Crystal Langhorne had to fall so the Seattle Storm could rise.
Langhorne opened as the Storm’s starting center in 2018 but quickly lost her job to Natasha Howard. Howard proved to be the missing piece of the puzzle for the Storm en route to winning the WNBA’s Most Improved Player Award. Langhorne, meanwhile, never adapted to her bench role and finished with the worst statistical season of her WNBA career.
I don’t think she ultimately worried too much.
Crystal Langhorne By the Numbers
- 4.6 PPG
- 0.7 OREB
- 2.3 DREB
- 0.3 APG
- .500 FG%
- .889 FT%
- 5.7 OREB%
- 18.6 DREB%
- 12.3 REB%
- 17.0 USG%
- 92.9 ORtg
- 94.8 DRtg
- 0.5 WS
Sacrificing for the Greater Good
Give Storm head coach Dan Hughes credit for wasting little time demoting a veteran who made 135 starts for Seattle over four years. He recognized the team wasn’t going to win a title if it continued using Langhorne as the first option at center.
Far too often the Storm got exposed against elite centers in 2017 as Langhorne was completely overmatched. She’s an underrated defender, but she’s always going to be at a disadvantage when she’s guarding Brittney Griner, Sylvia Fowles, Tina Charles, etc.
In Seattle’s 2018 season opener against the Phoenix Mercury, Langhorne played just 15:02 fewer minutes than both Howard (22:43) and Courtney Paris (17:16), both of whom were making their Storm debuts. The Storm played the Mercury three days later, with Langhorne again seeing 15 minutes on the floor after getting bumped down the bench.
She featured in the team’s win over the Chicago Sky on May 25 before missing the next eight games with a rib injury. Seattle went 6-2 over that stretch, and it became clear Langhorne wasn’t going to unseat Howard when she returned to the court.
Langhorne could’ve grown upset with her diminished playing time. She hadn’t come off the bench since her rookie year in 2008, and she averaged 13.9 minutes per game in 2018, nearly half her career average (27.2).
Instead, she put the team first in pursuit of her first WNBA title. Langhorne discussed in a September interview with the Cherry Hill Courier-Post‘s Celeste E. Whittaker how her duties for the Storm had evolved:
It’s been a different role for me this year. I’ve embraced it. When I come into games, I know how important it is for championship teams to have a really good bench, so when I come in the game I just try to be aggressive. I don’t play as many minutes anymore so I just try to be really aggressive, play good defense, rebound and take my shots when I can. I’m one of the oldest on the team now. I just try to give guidance to the younger players and just try to do the right things on the court. Just a lot of little things that I try to do to help our team.
With Langhorne as a regular starter in 2017, the Storm finished ninth in defensive rating (104.7) and opponent true shooting percentage (.534). According to Synergy Sports, Seattle was also sixth in defensive points per possession in post-ups (0.947), with opponents scoring on 49.1 percent of their post-up opportunities.
In 2018, the Storm improved to third in defensive rating (98.8) and second in opponent true shooting percentage (.518). They were also second in defensive PPP in post-ups (0.887), with 44.5 percent of those possessions ending in a score.
As good as Langhorne is, the Storm’s championship doesn’t happen if they don’t acquire Howard and move her into the starting lineup.
Struggling to Adjust
During the 2017 offseason, I argued the Storm might be better if they made Carolyn Swords the starting center ahead of Langhorne, largely to help address the team’s obvious defensive flaws in the paint. Beyond just giving Seattle a more traditional rim protector by elevating Swords, the switch would also—in theory—allow Langhorne to become a super sub and feast on second units inside.
We got to see the experiment in action in 2018, and the results weren’t all that great with respect to my second argument.
Langhorne’s per-game numbers were understandably down from a season ago, but she also shot just 50.0 percent from the field after hitting 64.7 percent of her field goals in 2017, second-best in the WNBA. According to Basketball Reference, Langhorne’s 11.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per 36 minutes were the second-lowest of her career. The stats aren’t any prettier when diving deeper into Synergy’s numbers. Langhorne shot 59.7 percent on spot-up opportunities in 2017 but only 35.9 percent on spot ups in 2018.
After the Houston Rockets phased him out of the starting five, Carmelo Anthony called the transition “challenging mentally” and added that it altered how he prepared for games.
That may have been true for Langhorne as well.
For nine years, she could approach games with the same mindset: She was going to start, and she was going to play 20 to 30 minutes. All of a sudden, things changed in 2018.
If Langhorne began a game slowly as a starter, she could count on the fact she’d have plenty of time to find her rhythm. That luxury isn’t afforded to a bench player. If Langhorne missed her first couple of shots during a game in 2018, that represented the bulk of her scoring chances (She averaged 4.0 field-goal attempts). Along with that, she may have worried one or two bad performances would bump her further down the rotation.
On a personal level, the 2018 season couldn’t have been easy at times for Langhorne. The fact she didn’t vocalize any frustration she may have felt is a testament to her professionalism and willingness to operate inside the team dynamic.
Langhorne is a free agent this offseason. The Storm used the core player designation three years in a row to re-sign her and thus no longer have that option in 2019. Parting ways might be the best move for both parties. Langhorne can sign with a team for whom she can start regularly, and her departure would free up more minutes for Mercedes Russell in Seattle. Bringing Langhorne back also makes sense, as long as she’s willing to continue playing a supporting role behind Howard.