<em>Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.kailasimages.com" target="new">Kailas Images</a>.</em>
There's a simple reason why the announcement that Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird is listed as "day-to-day" with back spasms hasn't really seemed to caused much panic among the fanbase.
The Storm are first place in the Western Conference at 13-2 and 5 games ahead of the second place the San Antonio Silver Stars, who return to Key Arena after being battered and bulled in a 82-61 result a little more than a week ago. In other words, they appear to have a bit of a cushion in terms of maintaining playoff seeding even if Bird is out for an extended period of time. If Bird needs time to rest up before the playoffs, then by all means -- says the level-headed Storm fan -- let her take as much time as she needs.
That said, tonight's home rematch against the Silver Stars at 7 pm PST at Key Arena could at the very least be something of a "natural experiment" to learn more about how the Storm might perform without the player who steadies their offense.
Although it's difficult to ever truly "replace" a player of Bird's caliber, the Storm will likely insert reserve Svetlana Abrosimova into the lineup and move shooting guard Tanisha Wright over to the point, a lineup they have used throughout the season when Bird needs a rest. So what might that mean for the team's performance?
However, looking at the plus/minus data from the Chasing the Title blog, we see a potential complication in just inserting Abrosimova into the lineup -- at the quarter season mark, a straight substitution of Abrosimova for Bird was one of the team's least effective lineups:
The following lineups are struggling to be effective.
Wright-Abrosimova-Cash-Willingham-Robinson: -18, -67.19 per 40
Wright-Abrosimova-Vesela-Bishop-Robinson: -17, -54.91 per 40
Wright-Abrosimova-Cash-Willingham-Vesela: -9, -54.96 per 40
Wright-Abrosimova-Cash-Little-Jackson: -7, -46.67 per 40
Bird-Wright-Abrosimova-Willingham-Jackson: -6, -38.81 per 40
The most effective lineups with Wright running point, according to Chasing the Title's numbers:
The most effective lineups with Wright at point guard are:
While the numbers are interesting and suggest that a straight swap of Abrosimova for Bird could be disastrous, those numbers were also generally determined against opponents' reserves. So a more instructive example of what might be to come is in fact the game Bird missed most of in Tulsa.
With the Storm down 7 points early in the fourth quarter, the substitution that seemed to turn the game around was Jackson and Vesela for Willingham and Cash, leaving the team with the following lineup:
When Cash returned to the game for Vesela at the 2:20 mark, the Storm had taken a 13 point lead for a 20 point swing. During that fourth quarter, they dominated the offensive boards with an offensive rebounding percentage of 67% to the Shock's 11%, but also shot nearly 50% and 5-9 from the three point line. The improved three point shooting (they were 4-13 in the first three quarters) could be dismissed as a function of the Shock's defensive style, which has a tendency to give up three point shots. However, the team's performance overall does demonstrate the value of Vesela as a long, versatile player that is starting to get more comfortable in her role as Cash's replacement.
This is hardly to suggest that Cash shouldn't start, but that it's not impossible to imagine the Storm maintaining some level of success without Bird. Additionally, from a player development standpoint, it will also likely mean more minutes for rookie point guard Alison Lacey as well as Vesela, if she continues to be an effective contributor to the team.
If there is a silver lining for the Storm, this obstacle may just serve as one more opportunity for the Storm to demonstrate their resilience as a unit that is not entirely dependent on the contributions of one player. As the team moves forward and focuses on winning a title, that could be more valuable that widening the gap between them and the rest of the West in the mid-season.