It's amazing that since 2002, the Storm has finished every regular season at least .500 or better until last year. But at the same time, while the team has tried to keep its championship window open for as long as possible, given that other Western Conference teams like the Lynx, the Mercury, and the Sparks all have major younger stars and younger cores that all may have a chance to win a title in the next several years, and also considering that the Tulsa Shock is steadily rebuilding with youth to become a perennial competitor as well, you have to ask that question as to whether the championship window has passed this team by. If so, how does this team rebuild when the team's brass has publicly stated that neither Bird nor Jackson are going anywhere?
The primary reason why this team is at this crossroads is because of the collective age of its primary players. First, six of the 2012's team's major rotation players (Bird, Jackson, Ann Wauters, Katie Smith, Tina Thompson, Svetlana Abrosimova) were over 30 years old for the entire season. Smith and Thompson are now in their late 30's and are clearly past their prime.
Much of this was by design, and part of head coach Brian Agler's team building strategy according to an ESPN article last year by Peter Keating where Coach Agler gives his rationale for building around veterans first:
Coach and GM Brian Agler goes with older stars because he likes how they tend to break down less than NBA vets. The 34-game WNBA season puts less mileage per year on players. Even those who moonlight for international teams generally still play a fraction of the games that their male counterparts do. (Bird, who heads to Russia most winters, will appear on her third Olympic team this summer, while Yao Ming, also drafted No. 1 overall in 2002, last played regularly three years ago.) Agler's approach also makes sense because WNBA teams have 11-player rosters, compared with 15 in the NBA, so winning clubs have little room to carry young players just because of their potential.
While this strategy can work out while the franchise players are in their prime, that isn't really the case anymore with Bird and Jackson at age 32 for this season and at best, they're not getting any better than they are now. In many of the Storm's recent seasons, Jackson has missed significant time due to injury. Even in this offseason, she had a hamstring operation earlier this month and hasn't played her WNBA games in MVP fashion since 2010 when the team won the Finals. Bird has been a durable player during her WNBA games at least, but she too has had two hip surgeries in each of the last two offseasons. While I'm not going to claim that either player is about to retire, regress considerably, or that they'll miss time this season due to injury, it's still clear that their bodies are taking a toll from year long play after over a decade as pros.
Nate, who is more or less our Storm fan and expert here wrote a very good piece last year regarding a statistical framework on team building, and how it relates to the Storm last year . And fortunately in that piece, it was noted that the Storm is trying to get younger but it won't be easy. One of the team's major moves in the 2011-2012 offseason was that the team traded away Swin Cash and Le'Coe Willingham to the Chicago Sky for the 2nd pick in the draft, who was guard Shekinna Stricklen who averaged 8 points and 4 rebounds a game.
Besides a general need to add youth, I feel that the Storm needs an additional distributor at guard to back up Sue Bird and Tanisha Wright who average over nine assists combined a game. Another area which will be harder to address in this free agency period is to add another younger front court player to back up Jackson and Camille Little, but with Wauters. Thompson (if she doesn't retire), and Ewelyna Kobryn, who is a reserved player and can only negotiate with Seattle, I don't think post depth is as much of an issue as guard depth, in particular for distributors, where Stricklen isn't much of a distributor, at least for now.
For free agency, the Storm has two players from the 2012 team in unrestricted free agency: swingman Svetlana Abrosimova, and guard Katie Smith are in the aforementioned "past 30" age group. You would think that the Storm could try to get younger players to fill those roles without negatively affecting the wins and losses too much. While I could see the Storm bringing back Abrosimova for 2013, I don't see them bringing back Smith given the need to acquire youth.
The Storm picks sixth in the 2013 Draft, assuming there is no trade to move up or down. Given that the team generally needs youth all around, they're probably going to select the "best player available" at number six assuming they stay at that position.
The Seattle Storm is a team that is trying to make itself a younger team while also trying to stay competitive in the Western Conference picture. In addition, they want to do all of this while keeping both Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson together in green and gold.
It's not impossible to be able to make this "rebuild on the fly" work, though it could be argued as a rebuild that cuts corners. Take Mystics owner Ted Leonsis and his well-known "Ten Point Plan" as a good reason why the Storm may be cutting corners. In particular, look at part three of that plan in regards to rebuilding the Washington Capitals NHL team but can be applied to the team building strategy of nearly any franchise in any professional sports league:
3. Once you decide to rebuild--bring the house down to the foundation--be consistent with your plan--and with your asks--we always sought to get "a pick and a prospect" in all of our trades. We believed that volume would yield better results than precision. We decided to trade multiple stars at their prime or peak to get a large volume of young players. Young players will get better as they age, so you have built in upside. Youngsters push vets to play better to keep their jobs, and they stay healthier, and they are more fun--less jaded by pro sports.
It has been clear over most of the Storm's recent history that considering that their ownership is trying to take the team in a new direction, they also do not want to rebuild the foundation of the team, that foundation being Bird and Jackson. Of course, as I said earlier, the Storm may not necessarily have to follow Ted's Ten Point Plan to a T. After all, the Storm is a popular team to play for in the WNBA among players and it should be known that Ted still has yet to lead any sports team that he owns to a league championship or even the championship round, so while the framework of this plan sounds all good, in practice, it's not as easy to accomplish in terms of winning a championship.
Still, in order for this team to accomplish what it wants to do, the Storm needs to make an increased commitment to younger players that it acquires and ensure that these acquired players, in particular drafted players, develop properly. Time will tell if the Storm can make good acquisitions, whether by free agency, trades, and/or drafts to accomplish its goal of building a contender that can win a third WNBA title while keeping its franchise players together.