Playing the Long Game

Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters by the largest margin ever less than a year after becoming a professional. Later that season, he was victorious in the Byron Nelson Classic. He was 21 and poised to dominate the PGA Tour.

Instead, Woods decided to totally revamp his golf swing. While that meant taking a step backward in the short term as he figured things out, it laid the groundwork for one of the most dominant stretches in the sport’s history. By tweaking his swing to emphasize control over power, Woods perfected his game and ensured he would continue to stay miles ahead of the competition. If he doesn’t think proactively, then the Tiger Slam probably never happens.

On Wednesday, Seattle Storm general manager Alisha Valavanis changed the team’s swing.

Having already lost Alysha Clark to free agency, Seattle traded Natasha Howard to the New York Liberty for the No. 1 pick in the 2021 WNBA draft, the Phoenix Mercury’s 2022 first-rounder and the Liberty’s 2022 second-rounder. The Storm flipped the No. 1 pick to the Dallas Wings for Katie Lou Samuelson and a 2022 second-rounder while simultaneously sending the Phoenix pick to the Minnesota Lynx for Mikiah Herbert Harrigan. Sami Whitcomb also went to the Liberty in a sign-and-trade for the rights to Stephanie Talbot.

The team provided a helpful graphic, which basically requires a Turing machine to fully understand.

Howard’s departure was largely predictable, even though the Storm reportedly designated her as a core player.

Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd, Jordin Canada and Mercedes Russell headline Seattle’s free agents in 2022, so salary cap space is at a premium. WNBA teams don’t have a Bird provision, which allows NBA teams to go above the cap to re-sign their players. You’re either under the cap or you aren’t.

According to Winsidr’s Rachel Galligan, Howard signed a four-year deal with annual salaries of $215,000, $221,450, $227,900 and $234,350. Although she earned a hefty pay raise, giving her that kind of deal simply didn’t make sense for the Storm when Mercedes Russell was a capable starting center in 2019 and Ezi Magbegor exceeded expectations as a rookie. Their resources are better allocated elsewhere.

One could argue the Storm should’ve matched the Liberty’s offer, which presumes Howard was happy to stay and play a more understated role than she’ll likely have in New York. That would’ve given Seattle its best shot to successfully defend its WNBA championship. Maybe you can manage to kick the can down the road in 2022, too, and leave the difficult decisions for another day.

Keeping Loyd and Stewart together is the Storm’s best shot at guaranteeing long-term, sustainable success, though. Howard turned 29 in September, while Loyd and Stewart are 27 and 26, respectively. Because they often play year-round, WNBA players tend to age less gracefully than their NBA counterparts.

That isn’t to say Howard’s performance will fall off a cliff anytime soon, but you can afford to reset for a season without sacrificing too much of Loyd and Stewart’s prime.

Building around a Big Two rather than a Big Three provides a bigger buffer in terms of filling out the supporting cast as well. Although having a transcendent talent in Stewart helps, Seattle’s depth is one of the biggest reasons it lifted two WNBA championships in three years. When you have one of the WNBA’s best players *and* a lineup that can go 10 or 11 deep, then you’ve got a recipe for success.

There’s no doubt the Storm are worse now than they were to end the 2020 season. They’ve lost an All-Star frontcourt player, one of the league’s most versatile defenders, and an energetic guard perfectly tailored to the team’s offense.

The big question is how much worse Seattle is relative to the rest of the league. Here’s what Dan Hughes’ depth chart could look like on opening night:

  • PG: Sue Bird, Jordin Canada, Epiphanny Prince
  • SG: Jewell Loyd, Epiphanny Prince
  • SF: Breanna Stewart, Katie Lou Samuelson, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan
  • PF: Candice Dupree, Morgan Tuck, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan
  • C: Mercedes Russell, Ezi Magbegor

As valuable as Howard was, the drop between her and the pair of Russell/Magbegor may not be too steep.

With Stewart out injured, Russell quickly replaced Crystal Langhorne as the starting center, with Howard moved to the 4. She averaged 7.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 0.5 blocks. According to Synergy Sports, she shot 48.9 percent on post-ups and averaged 1.31 points per possession in the pick and roll, putting her in the 96th percentile. She also held opponents to 50 percent shooting in the post, which is neither elite nor terrible. Her 1.312 PPP allowed on three-pointers illustrated how she fell victim to the problems that can befall traditional centers in today’s game.

In general, Russell is the kind of center the Storm can afford to play heavily because they usually have three or sometimes four other players on the court who can stretch the floor. Russell’s primary duties would be protecting the rim, cleaning up the offensive glass, and running the pick-and-roll. Based on what we’ve seem, she can do all three to solid effect.

Magbegor, meanwhile, is a wild card. The 21-year-old was a clear work in progress in her debut campaign. Per, she shot 71 percent inside five feet but 32.5 percent everywhere else on the floor. She also averaged fewer than one assist per 36 minutes, so her offensive value was near zero if she wasn’t getting the ball inside or finishing second chances.

Still, Magbegor finished in the 90th percentile or higher in offensive rebound rate (10.6 percent), turnover rate (7.0 percent) and block percentage (4.9 percent), according to Her Hoops Stats. She also has the size (6’4″) and athleticism to guard multiple positions.

Imagine how much better she could be in Year 2 with a full WNBA season under her belt and more seasoning in the WNBL. The Storm are very fortunate in that they can trade away a player of Howard’s caliber and still have a succession plan that requires no outside additions.

That wasn’t the case when it came to Clark, yet Valavanis may have found a solution to survive in the short term.

Candice Dupree said during her Zoom call with the media she signed partially because she was “not looking to go to a team and be the franchise player and play the majority of the minutes.” Still, the 36-year-old started in all 22 of the Indiana Fever’s 22 games last season and averaged slightly more than 30 minutes a night. She averaged 12.5 points on 46.2 percent shooting and collected 5.7 boards. Per Synergy Sports, she also held opponents to 33.3 percent shooting on spot-up opportunities, so she defended well away from the basket.

Dupree could plausibly start at the 4, thus pushing Stewart to the wing. That’s not where she has played much in the WNBA, but she clearly has the offensive game to thrive at the 3. Defensively, the transition could be similarly seamless. According to Synergy, the 2018 MVP held opponents to 36.4 percent on three-pointers and 35.0 percent overall on jump shots.

Lining Stewart up at small forward would buy the Storm a year to see what they have with their newest acquisitions and 2020 first-round pick Kitija Laksa. Based on the assets they surrendered, Seattle values Samuelson higher than Herbert Harrigan.

The 23-year-old has clearly fallen short of expectations. She was marginalized in the Chicago Sky’s rotation as a rookie, though, and joined the Dallas Wings when they were in talent acquisition mode without thinking much about how all of the pieces fit. Dallas finished last in assist percentage, too, which isn’t an ideal situation for a player who’s best utilized as an off-ball shooter.

After Clark blossomed into one of the WNBA’s most consistent perimeter threats over the past few years, it isn’t a stretch to think Samuelson’s efficiency could soar with Sue Bird and Jordin Canada finding her beyond the arc.

As the 2020 season concluded, Seattle had a roster with an average age of roughly 29. That’s a squad built to win now but may not have a long shelf life. And for as much as Bird skews the collective age of the team, Clark and Whitcomb are on the wrong side of 30, and Howard may have given her best years to the franchise.

Not only did the Storm get younger Wednesday, but they also preserved much-needed cap flexibility for 2022 while ensuring they should realistically finish in the top four or better in 2021.

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