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2019 Season in Review: In the face of adversity, the Seattle Storm impressed with their resiliency

The Seattle Storm deserve much credit for how they thrived amidst adversity throughout the 2019 WNBA season. The means by which they achieved this success should inspire much excitement for what is to come in 2020.

2019 WNBA Playoffs - Minnesota Lynx v Seattle Storm
The Seattle Storm’s 2019 season not only was a success, but also laid the groundwork for more sustainable future successes.
Photo by Stephen Brashear/NBAE via Getty Images

Before their title defense even began, the Storm were greeted by a slew of bad news. First, 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart ruptured her Achilles in the 2019 EuroLeague championship game. Then, head coach Dan Hughes was diagnosed with cancer. And then, Sue Bird had to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery, with a longer-than-expected recovery resulting in her missing the entire season. If Seattle had sunk to the bottom of the league, no one would have been surprised. But the Storm refused to make excuses, instead finding ways to survive and, at times, thrive.

Here’s a perspective of the most promising, as well as the somewhat disappointing, developments of Seattle’s 2019 season.

Pro: The Storm insisted on defending their title

Absent Stewart and Bird, Seattle reoriented their identity around their defense. The intelligence of Alysha Clark combined with the athleticism of Natasha Howard and Jordin Canada formed the foundation of an aggressive, relentless defense, one that snagged a league-best 9.5 steals per game. Howard was named Defensive Player of the Year, while she and Canada also made the All-Defensive First Team. Clark earned a spot on the Second Team.

While the Storm offense could flounder when the three-ball was not falling, their defense made the defending champs a tough matchup for all comers throughout the 2019 season.

Con: The Storm were denied the opportunity to truly defend their title

Nonetheless, it is difficult not to dream of the title defense that might have been. What appeared to be the WNBA’s next great dynasty has been deferred. All indications suggest it should resume in full in 2020.

Pro: Natasha Howard takes another leap

Last season, the Storm began to excavate Natasha Howard’s star potential. This season, that potential surfaced.

Because her emergence as an MVP candidate became so impeachable so quickly, it can be hard to recall how her ability to carry the Storm on both ends of the floor was uncertain. It was not illogical to understand her success last season as attributable to Stewart and Bird, with attention directed to the MVP and the legend allowing Howard to thrive as a third star.

Yet, she more than proved that she could be a centripetal force on both ends of the floor. Although the increased offensive workload resulted in decreased efficiency numbers, this slight drop is outweighed by a significant increase in her raw offensive stats. All the more, Howard still has room to expand her already multifarious skillset. This season, she showed increased willingness as a three-point shooter and passer, two skills that, if they continue to develop, will make her an even more dangerous accomplice to Breanna Stewart.

Con: Off-court accusations somewhat stain Howard’s star turn

Although the situation remains unresolved, the domestic violence accusations against Howard should not be casually forgotten in celebrations of her star turn.

Because the WNBA as a league and the Seattle Storm as a franchise position themselves as devoted to the empowerment of all women, it is incumbent to hold them accountable to this proclaimed project, making sure that the WNBA and its teams realize their stated visions even when circumstances become complicated. The lives of the women and girls whom WNBA teams seek to inspire also are complicated, often marked by the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, identity and intimacy. Howard’s situation also sits at this intersection, making it more necessary that the WNBA and its teams have an established, consistent protocol for transparently addressing this incident and others.

Pro: Jordin Canada, the heir to Sue Bird’s throne

In the 2018 WNBA Draft, the Storm selected UCLA’s Jordin Canada with the No. 5 pick, envisioning her as Sue Bird’s eventual successor.

In all sports, such idealized succession plans often go awry. But in Seattle, this plan appears poised to go better than expected.

After her rookie season, it was clear that Canada could impact the game defensively. What about the other end of the floor? This season, Canada showed that she likely will steer the Storm for years to come. But not because she perfectly mimicked the play of Bird. In contrast to Bird’s seemingly effortless balance of pinpoint passing and dead-eye shooting, Canada brings a brand of point guard play organized around her speed and savvy. As the author of the Seattle offense this season, Canada showed the effectiveness of this skillset.

In particular, Canada flashed her upside in Seattle’s first-round playoff game. Realizing that the Minnesota Lynx were prioritizing stopping Natasha Howard, Canada elected to be aggressive. She not only used her combination of quickness and craft to finish around the basket, but also was willing to fire from deep. Her performance should leave Storm fans salivating, assured of many more seasons of point guard excellence.

Con: Jewell Loyd’s uneven season

The demonstrable improvement of Howard and Canada seems to suggest that Seattle really is the Emerald City; a place where all players realize the best versions of their basketball selves. However, the seemingly aptly named Jewell Loyd struggled to stay on the Yellow Brick Road.

With a resume that includes the 2015 Rookie of the Year award, a 2016 All-WNBA Second Team nod and a pair of All-Star appearances, Loyd appeared most ready to become the star of the 2019 Storm. But nagging injuries, including a more serious ankle injury that sidelined her for over a week, prevented Loyd from rising to the occasion. That said, injuries do not necessarily explain some of the concerning aspects of Loyd’s offensive profile, which instead suggest her offensive decision-making is not maturing as expected.

Living up to her “Gold Mamba” moniker, almost 26 percent of Loyd’s points came from the midrange in 2019, up from 14 percent in 2018. This stat is only a problem because, unlike some of the league’s leading midrange mavens, Loyd is limiting her offensive impact by resorting to midrange jumpers. In 2017 and 2018, she demonstrated an improved three-point shot, progressively taking and making more threes. This season, both her attempt and conversion rates fell. Her playmaking numbers also dropped. After incrementally increasing her assists over her first four WNBA seasons, she averaged only two per game this season.

Possibly, her 2019 performance proved that Loyd is best as a tertiary star. This is no mark against her, as championship-level teams often feature players who are overqualified in their role. With the returns of Stewart and Bird, as well as a return to full health, Loyd should again star as an efficient offensive option.

Pro: The Storm continue to win on the margins

When it comes to winning the WNBA, having a transcendent star, like Stewart or Howard, goes a long way. Yet, sustained success requires a deeper infrastructure; players who strengthen the system by filling an integral role.

Alysha Clark. Sami Whitcomb. Mercedes Russell.

The Storm salvaged these players from the fringes of the league, incorporating them into their culture in ways that allowed them to emerge as crucial contributors.

Over the course of her eight years in Seattle, Clark’s role steadily has increased. This season, she was essential - the ideal 3-and-D player. As she captained the Storm’s top-five defense on one end of the floor, she served as a valuable floor spacer on the other end, leading the league with a three-point percentage of 48.1 percent.

This season, Whitcomb stretched her game beyond the occasional, off-the-bench shooter role she filled last season. She was critical to the second-unit offense. Despite a somewhat unimpressive three-point percentage, her volume made her an offensive threat, as she consistently was willing to quickly fire from distance.

However, Mercedes Russell was Seattle’s greatest revelation. She showed herself to be more than just a rotational center; she is a starting-caliber center. Next season, she will be an overqualified third big, providing traditional center skills that should successfully complement the multidimensionality of Howard and Stewart.

And, then there’s the Storm’s 2019 first-round draft pick, Ezi Magbegor, a raw but rising star for the Melbourne Boomers and Australian Opals who chose to remain in Australia in 2019. Assuming that she joins the Storm in the next few seasons, Magbegor may give the organization their biggest marginal win yet.

Con: For how much longer will Dan Hughes steer the Storm?

With the anticipated returns of Stewart and Bird, it seems that the Storm are slated to return to title contention in 2020. However, will Dan Hughes be at the helm?

While Stewart’s ascendance to indisputable superstardom certainly explains how the Storm transformed from a 15-19 fringe playoff team in 2017 to a 26-8 championship squad in 2018, Hughes, hired before the 2018 season, deserves credit for implementing a system that optimized Stewart and her teammates. The performance of this season’s under-womaned team further testifies to Hughes’s coaching touch.

But, it is imaginable that the emotional toll of a cancer diagnosis and recovery could encourage Hughes to choose to spend more time with his family. Of course, such speculation could be totally unfounded, with Hughes’s cancer scare instead inspiring him to continue to devote himself to the game.

If Hughes does step away, there may be a promising replacement just down the bench: Sue Bird. One who, although unable to equal Hughes’s tie game, would bring her fresh kicks to the first seat.