Storm Free Agency Preview: I’ve got a blank space, baby

Talisa Rhea, it’s your time to shine.

The Seattle Storm promoted Rhea to general manager in April 2021, by which time the team had already executed their biggest offseason moves. While she had been the assistant GM under Alisha Valavanis since 2019, she hasn’t yet had the opportunity to truly leave her imprint on the roster.

That will change this winter.

The Storm’s official roster at the moment is a bit sparse.

This was likely entirely by design based on Seattle’s offseason business in 2021. The team didn’t re-sign Alysha Clark and traded the pair of Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb, both of whom were free agents, to the New York Liberty. While that hindered the Storm’s chances of successfully defending their WNBA title, it cleared the deck for 2022, when they had a slew of players out of contract including Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd, Mercedes Russell and Jordin Canada.

One big domino appeared to fall when the Storm prematurely announced the return of Sue Bird. At the very least, Bird will be back for 2022, and she’s probably not playing anywhere other than Seattle.

Officially, the team’s business so far is limited to extending qualifying offers to Russell, Canada and Stephanie Talbot. They were collectively a procedural move to ensure the Storm can match any offer sheet tendered to the three by another franchise.

There’s still a lot on the franchise’s plate. With the (official) start of free agency quickly approaching, let’s take a look at how Rhea could address what’s effectively a blank slate in the Pacific Northwest.


The Easy Decisions

Give Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd whatever they want

Re-signing Stewart is atop the Storm’s list of offseason priorities, and this may be a mere formality.

Stewart said in September that “Seattle has always been my home” and she’s expecting to stay where she is. The 2018 MVP also had a bit of a Freudian slip in a December interview with Just Women’s Sports’ Tessa Nichols. She referenced her recovery from Achilles surgery and said how “I’ll make sure I’m ready for the Storm season — or the WNBA season.”

The front office shouldn’t take anything for granted and assume a new deal is in the bag when it comes to Stewart. But her departure would run counter to the sentiment she has expressed heading into free agency.

Loyd is much more of a wild card.

As long as she plays on the same team as Stewart, Loyd will always be the 1B to Stewart’s 1A. It’s not a bad place to be because the 28-year-old is already a two-time WNBA champion. She has also collected three All-Star appearances and made the All-WNBA first team in 2021, so Stewart’s presence isn’t hindering her ability to earn individual accolades too much.

Still, nobody should be surprised if Loyd decides the time is right to leave the Storm. A move to the Chicago Sky (while seemingly implausible) sends her back home. She could be the franchise cornerstone of the Atlanta Dream. The Connecticut Sun clearly need a dynamic scorer to pair alongside Jonquel Jones and would present Loyd with a fresh challenge.

But it’s fair to ask how much the Chicago native actually wants to leave Seattle.

There aren’t any rumblings of discontent, though that was also the case with Howard before her exit last offseason. And the general wishcasting about Loyd on another team seems to ignore how much she has tailored her game to be more of a secondary star alongside Stewart.

Following the departure of Clark, Loyd looked to herself as the new defensive ace on the wing, having made strong strides on that end of the floor over the course of her career. Through her first three years, her three-point attempt rate was 25.8 percent, per Basketball Reference. It then spiked at 42.1 percent in 2018 and hasn’t finished below 33.8 percent since then. According to Synergy Sports, nearly a quarter (24.2 percent) of her shot attempts were catch-and-shoots in 2021.

Loyd’s 20.8 field-goal attempts per 100 possessions in 2020 were the second-lowest of her career, and that season is also when she posted personal-bests in field-goal percentage (44.3) and three-point percentage (39.0). Playing in the bubble might have had something to do with that.

Loyd tasted what it’s like to be the top banana in 2019, when Stewart was out for the season. She averaged 12.3 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals while making fewer than 40 percent (39.1) of her shots.

The grass outside Seattle may not be greener for the 5’10” guard.

OK, Now It Gets Tough

Mercedes in Name and Price Tag

Whether it’s by the Storm or another team, Russell is about to get paid this offseason.

The 26-year-old big counted for $70,040 against the salary cap in 2021, and that figure might very well double in 2022. She averaged 7.3 points and 6.1 rebounds and finished second in the league in field-goal percentage (61.7) last year.

There are some notable post players hitting the market this winter, but Russell’s age and skill set will make her highly sought after.

Russell probably isn’t looking to be the focal point of her team’s offense. Signing her won’t upset the established order in terms of scoring or force any schematic changes, which can’t be said adding Liz Cambage, Sylvia Fowles or Tina Charles. She’s also excellent in the pick-and-roll, averaging 1.357 points per possession as the roller in 2021, per Synergy. There basically isn’t a team in which she wouldn’t be a good fit.

Russell isn’t an elite rim protector. She’s averaging 1.0 block per 100 possessions and has a 1.6 percent block rate, according to Basketball Reference. Per Synergy, she allowed 0.988 points per possession in post-ups, and opponents shot 51.6 percent in those situations.

Thanks to her 6’6″ frame, Russell can be an imposing presence inside. But teams with elite bigs will likely find success more often than not when they get her in one-on-one situations in the restricted area. Brittney Griner had 23 points on 11-of-17 shooting in the Phoenix Mercury’s victory to knock Seattle out of the playoffs last year.

Russell’s ability to defend away from the basket relative to her size is a strength, though. She held opponents to 31.5 percent shooting on spot-ups and 27.0 percent on jump shots. Here’s how the jumpers break down by distance:

  • Short (fewer than 17 feet): 40.0 percent
  • Medium: (17 feet to the three-point line): 22.7 percent
  • Long (three-pointers): 26.2 percent

As with Stewart and Loyd, Russell is a key piece the Storm should look to retain. Unlike with those two, landing what kind of deal it will take to re-sign her is more tricky. Another team won’t throw a max deal ($196,267) on the table, but upwards of $160,000 or $170,000 seems plausible when Amanda Zahui B. is making $139,000 on a deal she signed in 2021 with a slightly lower cap.

With so many roster spots to fill, how high is Seattle willing to go for a player who’s very good but not elite? The team didn’t let sentiment get in the way as Whitcomb got around $300,000 over two years from the New York Liberty in 2021.

Oh, Canada?

Whether the Storm re-sign Canada seemed contingent upon two factors: Does Bird retire and will another team go above and beyond to sign her? One of those answers is already clear.

Canada’s skill set makes it difficult to slot her into a starting role, especially on a team with title aspirations. In addition, the 26-year-old has basically been the same player for four seasons, so it’s difficult to envision a major breakthrough down the line.

The 2018 first-round pick is an effective playmaker. She’s averaging 9.8 assists and 4.4 turnovers per 100 possessions for her career, according to Basketball Reference. She was also a first-team All-Defensive player in 2019 who has a 3.2 percent steal rate, putting her 17th all time in that category.

But Canada’s limitations as a shooter are impossible to ignore. Among players with at least 100 attempts through four seasons in WNBA history, she’s dead last in three-point percentage (17.9), per Stathead. Beyond hurting a team’s spacing, her inability to shoot hinders how much she can deploy her blazing speed to beat opponents off the dribble.

According to WNBA.com, the Storm were 3.4 points per 100 possessions better and their assist ratio was slightly higher (18.3 on, 19.1 off) when Canada was on the bench. During Seattle’s 2020 title run, the contrast was more stark. Seattle had a 122.8 offensive rating in the postseason with the 5’6″ guard on the bench and a 100.6 offensive rating when she was on the court.

With Bird back in the fold, re-signing Canada at any cost shouldn’t be the reflexive pivot when she isn’t an irreplaceable member of the rotation.


Looking to Free Agency

Point guard, center and wing are the three areas of intrigue for the Storm with free agency on the horizon. Re-signing Bird could be instructive as to how they’re allocating its resources to address those needs.

Seattle has $986,236 in salary cap space, which provides Rhea with a lot of flexibility. Loyd and Stewart are both supermax-eligible, and that could eat up the majority of the cap room. The supermax base in 2022 is $228,094. Even assuming Loyd and Stewart re-sign and don’t offer the Storm any hometown discounts, Rhea could feasibly have signed another star player at a contract worth near or at the max.

Tina Charles has made it clear she wants to win a WNBA title, and there are few things the Storm love more than the opportunity to add another Connecticut alumna. Maybe they’d make a run at Cambage or Fowles as another stopgap inside. Courtney Vandersloot would be a perfect replacement for an outgoing Bird. Maybe Rhea takes advantage of the Chicago Sky’s salary cap crunch to somehow poach WNBA Finals MVP Kahleah Copper or places a sizable bet on Diamond DeShields.

Bird’s return, however, raises questions as to whether Seattle will actually go big-game hunting in free agency.

If nothing else, the pursuit of a marquee playmaker is out of the question. Vandersloot is off the board and the same probably applies to Briann January, who wouldn’t be a facsimile for Bird but provide the kind of perimeter defending the 2021 Storm lacked.

The idea that Seattle would target one of the top free agents available might be misguided from the outset.

After selecting Loyd and Stewart with the No. 1 pick in back-to-back years, the front office hasn’t really panicked and made a big swing for the fences. The organization’s best business has been identifying undervalued assets (Howard, Whitcomb, Clark and Russell) and either acquiring them from another team or developing them over time.

Valavanis didn’t even change her approach much following an eventful 2021 offseason. Seattle could’ve made big short-term bets in an effort to defend its WNBA title, but Talbot, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, Katie Lou Samuelson and Kennedy Burke proved to be the biggest outside additions. Keeping Loyd and Stewart appeared to be the priority, even if it left the roster a little worse in the short term.

That level of moderation will have to be abandoned if Loyd signs elsewhere, and losing Russell would be a major blow as well. But fans shouldn’t be surprised if running it back in 2022 is basically how Rhea handles her first offseason in charge.

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