The Seattle Storm fought valiantly in last season's playoffs last season despite being over matched, but in the end it was just another first round playoff loss, the fifth consecutive first round loss since winning their championship in 2004.
The combination of Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird for even the majority of the regular season will get just about any team in the playoffs, but those Storm teams haven't reached the playoffs in a position to be successful. The team hasn't really been able to put together players that fit with Bird and Jackson or the necessary depth at key positions since the stars aligned in 2004. This season there are more reasons to hope that the stars can align again.
Three key things happened last season that have given the Storm and their two superstars a new lease on their championship aspirations.
One was Swin Cash returning well from back surgery. Cash didn't finish with great offensive efficiency, finishing with a FG% under 40%, but proved her durability in a season where she finished seventh in minutes played and that she could still take over games including the All-Star game where she was MVP on the good days. More importantly the Storm found what every perennial playoff team needs to have new hope, the development of younger players into solid starters. Camille Little solidified what she had shown in 2008 after being acquired for a second pick during the season. She proved to be a player that the team could count on in the starting lineup. And most importantly Tanisha Wright discovered her offense. The player that had always been in the rotation because of her defense emerged as am efficient offense player in her fifth season and her first as a full time starter. The Storm now enter into this season with a solid starting lineup that works well together.
That starting lineup isn't enough by itself to be a serious championship contender, not when other teams have starting lineups of similar quality. So the biggest reason for hope this season is that the Storm have certainly upgraded the talent level of the bench from last season. This is likely the most talented bench the Storm have ever had, but it is less certain that the team has found the right talent.
Did they really address their need for a backup point guard? What about hree-point shooting outside of Jackson and Bird? A consistent scorer off the bench? A physical player in the paint? It should be an improved bench, but whether the team's needs have really been addressed is still a bit of a mystery.
From Fast to Slow
That mystery begins with the team's primary free agent acquisition in Le'coe Willingham. One of the interesting things to follow in sports are players that move to a significantly different playing environment. Like a pitcher that moves from a spacious home field to a tiny bandbox where those fly balls that used to be caught now clear the fence regularly. Willingham is undergoing a significant change in her environment. She left the league's fastest paced team in Phoenix (league-high 85.9 possessions per game) where she blossomed as a player for the league's slowest paced team (league-low 76.9 possessions per game) and a coach that emphasizes defense first. While bigger names changed teams this winter, Willingham's transition to the Storm is an interesting case study.
Willingham as an undersized post player clearly benefited from the opportunities created by the Mercury's fast pace and the lack of emphasis on her defensive limitations. Willingham excelled as a 6'0" post player in Phoenix, but she could play in space created by the combination of tempo and spread offense. Scoring one on one against against taller players gets relatively easier with space to operate in, but Seattle doesn't have the personnel to create the same kind of space for Willigham to operate in. There is reason to think that the move may not work out as well as either Willingham or the Storm hope. The most predictable outcome is somewhat like taking Shawn Marion off of the Phoenix Suns: Marion remains a good player, but his impact isn't as great playing outside of a system tailored to his abilities.
Of the options that were available to Willingham once it was clear that Mercury lacked the cap space to resign her Seattle was still likely the best. A playoff team in need of someone with her skills had the cap space to sign her. Seattle needed help in the frontcourt and Willingham was the best available talent.
"She does some good things that we need to add to our team," said Storm head coach Brian Agler about what he believes Willingham brings to the team. "She does some good things that we need to add to our team. She’s extremely physical inside. She’s got a sense of toughness to her, but she’ll run the floor. She gets places quick on the floor – extremely quick player."
Willingham will provide scoring in th paint for a team in need of it, and her strength will be needed against the league's more physical post players. Hopefully Willingham can complement Jackson's when they are on the floor together the way she complemented the Mercury's scorers, taking advantage of 1 on 1 opportunities and crashing the offensive glass. And she can also be the scorer the Storm need in the post when Jackson is on the bench.
Time will tell if Willingham can make the transition to a defensive style that will demand much more of her in terms of help defense and rotations.
"Everyone’s talking," said Willingham of her adjustment to the Storm's defensive schemes. "And basically everyone’s helping each other. I’m a shorter player, but I use my strength to my advantage. Basically in the defense I just feel like everyone has each other’s back – if someone misses something, then someone’s there to cover that and everyone just hustles and makes up for everything. So defensively, it’s just we’re focused on defense more."
Brian Agler described the qualities that he thinks will allow Willingham to be successful on defense in Seattle, saying "Le’coe’s a smart player. Very mobile, extremely strong. Team player. She’ll do well for us."
The season will reveal if Willingham is capable of more than she showed on defense in Phoenix, and to what degree her offensive skills transcend her environment. Agler and the Storm are hoping she can still keep those fly balls inside the park.
Is Versatility Enough?
Beyond Willingham there are a group of versatile players, but is it a group that can effectively do the key things the team needs to fill in the gaps? Most of the remaining players have the size and skill to play at least two if not three positions, but there these are also players that lack a specific strength where they excel. That one strength that can consistently be counted on. That leaves the the roles of a few players ill defined and uncertain.
Halfway through training camp the Storm looked to be in great shape in the backcourt. Before injuring her knee, Loree Moore offered the possibility of a veteran backup point guard as well as an athletic defender off the bench. A perfect complement to first round pick Allison Lacey's offensive skills as well as taking some of the pressure off of the versatile rookie. With Moore likely out for at least month -- and the Storm releasing her, as expected, due to injury -- Lacey becomes the key backup point guard. Instead of fitting in as a shooter at first, the full range of Lacey's abilities will be tested early in the season. And it means the team's small forwards will now be filling in at guard.
The key player for the Storm with Moore out of at least in the short term picture is Svetlana Abrosimova. There is still very little that Abrosimova cannot do on a basketball court. The skills have been there since she came to America to attend college over a decade ago. She can make great plays happen, but too often in her WNBA career the cost of those great plays has been inefficient shooting and turnovers. She has the potential to fill any number of needs for the Storm, but if that potential will be reached remains a mystery.
Two other foreign born players made the Storm roster in addition to Abrosimova and Lacey. Both players will be playing in the WNBA for the first time. Euroleague veteran Jana Vesela is a versatile 6'3" player that can play out on the wing, but will likely see more time in the post for the Storm. She can do a lot of things, but again doesn't have that one dominant skill that can aid her transition to the WNBA style. There's also Lauren Jackson's young teammate this winter in Australia. Abby Bishop, a young Australian 6'3" post that like Jackson has three-point range, doesn't have Vesela's experience playing at the highest levels of European basketball. Her combination of size and skill got her on the roster ahead of the Storm's 2009 first round pick Ashley Walker, but she is still another talented player that will be another bit of a mystery this season.
With all those players on his bench, maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that Agler kept one player that is completely predictable on his bench. Ashley Robinson's limitations are well documented, but the few things she brings can be counted on. There were people that once considered Robinson's potential comparable to Diana Taurasi's. A decade later Robinson is simply a role player that brings specific skills to the table in defense and shot blocking and is hardly the first basketball player to make a roster with merely those skills.
Strong effective benches are rarely made up of the most talented group of players possible, but rather a group of players with specific skills that fit specific roles. Agler has plenty of talent on his bench. Players with the skills and versatility to give the Storm the strongest bench in the league. The Storm are likely in the best position to be able to fill in for an injured starter, but whether those players will be able to effectively fill key and limited roles off the bench remains a mystery. Still that's a far better problem than what the Storm faced in last season's playoffs with their limited depth that mostly consisted of players with significant individual limitations.
This team has the most potential to be the league's most dominant team. Within that potential is the possibility of a versatile and deep team if some of the those talented mysteries resolve themselves favorably. The Storm won with defense last season and they should be among the best defensive teams in the league again this season. In addition to that, this team could return to being among the league's best offensive teams as well if Lauren Jackson remains healthy and other players find their way into effective roles.
The Storm realistically could finish in the top three in both offensive and defensive efficiency this season -- that's what they achieved during the regular season in 2004 on their way to a championship, finishing first on offense and third on defense. There may not be another team besides the Storm with the potential to achieve that kind of point differential. That's still merely a possibility for this team, but it is a possibility that didn't realistically exist for those Storm teams that left the playoffs early each of the last five seasons.