What do you get the team that has everything? Seattle Storm general manager Alisha Valavanis and head coach Dan Hughes are about to find out as they look to build on a 2018 season in which the Storm were WNBA champions for the third time.
Incremental change was the theme of the 2018 offseason.
Valavanis didn’t panic after a season in which Seattle finished eighth and fired its head coach in the middle of the year.
The Storm could’ve taken a chance on a young first-year head coach. Instead, they hired Hughes, one of the most experienced coaches in WNBA history.
And rather than shaking up the roster, Valavanis signed eight-year veteran Courtney Paris and acquired Natasha Howard in a sign-and-trade with the Minnesota Lynx. Howard was a revelation in her first year with the team and the missing piece of the proverbial puzzle, but it didn’t look like Seattle got demonstrably better ahead of the 2018 campaign.
If Valavanis’s reaction to a massive disappointing season is staying the course and tweaking as little as possible, then fans can expect more of the same this spring.
Not to mention, the Storm already re-signed Alysha Clark, Jewell Loyd and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis to long-term extensions in May, eliminating three big questions ahead of free agency.
Having said that, there are a few storylines to follow in the months ahead.
Do the Storm re-sign Crystal Langhorne?
According to High Post Hoops, the Storm have three free agents this offseason: Crystal Langhorne, Noelle Quinn and Mercedes Russell.
Langhorne stands out among that group both because of her resume and the fact she earned a $115,500 salary, tied for second-highest on the team.
The 32-year-old started in Seattle’s season-opening loss to the Phoenix Mercury. Hughes replaced her with Howard for the Storm’s 87-71 win over the Mercury in their next game, and Langhorne didn’t start another game all year.
Between her diminished on-court role and a rib injury that forced her out for a stretch of games, Langhorne struggled through the worst season of her WNBA career. She averaged 11.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per 36 minutes, according to Basketball Reference, and her field-goal percentage fell from .647 to .500.
In theory, bringing a player as good as Langhorne should’ve been a massive asset for the Storm. However, it’s easy to forget how difficult it can be for a player who has been a starter her entire career to suddenly be thrust into the second unit. There were times when Langhorne looked simply looked out of rhythm.
This is a situation where a breakup might be the best move for everybody involved.
Langhorne can leave Seattle on a high note after capturing her first WNBA title, and she can join a team where she’ll compete for starting minutes.
The Storm, meanwhile, would get some level of salary relief and free up a roster spot knowing they’ll have three picks coming up in the 2019 draft.
Then again, Seattle shouldn’t be de dead set on letting Langhorne walk as a free agent. If she’s willing to accept a pay cut and continue being the backup center behind Howard, then bringing her back would make sense.
Where does Mercedes Russell fit in Seattle’s long-term plans?
Among the 12 players who filled out the Storm’s roster for most of the 2018 season, Russell played the fewest minutes (101). She averaged 1.6 points, 1.4 rebounds and 0.1 blocks in 4.6 minutes on the floor.
Because she featured so sparingly, the raw numbers are both unkind to Russell and not necessarily indicative of her true potential.
According to Positive Residual, the Storm had a minus-10.7 net rating with Russell on the court. She also finished in the 38th percentile in offensive points per possession (0.833) and in the 22nd percentile in defensive PPP (0.947).
Russell worked hard when she was on the court. That sounds like damning with faint praise, but you can only expect so much of a player when she’s getting fewer than five minutes a night.
She also flashed an ability to read the flow of the game and get into position to disrupt shots inside.
If this were the NBA, then there would be little doubt about Russell’s status for the 2019 season. The WNBA, however, is far less forgiving to fringe rotation players given the scarcity of available roster spots.
The Storm released Alexis Peterson last offseason, one year after selecting her in the second round of the draft. Russell didn’t even make it out of training camp before the New York Liberty cutting her. They subsequently signed her ahead of the regular season but released her again once Kia Vaughn returned to the team.
While she’s probably not going to be an All-Star, Russell possesses the offensive tools to develop into a solid WNBA center. According to Her Hoops Stats, she ranked in the top four percent nationally as a senior in effective field goal percentage (.583) and points per scoring attempt (1.21).
But you have to contrast that with the fact Russell is a traditional center at a time when positionless basketball and floor spacing are taking over the WNBA. As good as Sylvia Fowles, Liz Cambage and Brittney Griner are, the Storm’s championship run—not to mention the Washington Mystics’s Finals appearance—showed teams can contend without a dominant center or rim protector.
When teams spread the floor, it becomes much easier to exploit Russell on the defensive end. Opposing head coaches will try to get her switched onto more athletic forwards and guards at every opportunity. During her last year at Tennessee, Russell allowed opponents to shoot 41.5 percent on jump shots and 38.9 percent on catch and shoots, per Synergy Sports.
And there’s only so much Russell can do to improve in that regard. Griner is the best defensive center in the WNBA, yet she still looked stuck in cement at times when having to guard the likes of Breanna Stewart and Natasha Howard.
In a perfect world, the Storm re-sign Russell and slowly phase her into the second unit with more regularity. But the team has Paris signed for one more season. Both High Post Hoops’s Howard Megdal and the Associated Press’s Doug Feinberg projected Seattle to select a post player in the first round of the 2019 draft as well. Megdal had the team taking Notre Dame forward Brianna Turner, while Feinberg tabbed Georgia forward Caliya Robinson.
By drafting a power forward or center with the 12th overall pick, the Storm would likely seal Russell’s fate, much in the same way Jordin Canada’s arrival presaged Peterson’s departure.
You can’t help but wonder whether Ramu Tokashiki wants a mulligan on sitting out the 2018 season. Not only did she miss out on a championship, but she also might have lost her place on the Storm’s roster.
Technically speaking, Tokashiki is still a Seattle player and the team retains her contract rights upon her return to the WNBA. Should the Storm actually bring the 27-year-old forward back into the fold, though?
Tokashiki’s playing time and performance were trending in the wrong direction before she took a year off. As a rookie she averaged 20.6 minutes per game and was worth .039 win shares per 40 minutes, according to Basketball Reference. In 2017, she averaged 12.5 minutes per game and was worth .008 win shares per 40.
Tokashiki hasn’t finished a season with an offensive rating higher than 95.6 either, per WNBA.com.
Tokashiki is a very good defender. She ranked in the top three percent in defensive points per possession (0.664) in 2017, according to Synergy. She held opponents to 29.4 percent shooting on spot-up opportunities.
Along with that, you have to ask yourself whom Tokashiki would effectively replace by rejoining the team. She’s not going to supplant Mosqueda-Lewis, and the playoffs showed Sami Whitcomb is deserving of more—not less—playing time in 2019.
Rather than trying to figure out a way to work Tokashiki into the squad, Hughes and Valavanis are better off seeing what kind of value she has on the trade market.
Does Valavanis zig when everybody expects her to zag?
Since becoming the Storm’s president and general manager in June 2014, Valavanis has largely opted against taking big risks.
Stewart and Loyd were the clear-cut top players available when Seattle selected them first overall in 2015 and 2016, respectively. The team passed up on Azura Stevens in the 2018 draft to take Canada instead, which was the safer bet with a lower ceiling.
Even Valavanis’s biggest gamble wasn’t all that perilous. In retrospect, the Storm would want the No. 5 overall draft pick in 2017 back from the three-team Carolyn Swords trade, but that was a weaker draft class from top to bottom. Seattle didn’t squander a ton of value from that deal.
In addition, you can look a handful of players who are essentially untouchable in prospective trades. Howard, Stewart, Loyd and Sue Bird aren’t going anywhere.
With that said, the Storm have some pieces who could be packaged together to land another All-Star-level talent.
Perhaps they’d prefer to move up in the 2019 draft to get into position to select a wing like Napheesa Collier, Katie Lou Samuelson or Sophia Cunningham. Stewart is due to become a free agent in 2020, at which point she’ll receive a hefty pay raise. Swapping out Clark and Mosqueda-Lewis for a cost-controlled rookie makes keeping the Storm’s star players a little easier to accommodate in the years ahead.
The Storm aren’t facing a cap crunch this year and forecasting any sort of financial outlook in 2020 and beyond is difficult with the CBA negotiations looming. For those reasons, Seattle doesn’t need to shake up the roster with a blockbuster trade right now.
Should the Storm let Langhorne leave, they’d have enough salary cap space to afford a marquee free-agent signing. Convincing a veteran to accept a sixth woman role would be easier said than done, though. Something along the lines of signing Paris is probably the team’s ceiling in free agency.
From a sentimental perspective, it would be great to see the bulk of last year’s squad try to defend their WNBA championship in 2019. Based on all of the factors involved, it would appear that will be the case.