Alright Bet: Seattle Storm 2021 Preview

This offseason, the Seattle Storm decided winning a WNBA title had simply become too easy and that it was time to raise the level of difficulty. That’s the only explanation, right?

By almost any measure, the Storm endured a tough offseason, one that left the roster weaker than it was when Seattle was celebrating a second Finals win in three years. Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb were traded to the New York Liberty, while Alysha Clark signed with the Washington Mystics.Kennedy Burke, Candice Dupree, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Stephanie Talbot arrived in their place, with 2020 first-round draft pick Kitija Laksa making the jump to the WNBA as well.

Perhaps team president Alisha Valavanis and first-year general manager Talisa Rhea could’ve been more aggressive in making short-term moves to put the Storm in as strong a position as possible to successfully defend their title. With a number of key players due to hit free agency, though, it didn’t make sense for Seattle to tie its hands financially.

Last year, the Storm were just better than everybody else. Their .818 winning percentage was the second-best in franchise history. Especially with a number of notable players across the league absent, Seattle had too much talent and too much depth to get seriously tested when it mattered. The team swept the Minnesota Lynx in the semifinals before winning three straight games over the Las Vegas Aces, who had 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson, by double digits in the WNBA Finals.

That’s no longer an advantage the Storm enjoy, or at least it doesn’t appear that way. This team still figures to be very good. Here’s where Seattle sits in various power rankings:

Were the Storm to win a third championship in four years, it wouldn’t come as a big surprise (Are you going to bet against a healthy Breanna Stewart?). But this is a roster with some big question marks.


Player Previews

Sue Bird

Key Number: 23.4

A bone bruise briefly sidelined Sue Bird, who made just 11 appearances for the Storm in 2020. Her 23.4 minutes per game were a career low, having previously set a career low in 2018 (26.6). Managing Bird’s minutes allowed her to be hyper-efficient as she boasted a 63.3 percent effective field-goal rate, per Basketball Reference. Head coach Dan Hughes might be looking to cut back her role even further considering both her age (40) and the fact teams will resume a more typical travel schedule.

Jordin Canada

Key Number: 17.4

Through three seasons, Jordin Canada is shooting 17.4 percent from beyond the arc. While not a dead-eye shooter at UCLA, her jumper progressed to a point where she was hitting 38.6 percent of her threes by her senior year. Instead, the 25-year-old has been a historically poor long-range threat to this point. According to Stathead, she has the lowest three-point percentage among all WNBA players with at least 100 attempts through three seasons. Especially with Canada due to hit free agency, her improvement (or lack thereof) in that area in 2021 will go a long way toward determining her long-term value.

Candice Dupree

Key Number: 4

Candice Dupree has been a starter for nearly the entirety of her lengthy WNBA career. Of her 468 appearances, only four came when she started on the bench. Hughes didn’t wait long to bench Crystal Langhorne in 2018, when Natasha Howard was clearly the stronger option at the 5, and the same thing happened in 2019 as Mercedes Russell outplayed Langhorne. Dupree continued to perform at a high level in 2020 given her age (35), averaging 12.5 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 46.2 percent from the floor. Maybe that level will carry over on a better team. In the event the Storm look stronger with a different frontcourt lineup, however, will Hughes be willing to relegate Dupree to the bench?

Mikiah Herbert Harrigan

Key Number: 24.1

In what was a limited sample (234 minutes), Mikiah Herbert Harrigan was a solid defender in her rookie season with the Minnesota Lynx. According to Her Hoops Stats, the former South Carolina star was 14th in block rate (3.7 percent). She also held opposing shooters to 24.1 percent on spot-up opportunities, per Synergy. Herbert Harrigan can be the best defender on Seattle’s reserve unit and somebody with the flexibility to switch between multiple positions.

Jewell Loyd

Key Number: 52.0

Jewell Loyd’s scoring potential has never been in question. From the moment the Storm selected her first overall in 2015, the talent was there for all to see. The efficiency finally came around as Loyd embraced more of an off-ball scoring role. According to WNBA.com, nearly 74 percent of her field-goal attempts in 2020 were jump shots, and she had a 39.5 percent three-point attempt rate. Per Synergy, the 27-year-old hit 51.9 percent of her spot-up opportunities and had a 72.1 percent adjusted field-goal rate. Among players with at least 75 three-point attempts in 2020, Loyd ranked 13th in effective field-goal percentage (52.0), per Stathead. Perhaps Loyd’s efficiency was inflated by playing in the Wubble since the NBA bubble led to a bump in offense. But this is a trend that has unfolding over multiple seasons.

Ezi Magbegor

Key Number: 10.8

As much promise as Ezi Magbegor showed as a rookie, rebounding is one area where she fell short in her first season. The 6’4″ big got pushed around by older, more physical players inside. According to Her Hoops Stats, Magbegor had a 10.8 defensive rebounding rate, which ranked 80th in the league. That number has to improve for a player who’s going to be a backup center and perhaps the starting option depending on the availability of Russell right out of the gate.

Epiphanny Prince

Key Number: 16.2

Hughes will look to give Bird a night off here and there for rest, and there’s always the chance the 11-time All-Star picks up a minor injury, much like she did in 2020. In those scenarios, Epiphanny Prince will have to be the primary playmaker for the second unit. The 33-year-old owned a career-worst 16.2 percent turnover percentage in her first year with the Storm, according to Her Hoops Stats. One problem over the last few years is that Seattle’s offense can ground to a halt when neither Bird nor Canada is on the floor.

Mercedes Russell

Key Number: 24.0

One would’ve expected Mercedes Russell’s performance in 2020 to improve since she was spending most of her time against second-unit players after having started at center for the bulk of 2019. Instead, Russell saw her offensive win shares plummet from 1.8 to minus-0.3, per Basketball Reference. She shot 41 percent from the floor and was really bad away from the basket. According to WNBA.com’s tracking data, she shot 6-of-25 (24 percent) from eight feet and beyond. Like Canada, the 6’6″ center is headed for free agency next offseason. Traditional centers still have a place in the WNBA and haven’t been made redundant quite so much as in the NBA. But Russell’s inability to score away from the basket is worrisome and could put a dent in her market value next winter.

Katie Lou Samuelson

Key Number: 5.8

Three-point shooting was one of Katie Lou Samuelson’s strengths at Connecticut. She saw her efficiency dip slightly as a senior but hit 47.5 percent of her long-range opportunities as a junior for the Huskies. That efficiency hasn’t translated to the WNBA, with Samuelson a 30.3 shooter through two seasons. The 23-year-old may have turned a corner overseas, though. She was a member of the All-EuroLeague Women first team as Perfumerias Avenida reached the final. Between the EuroLeague and Spanish league, Samuelson was a 36.1 percent three-point shooter. Although that’s not an exceptional number, it’s closer to the player people expected when she was coming out of college.

Breanna Stewart

Key Number: 1.000

Breanna Stewart missed the 2019 WNBA season due to a ruptured Achilles tendon and immediately became an MVP contender again. The 2018 MVP wasn’t the same kind of explosive presence on offense, though. Her field goal percentage fell to a career low 45.1, while her 36.8 percent clip from deep was noticeable drop from 2018 (41.5). Per Synergy, Stewart’s shooting percentage in post-ups also dipped to 40 percent from 56.2 percent, and she was significantly worse in transition, going from 71.9 percent to 55.6 percent. Add it all together and the two-time All-Star averaged 1.000 offensive points per possession after leading the WNBA in that category (1.156) two seasons ago. As much as Stewart has regained her old self after the Achilles injury, the 2018 version of her game might be an outlier in her career.


Biggest Questions

How do the Storm replace Natasha Howard’s rim protection?

Natasha Howard rebounded from a slow start to once again be a vital piece of the Storm’s frontcourt, particularly on the defensive end, in 2020. She averaged 7.1 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 0.6 blocks in 21.0 minutes on the floor. Seattle as a team finished first in defensive rating (93.3), per WNBA.com. With Howard now gone, no question looms larger for Dan Hughes than how he helps the Storm remain one of the better defensive teams in the league.

Howard’s arrival in 2018 solved what was the team’s biggest issue at the time. Suddenly Seattle had a rim protector to counteract the WNBA’s bevvy of elite post players. Now, the team could be right back at square one.

Candice Dupree (6’2″) isn’t a direct replacement and doesn’t really work as a small-ball 5 because she’s not much of a long-range threat. The Storm probably want to avoid having Breanna Stewart banging down in the paint with regularity. It looks like it will be Mercedes Russell’s time to shine.

Russell started 30 games in 2019, when the Storm were without Stewart, so a starting role isn’t foreign to her in the WNBA. The former Tennessee star also ranked 22nd in defensive win shares (1.1) that season, according to Her Hoops Stats.

While the Storm struggled close to the basket (opponents shot 61.7 percent inside five feet), they were first in opponent field-goal percentage between five and nine feet (30.4), per WNBA.com. According to Synergy, Russell also ranked in the 57th percentile in points per possession (0.837) allowed on post-ups. That’s neither elite nor terrible.

But the absence of Howard doesn’t just impact how Seattle guards the basket. She had the ability to switch onto smaller guards without regularly getting burned off the dribble. No team allowed fewer points per possession (0.864) when defending the pick and roll, per Synergy. Mercedes Russell isn’t a total statue in defense, but she isn’t as agile as Howard. And that’s something teams will look to exploit when she’s occupying the 5.

Will Jewell Loyd be the new AC?

In 2017, Jewell Loyd finished with a career-worst 106.0 defensive rating, according to Her Hoops Stats. Since then, her defensive rating has improved over each of the subsequent three seasons, hitting 96.9 in 2020. Per Stathead, she’s also 16th among all players in defensive win shares (3.6). Loyd has steadily turned herself into a plus defender, and this is the year she could really blossom.

As is the case with Howard, there isn’t really another player on the roster the Storm can plug-and-play in the place of Alysha Clark. While operating mostly on the wing, Clark could guard anybody 1-3 along with smaller power forwards. She often drew the most difficult assignment between the backcourt and wing as well.

Depending on where Hughes plays Stewart and how aggressive he is in moving Mikiah Herbert Harrigan up the depth chart, those duties will presumably fall in Loyd’s lap.

Defensive metrics are notoriously difficult to contextualize because there aren’t quite the same binary outcomes for a player on offense. Being a good defender is more situation-based, too. This is a complaint often made by players themselves.

So after taking all of that into account, Loyd’s defensive numbers are encouraging. Per Synergy, she allowed 0.826 points per possession on defense, good enough to put her into the 72nd percentile. She also surrendered 0.934 points per possession in spot-up opportunities, not far off from Clark (0.912). Opposing players hit 32.1 percent of their jump shots when matched up against her.

More than anything, the 5’10” Loyd has the frame and agility to switch between multiple positions, something that made Clark so effective for Seattle.

Will the bench once again be a strength?

Having Stewart, Loyd and Sue Bird on the roster is a good start toward building a championship contender, but it doesn’t get you all the way there. Last year, the Storm boasted not just the best starting five in the WNBA but also a reserve unit that included a bevvy of solid role players. Interim head coach Gary Kloppenburg could count on his bench to hold its own on the court.

Jordin Canada made 11 starts and averaged 24.2 minutes per game (slightly higher than Bird’s 23.4 minutes), so she didn’t necessarily qualify as a bench player. That left Russell, Sami Whitcomb and Ezi Magbegor collectively as Seattle’s four most frequently used reserves. Together, those players had a 7.2 net rating, per WNBA.com’s lineup data. They didn’t dominate games, but you wouldn’t have expected them to.

Now, the Storm have a few more wild cards with Whitcomb gone and Russell earning a promotion in the wake of Howard’s departure. The continuity that came with keeping the same core of players together for multiple seasons is gone,.

One particular concern will be who steps up as the primary three-point threat off the bench. Whitcomb shot 38.1 percent from beyond the arc and averaged 1.5 made three-pointers per game. Herbert Harrigan wasn’t a high-volume shooter from deep at South Carolina. It doesn’t appear Canada will ever develop an average long-range jumper. Magbegor attempted 12 threes in 15 games with the Melbourne Boomers.

Perhaps Hughes is looking to Katie Lou Samuelson to be the three-point specialist. The success she enjoyed overseas, along with trading the No. 1 overall pick for her, would lead one to believe her role will be larger than that, though. And that puts us right back where we started.

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