What’s the Seattle Storm’s Bar for Success in 2018?

Where do you realistically set expectations for a team coming off back-to-back playoff appearances but still hasn’t had a winning season since 2011?

“It’s time to start winning,” Breanna Stewart said during the Storm’s media day, per the Seattle TimesPercy Allen. “I don’t want to come off as crass or cocky or anything like that, but losing sucks. It does. That’s just how I feel about it. And, no, I won’t ever get used to it. I can’t. That’s not how I’m wired.”

The Storm certainly intimated as much, too, when they hired Dan Hughes. They could’ve opted for a first-year head coach who would need a few seasons to grow into the role. Instead, Seattle chose a 16-year veteran who has the third-most wins (237) of any coach in WNBA history.

It’s not a title-or-bust kind of season for the Storm, but 18-20 wins are probably the minimum requirement to avoid another disappointing campaign.

With that said, Seattle shouldn’t focus so much on results it loses sight of the process to get there. For instance, climbing into the top four wouldn’t be all that great if it required Stewart to assume an even larger workload than her 27.6 percent usage rate in 2017. The Storm need to be a winning team in 2018, but more importantly, they need to be a winning team that’s also set up for 2019, 2020, 2021, etc.

Sports are a results-based business, but Storm fans shouldn’t simply look at the team’s record to determine whether the 2018 season was a success or failure. There will come a time when Seattle will have an open title window upon which it must capitalize. For now, the Storm are still building to that point, thus there are a number of factors worth considering when making a full evaluation for how the year unfolded.

None of the goals below are tied directly to wins and losses, but whether or not the Storm achieve them will arguably speak more to the progress Seattle makes in 2018.

 

Finish with a Top-Six Defense

Improving the defense will be one of Hughes’ top priorities. The Storm finished ninth in defensive rating (104.7) last season, and the team generally crumbled when facing off with the best teams in the league.

Here’s Seattle’s defensive rating against the Minnesota Lynx, Los Angeles Sparks, New York Liberty, Connecticut Sun and Phoenix Mercury, respectively: 110.9, 95.6, 107.2, 109.6 and 108.7. Those were the top five teams in the WNBA a year ago, and the Storm had the equivalent of the league’s worst defense when playing three of them.

Expecting the Storm to become an elite defensive team in 2018 is unrealistic, but Seattle is well aware—based on the team’s offseason moves—it can’t afford to have another below-average defense.

The team acquired Natasha Howard from the Minnesota Lynx and selected the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Jordin Canada in the WNBA draft. It’s also telling when the Storm announced they signed Alysha Clark to an extension, general manager Alisha Valavanis singled out Clark’s defensive importance.

“She brings a disruptive, blue collar mindset on the defensive end, and we are looking forward to her continued contributions in Seattle,” Valavanis said in the team’s press release.

Beyond the team’s record and playoff finish, defense is the biggest area in which Hughes and the roster as a whole will be judged.

 

Defend the Dang Paint

The Lynx, Liberty, Sun and Mercury have a common thread beyond finishing in the top five: They all boast an elite frontcourt scorer. The Storm basically had no answer for Sylvia Fowles, Tina Charles, Jonquel Jones and Brittney Griner close to the basket.

As soon as Seattle was assured of a first-round matchup with the Mercury, it was toast in the playoffs. Griner only shot 8-of-21 but finished with 23 points in a 79-69 win for Phoenix.

According to Synergy Sports, the Storm allowed 1.000 point per possession on post ups, which ranked seventh. They were also seventh in opponent field-goal percentage (.490). Seattle was also 11th in defensive PPP (0.914) on shots inside 17 feet.

This is an area the Storm didn’t specifically address in the offseason, though. Courtney Paris is an excellent rebounder but hasn’t been a great rim protector for the past few years. And for as much as Howard adds to the defense, her height (6’2″) is going to be a limitation if she’s defending Fowles, Jones and Griner.

The Storm are likely counting on Stewart to be the team’s designated rim protector, a strategy that would be somewhat risky. Last year showed she still has some ways to go, and that wasn’t entirely surprising since one can only expect so much from a second-year player. While Stewart should be a better defender in 2018, the Storm need to be careful about putting too much on her shoulders.

 

Ease Breanna Stewart’s Workload

Through her first two years, Stewart is averaging 33.8 minutes per game. To put that in perspective, that number would rank third all time if Stewart to retire right now.

Even when a knee injury kept her out for basically the entire 2017 offseason, she still missed just one game and played 32.9 minutes a night. The acquisition of Carolyn Swords was supposed to ease the burden on Stewart. Swords averaged fewer than 10 minutes (8.7) a game and signed with the Las Vegas Aces this offseason.

With Swords gone, the Storm are trying that approach again with Paris and to some extent Howard so Hughes has the personnel to ensure Stewart isn’t once again in the top five in total minutes played in 2018.

Beyond just keeping Stewart more fresh for the latter stages of the regular season and postseason, cutting down her minutes slightly will mean the team isn’t quite so reliant on her as it was in 2017.

 

Position Jordin Canada as the Heir Apparent

The Storm have already started slowly phasing Sue Bird out of her role as the architect of the offense. Her usage rate has fallen over each of the past two years, and her 18.2 percent usage rate in 2017 was the second-lowest of her career.

Before this offseason, there wasn’t a clear succession plan in place. Seattle might have envisioned Jewell Loyd taking over at point guard when the team selected her first overall in 2015. But Loyd is more suited to be a scorer rather than a floor general.

That’s where Canada comes in. The UCLA Bruins star averaged 7.1 assists and had a 40.2 percent assist rate, according to Her Hoops Stats. She was also in the 79th percentile in turnover rate (14.0 percent), which isn’t too bad given how much she had the ball in her hands.

Canada looked great in her Storm debut, finishing with 15 points, three rebounds, three assists and five steals in Seattle’s 73-69 preseason win over the Mercury.

Historically speaking, Canada is unlikely to be an All-Star in her first year. In two-plus decades, the No. 5 draft picks in the WNBA draft have averaged a 12.8 PER and 1.2 win shares in their rookie seasons.

But Bird is still around, so Canada doesn’t need to be the starter just yet. And having her lead the second unit will be a nice upgrade for the team after it looked lost last year when Bird was on the bench.

 

Trust the Bench

Last year, the Storm played a total of 6,875 minutes. Seattle’s starters accounted for 72.0 percent of that total. Of the eight teams to reach the WNBA playoffs in 2017, only the Los Angeles Sparks had a higher concentration of minutes allotted to their top five players (72.7 percent). Likewise, the Sparks were the only other playoff team to have at least three players average 30-plus minutes per game.

The Sparks can afford that kind of top-heavy rotation because they boast two MVPs—Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike—2017 All-Star Chelsea Gray and Alana Beard, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and a four-time All-Star in her own right.

Barring injury, there’s no reason for the Storm to once again rely on their starters to such a significant degree. Paris is one of the most efficient rebounders in WNBA history. Howard appeared in every game for the Lynx over the last two years and averaged 5.5 points and 3.0 rebounds off the bench. Throw in Canada, and Seattle added depth to a bench that already included Sami Whitcomb, Noelle Quinn and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.

The Storm’s playoff loss to the Mercury was a perfect example of their over-reliance on their starters can be problematic. The trio of Stewart, Loyd and Bird combined to score 50 points. The rest of the team had 19 points.

There will be nights when one or both of Stewart and Loyd are off their games, so Seattle needs to be able to count on its bench to step up when that happens.

 

Figure Out What to Do with Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis

To say Mosqueda-Lewis’ WNBA career has been disappointing would be an understatement. The third overall pick in the 2015 WNBA draft—one spot ahead of 2017 All-Star Elizabeth Williams—Mosqueda-Lewis is averaging 4.6 points and 1.2 rebounds.

Most concerning, she’s shooting just 32.0 percent from three-point range after hitting more three-pointers than anybody in NCAA history, a record Kelsey Mitchell has since broken.

To some extent, Seattle’s coaching change could be a double-edged sword for Mosqueda-Lewis.

Hughes represents a fresh start after it appeared Jenny Boucek wasn’t too high on Mosqueda-Lewis. High Post Hoops’ Howard Megdal published a report July 27 in which an unnamed player criticized Boucek’s handling of the roster. In the Storm’s next five games after that article, Mosqueda-Lewis played a total of 26 minutes. Boucek chalked up her lack of playing time to the fact she hadn’t “gotten her pop back for whatever reason” after recovering from a minor knee injury, yet Boucek didn’t hesitate to reinsert Stewart into the lineup earlier in the year.

Perhaps it’s a leap to assume Mosqueda-Lewis was the unnamed player in question, but she was in Boucek’s doghouse all the same.

While Hughes can allow Mosqueda-Lewis to hit the reset button to some extent, he doesn’t necessarily have too much invested in getting her career back on track. Hughes wasn’t with the team when the Storm selected Mosqueda-Lewis. If she’s ultimately a bust, then that’s not going to reflect on him too much.

Regardless, Mosqueda-Lewis will be a restricted free agent at the end of the 2018 season. This year is when Seattle needs to determine what her role with the team is going to be and whether she’s part of the franchise’s long-term future.

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