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The Seattle Storm’s unorthodox road to the 2020 WNBA Championship

The Seattle Storm’s run to the 2020 WNBA title — the fourth in franchise history — was unlike any other. The fruits of their labor, however, were just as sweet.

WNBA Finals - Game Three
The Seattle Storm won the 2020 WNBA Championship by sweeping the Las Vegas Aces in the Finals at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, on Oct. 6, 2020.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The 2020 WNBA season was unlike any we’ve ever seen.

After originally being postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, intense negotiations led to the WNBA playing a condensed, remote “bubble” season in Bradenton, Florida.

Even though player safety was the highest priority, the scenario was not without its challenges. From isolated living to a lack of the usual resources enjoyed by players and coaches, the 2020 season was played under extraordinary conditions that left the league somewhat short-handed.

Players across the WNBA opted out of the season, whether it be for medical reasons or to focus their efforts on social justice and criminal justice reform. Several teams that were expected to be contenders — the Washington Mystics, Connecticut Sun and Los Angeles Sparks, to name a few — had to adjust to these absences on the fly, which was not an enviable task in an isolated basketball environment.

The Seattle Storm, on the other hand, had no such misfortune. By a combination of talent, leadership and continuity, Seattle was sitting pretty in a situation in which most of its rivals were scrambling. Ultimately, the Storm entered the Bradenton bubble as favorites and — after a flawless Finals performance against the Las Vegas Aces — left as champions.

A leg up on the competition

Seattle Storm v Las Vegas Aces - Game Two
The Storm welcomed forward Breanna Stewart back to the lineup after she missed all of 2019 recovering from an Achilles injury.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Storm were largely unaffected by the roster challenges faced by other contending teams. Not only did they avoid losing players to opt-outs or medical exemptions, they returned two critical pieces from injuries that kept the out for the entirety of 2019: Breanna Stewart, the 2018 MVP and Finals MVP, and legendary point guard Sue Bird.

Beyond the obvious benefits of welcoming a pair of All-WNBA-caliber players back to the team, those who filled in for them in the Storm’s 2019 starting lineup — Jordin Canada and Mercedes Russell, in particular — returned to Seattle’s bench, now with a year’s worth of higher-usage experience under their belts.

Thus, while most teams were down a player or two (with many struggling to fill roster spots due to CBA restrictions), the Storm entered the 2020 season with a star-studded starting lineup and unmatched depth.

Granted, incumbent Storm head coach Dan Hughes, who led Seattle to its 2018 title in his first year at the helm, was not medically cleared to be with the team in 2020. Hughes’ battle with cancer the year prior made it too risky for him to travel during the pandemic.

Even so, Hughes was able to stay involved with the Storm from home, communicating with interim head coach Gary Kloppenburg and the rest of his staff both during games and on off days. Kloppenburg is no slouch, however, and boasts a wealth of WNBA coaching experience, including a spot alongside Hughes on the 2018 championship squad.

The Storm’s dominant 2020 run

WNBA Finals - Game Three
One of Seattle’s many offensive weapons, guard Jewell Loyd scored the ball on a career-high 58.3 percent true shooting percentage in 2020.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Even with all these advantages, the game is played on hardwood, not paper. The Storm still had to put in the work to prove themselves to be what many expected: the clear-cut 2020 title favorites.

An 18-4 regular-season record and undefeated postseason run later, it’s safe to say Seattle did what was necessary.

The Storm led the WNBA in both offensive (108.3 points scored per 100 possessions) and defensive (93.3 points allowed per 100 possessions) efficiency, becoming just the seventh team in league history to accomplish that feat. Their defense — Kloppenburg’s calling card throughout his coaching history — was particularly fearsome, leading the WNBA in both steals and points allowed in the paint.

The length and activity of players like Stewart, Natasha Howard, Alysha Clark and Jewell Loyd gave Kloppenburg the luxury of running an aggressive and disruptive defensive scheme that frustrated opponents and turned bad shots into easy buckets on the other end.

As for the offense? It was magnificent.

Bird, now 39 years old, ran the show at a pace that was both brisk and calculated. The Storm ran with their athletes when possible and punished opponents with mismatches all over the court. Seattle led the WNBA in assist rate (68.8 percent) — the mark of an unselfish, patient and well-coached team.

Undefeated in the playoffs

Las Vegas Aces v Seattle Storm - Game Three
The Storm celebrate after winning the 2020 WNBA Finals.
Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

In spite of all this, the Storm finished as the WNBA’s No. 2 overall seed to the Aces. Bird and Stewart both missed a handful of games in the regular season due to nagging issues, and two of Seattle’s four regular-season losses came against Las Vegas, adding intrigue to what seemed to be an inevitable Finals matchup between the WNBA’s top two teams.

As it turned out, the Seattle faithful had little to worry about. For as sharp as the Storm looked for the majority of the regular season, they kicked it up another notch in the playoffs and swept their way to the trophy — defeating the Minnesota Lynx 3-0 in the semifinals and then dominating the Aces by the same margin in the Finals.

The Storm’s 15.0 regular-season net rating was boosted all the way up to 18.7, the highest postseason efficiency differential since the 2013 Minnesota Lynx outscored their opponents by 20.2 points per 100 possessions.

Stewart’s performance — an average of 28.3 points per game for the series on a ridiculous 75.5 percent effective field goal percentage — was sublime, and she rightfully earned the Finals MVP award because of it. But the Storm’s incredible postseason run was far from a one-woman show. Bird racked up a Finals-record 16 assists in Game 1 and her backcourt partner, Loyd, averaged 17.8 points on a 66.4 percent true shooting percentage throughout the postseason.

Clark, who finished second in voting for the WNBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, recorded 19 assists to just 4 turnovers and delivered a game-winning put-back in the first game of the semifinals — the only playoff game the Storm didn’t win by double digits.

Whichever way you slice it, whether it be by individual performances or team statistics, the 2020 Seattle Storm played head and shoulders above the competition, fulfilling their preseason promise and winning their fourth title in franchise history.

In uncertain times, the Storm provided a speck of certainty: a professional basketball team firing on all cylinders, playing at — and achieving — the highest of levels.