 10th nationally in steal rate (4.6 percent), according to Her Hoops Stats. She was also in the 75th percentile in defensive points per possession (0.690), per Synergy Sports.
Canada was particularly effective when guarding the pick and roll, surrendering 0.515 points per possession, which put her in the 80th percentile. She also held opponents to a .244 field-goal percentage and .268 adjusted field-goal percentage.
The Storm, by comparison, were last in the league in defensive PPP (0.862) in the pick and roll. Teams had a lot of success exploiting Bird and Loyd on the perimeter, and that may not be the case as much if Seattle can lean on Canada to help in the pick and roll.
Key Number: 1.000
Simply put, Alysha Clark looked lost on defense at times. Especially when defending away from the ball, Clark would seemingly run around the court without any real purpose.
In some cases, our eyes can tell a different story than the raw numbers. In Clark’s case, the stats back up the general perception of her off-ball defending. According to Synergy Sports, Clark allowed 1.000 defensive points per possession on spot-up opportunities, which was in the 26th percentile.
Clark has the potential to be the Storm’s most important defender. She has the size and athleticism to guard anybody 1 through 3, and Hughes mentioned to Howard Megdal on the Locked On Women’s Basketball podcast how getting Clark to buy in on defense would have a ripple effect on the rest of the team.
Key Number: 41.2
While playing for Sopron in the Hungarian National Championship, Crvendakic was able to consistently stretch the floor by hitting 41.8 percent of her three-pointers. That continued even when she faced a higher level of competition in the EuroLeague. The 21-year-old shot 40.6 from beyond the arc.
Signing a 41.2 percent three-point shooter to a training camp contract could be a shrewd move by the Storm, especially since they did so long before Sopron reached the EuroLeague final, thus boosting Crvendakic’s profile.
Assuming she makes Seattle’s final roster, Crvendakic should be a nice change of pace from the defensive-minded Howard in terms of a reserve forward.
Key Number: 48.7
Hillsman was an efficient scorer inside as a senior for Texas A&M. She averaged 14.4 points and had a .639 true shooting percentage. On a team that already had Langhorne and Stewart and signed Paris, another offense-first center may struggle to find a place on the roster, though.
Hillsman’spoor defense last year won’t make things any easier, either.
According to Synergy Sports, Hillsman allowed opponents to shoot 48.7 percent on post-up opportunities. She has the size (6’5″) to be a backup center in the WNBA, but she might be a better fit on a team that can collectively protect the rim, sort of like how Paris was a good fit in Dallas alongside Glory Johnson.
Key Number: .379
The Storm lost one of their better defenders when Tokashiki decided to sit out the 2018 season. She was second on the team in defensive rating (99.5) among Seattle’s regulars and sat in the 97th percentile in halfcourt defensive points per possession (0.664), according to Synergy Sports.
Acquiring Howard felt like a natural reaction to losing Tokashiki.
Howard is unlikely to offer a ton of offensive value. She’s averaging 5.6 points over her WNBA career and has attempted just 22 three-pointers in 132 appearances.
The 26-year-old may not be the on-ball defender Tokashiki is, but she’s effective at chasing players off the ball. According to Synergy Sports, opponents had a .379 adjusted field-goal percentage in spot-up opportunities defended by Howard. That’s going to be a big help for the Storm, who allowed a .487 adjusted field-goal percentage on spot ups in 2017.
Key Number: 1.06
But there’s a reason the Storm acquired Swords last offseason and signed Paris earlier this winter. Seattle can’t expect the 6’2″ Langhorne to match up well with the WNBA’s elite post scorers, and it would seem opponents exploited another weakness in her game in 2017.
Langhorne allowed 1.06 points per possession in spot-up situations, which put her in the 21st percentile. In total, she was involved in 116 possessions that ended with a spot-up shot, and 44 percent of those ended in the opponent getting at least one point on the board.
Key Number: 0.942
Jewell Loyd remained a frustrating player to watch in 2017. She hit a career-high 38.6 percent of her three-pointers but averaged 3.4 assists—the same number as in 2016—despite her usage rate climbing from 26.1 percent to 28.1 percent. And even with her improvement from beyond the arc, Loyd’s field-goal percentage remained at .431.
Loyd has made incremental progress as a scorer and playmaker but has yet to ascend to All-Star status.
Defensively, the fourth-year guard remains a bit of a liability as well. Her 103.3 defensive rating was third-worst on the team, and she was in the 46th percentile in defensive points per possession (0.896), according to Synergy Sports.
In particular, Loyd was unable to fight through screens with any effectiveness. She allowed 0.942 PPP in the pick and roll. Not surprisingly, opposing teams ran the pick and roll on 38.4 percent of Loyd’s defensive possessions—the most frequent of Synergy’s seven play types. Even worse, opponents had a .629 adjusted field-goal percentage coming off screens when guarded by Loyd.
Having Loyd become a better defender off screens would go some way toward turning around the WNBA’s third-worst three-point defense (35.6 percent).
Key Number: 0.722
As a senior at Stanford, McPhee averaged 16.7 points despite shooting just 26.7 percent from three-point range. Despite obvious limitations, she was a solid scorer for the Cardinal.
McPhee’s defense may be more valuable to Seattle, though. According to Synergy Sports, she allowed 0.722 points per possession, good enough to put her in the 63rd percentile. She also held opponents to 19.6 percent shooting on attempts less than 17 feet from the basket. Between 17 feet and the three-point line, they were shooting 27.8 percent.
At 6’0″, McPhee has two inches on Loyd, so she provides much-needed size to the backcourt. If McPhee is going to carve out a role in the Storm’s rotation, then it may be as a defensive substitute for Loyd.
Key Number: 29.4
Coming into the WNBA, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis was the NCAA’s all-time leader in made three-pointers—a distinction she has since lost to Kelsey Mitchell.
Mosqueda-Lewis’ three-point shooting hasn’t translated to the WNBA, though. She’s a career 32.0 percent shooter and hit just 29.4 percent of her attempts in 2017. That’s obviously not good and even worse when half of Mosqueda-Lewis’ field-goal attempts were from the perimeter.
This is a pivotal year for Mosqueda-Lewis’ Storm tenure. As a 2015 first-round pick, she’s eligible to hit restricted free agency after the 2018 season.
Generally, teams have to give little thought to re-signing players under team control. But Mosqueda-Lewis has been a three-point specialist who can’t consistently knock down the trey. If that continues, then Seattle may have to seriously weigh whether or not to give her a multiyear extension.
Key Number: .579
As a third-round pick, Muldrow is facing an uphill battle with the Storm. Seattle selected Lanay Montgomery—another West Virginia product—in the third round of the 2017 draft, and they waived her a year after she played 28 total minutes as a rookie.
Muldrow’s efficient scoring may be enough to warrant a place on the Storm’s final roster, though. In her senior year, she had a .579 true shooting percentage while averaging 18.9 points per game, according to Her Hoops Stats.
Not only can Muldrow hold her own inside, but she can also stretch the floor. She shot 33.1 percent from three-point range. Especially since none of Paris, Langhorne or Howard is much of a long-range shooter, Muldrow could be a situational option when Hughes wants to add spacing to his frontcourt.
Key Number: 20.2
With that in mind, signing Paris made perfect sense for the Storm. Simply calling Paris a good rebounder wouldn’t be doing her justice; she has been a historically great rebounder in the WNBA. Her 20.2 percent rebounding rate ranks second all time behind Cheryl Ford.
Granted, Paris is coming off a 2017 season in which she averaged her fewest rebounds per 36 minutes (9.8). She battled a knee injury last year, which may help somewhat explain her lackluster performance on the boards relatively speaking.
Key Number: 6.2
It shouldn’t come as a surprise the 6’6″ Potter was a consistent shot blocker at Utah. She collected 227 blocks over the past three seasons with the Utes.
Potter had a 6.2 percent block rate in 2017-18, according to Her Hoops Stats, and averaged 1.7 blocks per game. Both of those numbers represented a step backward from 2016-17, when she had a 9.8 percent block rate and averaged 2.9 blocks.
In all likelihood, Potter will be unable to make the final cut when the Storm trim the roster to 12 players. If she stays, then her size could help her be the third option at center behind Stewart and Paris.
Key Number: 62.9
Over her WNBA career, Quinn hasn’t been much of a scorer. She’s averaging 8.6 points per 36 minutes and shooting 39.8 percent from the field, including 32.5 percent from three-point range.
Quinn transformed in 2017, though. In addition to her duties as the backup point guard and offensive leader of the second unit, she became something of a three-point specialist. A whopping 62.9 percent of her field-goal attempts came from beyond the arc, nearly double her career average (32.0).
Even with her spike in attempts, Quinn still shot 38.5 percent on threes, the fourth-best percentage of her career.
Assuming Canada will be the backup point guard behind Bird in 2018, the Storm may not need Quinn to run the offense as much as she did in 2016 and 2017. That’s why her shift to becoming more of a shooter could be a nice bonus for Seattle. It would make Quinn much more suitable as a 2-guard off the bench alongside Canada.
Key Number: 56.0
The Storm enjoyed a productive offseason, but they didn’t necessarily address what was a big issue in 2017: rim protection. Paris is a great rebounder but has averaged 1.4 blocks per 36 minutes over her career, which is solid but not otherworldly. And the 6’3″ Howard will be overmatched physically against Sylvia Fowles, Brittney Griner and Jonquel Jones, which is the case with Langhorne as well.
Because of that, the Storm will need Breanna Stewart to makes some strides as a defender.
Stewart can be a fearsome presence inside, but the numbers aren’t exactly flattering. According to Synergy Sports, opponents shot 42.0 percent against Stewart on post ups in 2016 and then 56.0 percent in 2017. In the same metric, she was in the 31st percentile in defensive points per possession (1.055).
It may be a case of opponents not really knowing how to handle Stewart as a rookie and figuring out how to exploit her weaknesses in her second season. As talented as Stewart is, she’s bound to experience growing pains in the WNBA.
The 2018 season will be an indicator as to whether Stewart can start making the necessary adjustments to be better equipped to handle elite post scorers.
Key Number: 27.8
No player was a bigger surprise for the Storm in 2017 than Whitcomb. She went from being a training camp invite to appearing in 33 games, averaging 4.5 points, 1.7 rebounds and 1.0 assists off the bench.
On offense, Whitcomb’s value hinged largely on her three-point shooting. More than three quarters of her shots (76.7) were from the perimeter. Her three-point percentage wasn’t terrible (.333) but gets worse when you provide some context.
In the Storm’s victories over the New York Liberty and Indiana Fever in May 2017, Whitcomb combined to score 31 points and shoot 9-of-12 on three-pointers.
Take those two games out, and Whitcomb was a 27.8 percent shooter from three-point territory. She was a solid defender—finishing in the 74th percentile in defensive PPP—but she’ll need to either become a more consistent shooter or diversify her offense if she wants to continue being a regular role player for Seattle.
Biggest Questions in 2018
Can the Storm’s Role Players Provide More Support for the Big Three?
Both Loyd and Stewart still have another level or two to reach in the WNBA, but the Storm can only expect so much from the pair. In addition, Loyd and Stewart finished with a 28.1 and 27.6 percent usage rate, respectively, in 2017. To put those numbers in perspective, a 28.1 percent usage rate would be tied for second among active players. Stewart would sit in fourth place.
Along the same lines, playing a 37-year-old point guard 30-plus minutes a night may not be an advisable strategy. It’s good less of the offense funneled through Bird in 2017, and she continues to defy the aging curve. But the presence of Canada should allow Hughes to ease the burden on Bird.
In order to climb up the WNBA standings, the Storm need to be able to count on their supporting players outside trio of Loyd, Stewart and Bird.
Having added Howard, Paris and Canada, Seattle has a deeper roster. However, Hughes’ predecessor illustrates it’s ultimately up to a coach to get more out of his or her players. Renee Montgomery and Krystal Thomas are the two biggest personnel failures of the Boucek era, and nobody should be surprised if Swords once again becomes a solid rim protector for the Las Vegas after she reunited with former coach Bill Laimbeer.
Hughes has to set his players up for success and trust them to deliver in important situations.
The Storm’s 84-71 loss to the Connecticut Sun was another damning indictment of Boucek. Connecticut outscored Seattle 33-9 in the fourth quarter, and as the Sun were rolling over the Storm, Boucek essentially stuck with her starters and did little to try and stem the tide.
The problems with the Storm’s top-heavy production in 2017 were laid bare in the playoff loss. Stewart, Loyd and Bird combined to score 50 points on 14-of-40. The rest of the team had 19 points on 8-of-23 shooting.
Seattle’s reliance on Stewart and Loyd is unsustainable if the team harbors serious postseason aspirations.
Will Seattle’s Defense Improve?
The Storm weren’t the worst defensive team in the WNBA in 2017, but they were in the bottom half in almost every significant metric. Seattle finished eighth in points allowed (82.6 points per game), ninth in defensive rating (104.7), seventh in defensive points per possession (0.921), ninth in opponent field-goal percentage (.443) and 10th in opponent three-point percentage (.356).
Last year, the Minnesota Lynx, Los Angeles Sparks, New York Liberty and Connecticut Sun were the top four seeds in the WNBA playoffs. Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s exactly how the teams finished in defensive rating as well.
The adage defense wins championships is an overused cliche, but it’s a cliche that also applies for the most part. Here’s the list of the last 10 WNBA champions and where they ranked in defensive rating:
- 2017: Minnesota Lynx, 1st (94.1)
- 2016: Los Angeles Sparks, 2nd (97.3)
- 2015: Minnesota Lynx, 2nd (94.0)
- 2014: Phoenix Mercury, 1st (93.9)
- 2013: Minnesota Lynx, 3rd (94.6)
- 2012: Indiana Fever, 3rd (95.2)
- 2011: Minnesota Lynx, 2nd (95.2)
- 2010: Seattle Storm, 2nd (95.4)
- 2009: Phoenix Mercury, 13th (104.1)
- 2008: Detroit Shock, 5th (93.9)
Getting a top four seed in the WNBA playoffs is extremely difficult when a team has a bad defense. The Storm were one of the better offensive teams in 2017 and still won just 15 games in large part because they couldn’t consistently defend.
Hughes’ record offers equal parts encouragement and concern in terms of his team’s defensive performance. San Antonio finished in the bottom half in defensive rating in each of his final five seasons, but that may have been a result of the team’s personnel rather than coaching. The Stars did enjoy a few years in which they hovered near the top of the league. And in 2008, a year after reaching the Western Conference Finals, they had the best defense in the WNBA.
Fans can only expect so much improvement in one year, but the pieces are seemingly there for Hughes to turn Seattle around on defense. The Storm added two solid defenders in Howard and Canada, and the fact Hughes singled out Clark illustrates both her importance and her growth potential. Then there’s the natural progression Stewart is bound to make having had another year against the likes of Griner, Fowles, Tina Charles and Elena Delle Donne.
If the Storm can have just a league-average defense—assuming their offense doesn’t regress too much—then it would have a big impact on the team’s overall performance.