Sue Bird captured the third WNBA title of her career as the Seattle Storm climbed to the WNBA’s summit earlier than expected. Along the way, Bird rolled back the years with a stunningly efficient 2018 season.
Sue Bird By the Numbers
- 10.1 PPG
- 7.1 AST
- 1.1 SPG
- 1.9 TPG
- .466 FG%
- .448 3P%
- .604 TS%
- .587 eFG%
- 40.7 AST%
- 17.5 USG%
- 113.8 ORtg
- 98.0 DRtg
- 3.9 WS
Sometimes in sports, the true gravity of a performance or one specific moment is only truly appreciated with the passage of time. In rare instances, you witness something special and immediately understand its larger place in history.
That was Game 5 of the 2018 WNBA semifinals.
Bird stuck around Seattle to help see through the team’s rebuild and set the franchise’s next generation up for success. A free agent in 2016, she could’ve signed anywhere and admitted to SB Nation’s Matt Ellentuck she entertained the idea of joining the New York Liberty before re-signing with the Storm.
A few months before Bird officially re-signed, Seattle won the 2016 draft lottery and thus had the opportunity to select Breanna Stewart. Stewart is an immediate hit, receiving all but one of the 39 votes for Rookie of the Year and getting onto the All-WNBA second team. In Stewart and Jewell Loyd, the Storm clearly have the foundation for a title contender. Whether Bird plays long enough to see that happen is another matter.
With expectations skyrocketing heading into the year, Seattle proves to be one of the league’s bigger disappointments in 2017. The team fires Jenny Boucek in the middle of the season, loses one fewer game compared to 2016 and falls to the Phoenix Mercury in the first round of the playoffs.
Sami Whitcomb proves to be one of the few pleasant surprises around the team. A 28-year-old rookie, she parlays a training camp contract into a meaningful role off the bench. The Storm reward Whitcomb with a multi-year extension prior to the 2018 season.
With the close of the 2017 campaign, Seattle wastes little time identifying a permanent successor to Boucek. The team coaxes Dan Hughes out of his short-lived retirement from coaching.
Heading into the 2014 draft as the San Antonio Stars’ head coach, Hughes targeted a Florida State forward in the first round, hopeful of trading up to get her. She lands with the Indiana Fever instead. Four years later, Hughes finally had the opportunity to work with Natasha Howard. He waited one game before inserting her into the starting rotation over Crystal Langhorne.
Howard became one of the Storm’s most valuable stars. She was a first-team All-Defensive player and finished ninth in win shares (4.6), per Basketball Reference.
All of these factors helped set the stage for a fourth quarter in which Bird put the Storm on her back, scored 14 points and helped send the team to the WNBA Finals.
Stewart became the all-conquering phenom everyone expected her to be. She was the league MVP in her third season, and in Game 5 her offensive consistency helped keep Seattle afloat when the Mercury threatened to build any momentum. Entering the fourth quarter, Stewart had 21 point. Nobody else had more than nine.
Whitcomb played all 10 minutes in the fourth quarter as Jewell Loyd selflessly sat on the bench and allowed Hughes to stick with what was working. Whitcomb finished with 11 points off the bench and Seattle was plus-13 with her on the floor.
Hughes proved to be the perfect coach for the Storm as he emphasized improving a defense that allowed 104.7 points per 100 possessions in 2017, ninth-worst in the WNBA. He provided a steady hand after a year in which Jenny Boucek was fired midseason amid criticism from some of her players.
Howard wasn’t the prototypical rim protector to match up against Brittney Griner—she was even better. The former Minnesota Lynx reserve forward used her athleticism and shooting range to pull Griner away from the basket, thus freeing up the paint for Stewart and Loyd. Howard’s length also allowed her to compete with Griner on the boards. Although Griner had 21 points and nine rebounds in Game 5, the Mercury were minus-10 with her on the court.
Game 5 was straight out of a storybook. The legend who spent her entire career with one team stuck around—acknowledging later she didn’t think she’d be around long enough to win another title—and had a playoff performance for the ages.
It’s even more incredible when you think about how much had to go right for the Storm just to lay the groundwork for Bird’s heroics.
Working Smarter, Not Harder
Hughes took active steps to manage Bird’s workload, a sensible strategy after she eclipsed 30 minutes per game in 2016 and 2017. Bird missed three games in order to give her a little extra rest during the season, and her 26.6 minutes per game were a career low.
The results of the approach were evident.
Bird set personal bests in field-goal percentage (.466), three-point percentage (.448) and assists (7.1), while her 1.9 turnovers were a fraction off from tying her career high (1.8).
Just sit back and savor those numbers for a little bit. At 37 years old—she was the oldest player in the league—Bird had what was arguably the most efficient season of her legendary career. That’s both a testament to her ability to take care of her body and the way in which she adapted her game to compensate for the WNBA’s shifting offensive landscape.
According to Basketball Reference, 54.3 percent of Bird’s total field-goal attempts were three-pointers in 2018. That’s almost identical to her figure from 2017 (54.7). Not coincidentally, she averaged 4.9 and 5.0 two-point attempts per 36 minutes in 2018 and 2017, respectively, per Basketball Reference, which are her lowest averages. Rather than always serving as the engineer of the offense, Bird has become more comfortable as a spot-up shooter.
Some future Hall of Famers might be too prideful to take a step backward and cede some ground to the younger players. That wasn’t Bird and thus she remained at the peak of her powers.
Sue Bird: Defensive Stopper
Because she’s such a good distributor and shooter, Bird’s defensive contributions over the years have been overlooked a bit. She ranks fifth all time in steals (652) and 24th in defensive win shares (15.92), though one could argue her longevity has helped inflate those numbers a bit.
Bird boosted her reputation as solid defender with her work in 2018. Her 98.0 defensive rating was her lowest since 2012, and the Synergy numbers are even more impressive.
The 11-time All-Star allowed 0.633 point per possession, putting her in the top three percent of the WNBA. She was especially good at defending the pick and roll, when opponents scored just 19.4 percent of the time. She allowed 0.408 points per possession (93rd percentile).
Despite her age, Bird remained a good off-ball defender as well, as evidenced by her .351 opponent field-goal percentage on spot-up jumpers.
It’s important to provide some context to those numbers. Just as an otherwise great defender can have bad peripherals because she’s guarding elite scorers all of the time, a solid defender can look like an all-world star if she’s constantly getting favorable matchups.
“Well, in fairness, I’m generally guarding point guards,” Bird told Howard Megdal for The Athletic last August. “Although this year, we switched that up a little bit. I’ve been on to two guards, but generally, I don’t know if I’m guarding the number one scorer or not. So, that needs to get weighted.”
Give credit to Bird for recognizing the reality of the situation and to Hughes for finding the best way to utilize her on defense.
Stewart’s injury could potentially change things, but don’t be surprised if Bird’s role declines even further as Jordin Canada slowly but surely supplants Bird as the point guard of the future.