2012 In-Depth WNBA Season Preview: Seattle Storm
PG: Sue Bird
SG: Tanisha Wright/Katie Smith
SF: Camille Little/Shekinna Stricklen/Alysha Clark
PF: Tina Thompson/Victoria Dunlap
C: Ann Wauters/Ewelina Kobryn/(Lauren Jackson)
Significant additions: Wauters (free agency after being out of the league through choice), Thompson (free agency from Los Angeles), Stricklen (college draft), Dunlap (trade with Washington), Clark (free agency after being out of the league)
Significant losses: Lauren Jackson (missing first half of season to train with Australian National Team), Swin Cash and Le’coe Willingham (trade with Chicago), Ashley Robinson (trade with Washington)
Being consistently good can be a problem in US sports leagues. The lack of high draft picks that results means that teams can get old before your eyes, without the young talent being added to replace them. Storm head coach/general manager Brian Agler decided that he needed to do something about that this offseason and made a big move, giving up important veterans Swin Cash and Le’coe Willingham to acquire the second overall pick in the draft. The trade was partly made in the hope that one of the highly-touted college juniors (Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne, Skylar Diggins) would declare for the draft, which ultimately never occurred, leaving it looking a far more risky move. Still, the move also created the cap room for him to re-stock with other veterans, and even without star post Lauren Jackson for the first half of the season the Storm should be very competitive once again.
They will, of course, miss Jackson. One of the best players in the world when she’s healthy, LJ’s a smooth scorer both in the paint and out to three-point range, while also being one of the best post defenders around. Assuming she emerges from the Olympics in one piece, they’ll get her back for the final 15 games of the year, and it’ll be a welcome boost for the stretch run. Even while she’s gone, the Storm still have a pretty impressive frontcourt rotation. Belgian center Ann Wauters returns to the WNBA after a couple of years away, last seen on US soil playing for San Antonio in 2009. She’s a skilled center with nice touch who’ll grab her share of rebounds and use her length to help in the paint defensively. Veteran Tina Thompson also arrives, and will be looking for a new lease of life after seeming pretty miserable in a Sparks jersey for the last couple of years. While not the player she was, and not as interested in fighting it out in the paint any more, Thompson still has scoring ability and range, and plenty of veteran smarts. Yes, after trying to bring in some youth, Agler succeeded in making this squad even older than it already was.
Still in place in the frontcourt and available to help teach the new players all the kinks in Agler’s system, Camille Little has built herself into a legitimate starting forward in this league. She has excellent footwork to help her score in the paint, can guard practically anyone you want her to inside or out, and she’ll do all the extra grunt work that you need to hold the gameplan together. She’s the kind of hard-nosed, bits-and-pieces player that it’s just fun to see go to work. Her versatility will also be particularly valuable, now that Swin Cash is gone and there’s no obvious starting small forward on the roster.
The backcourt is the same old tried and trusted pairing of the best female point guard in the world and one of the most underappreciated combo-guards. Sue Bird hardly needs an introduction any more. She runs Agler’s system exactly as he wants it run, finding the right players in the right places, and steps up to take the big shot when it needs to be taken. That scoring ability may be required to a greater extent early this season with Jackson in Australia, but she’s shown in the past that she can step up her offense when necessary. Her defense remains mediocre at best, but she’s learned to at least be smart at that end and funnel players where she can get some help. Tanisha Wright is an excellent complement to Bird, comfortable enough on the ball to run the offense and allow Bird to play on the weak side at times. She’ll also drive more aggressively to the rim than Bird does these days, and Wright’s defensive ability to take on the best opposing guard every night allows to Storm to try to hide Bird on whoever’s left.
As often tends to be the case with Agler’s squads, the depth on the Storm doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence. Katie Smith is essentially the only guard on the squad besides the starters, after Spanish point guard Silvia Dominguez ultimately never arrived due to visa issues. Smith can play any of the perimeter positions, and despite her age and a slow start in a Storm jersey last year she can still provide solid minutes at any of those spots. But that’s it for guard cover, unless you believe Agler that he’s going to use rookie Shekinna Stricklen there. After much deliberation, she was the choice at #2 in this year’s draft, and she certainly has the physical tools to perform at the WNBA level. A big wing with impressive length and mobility, most of the questions around her surround her mental approach and whether she can stay involved in the game and effective for 40 minutes. The smart, heady group of veterans around her should help her develop as a pro, but Agler’s never had much patience with kids who make rookie mistakes. He may not have the alternatives to avoid using Stricklen this season, however, whether he wants to or not.
The Storm may get some help on the perimeter later in the year from the return of Svetlana Abrosimova, who would almost certainly replace backup small forward Alysha Clark on the roster. The Storm don’t have the cap space to add Abrosimova until late June, and even that’s assuming she’ll play for a pro-rated portion of the veteran’s minimum salary. She’d at least give them some extra guard help from the bench, and another perimeter scoring option.
Until Jackson arrives, the post help beyond Little, Thompson and Wauters looks a little thin as well. Victoria Dunlap was acquired from Washington for Ashley Robinson, partly in the effort to get younger, and partly because she’s cheaper and Agler needed the cap space for all his vets. Dunlap showed some skills during a couple of games when Crystal Langhorne was hurt last year in Washington, but that was as an undersized power forward. She may well need to make the transition to the 3 in order to stick in the WNBA, and that’s still a work in progress. Behind Wauters, Polish center Ewelina Kobryn returns after not exactly exciting anyone in her brief Storm appearances last year. She can fill some space, and they’ll use her when they need height on the floor and Wauters is resting, but she’s a fill-in backup at best on the WNBA stage.
Summary and Outlook
Even having given up key pieces of their 2010 championship team in Cash and Willingham, this is still a very strong group. But they’re not deep, and they’re not young. In fact, it reminds me a little too much of the 2008 Storm team that loaded up on veterans (Yolanda Griffith, Sheryl Swoopes etc.) and eventually broke down under the strain of holding it together. But I still love the idea of what this team could be. When Jackson comes back, a frontcourt rotation of Jackson, Wauters, Little and Thompson is a fearsome proposition for opposing squads. If Agler and his squad can draw the potential out of Stricklen then she can fit in nicely as well with her ability to switch defensively from shooting guard through to power forward. Plus Bird and Wright continue to be one of the smartest, most balanced backcourts in the WNBA. All they need to do is hold it together through the first half of the season, go into the break at around .500, then make a push in the second-half with Jackson and the string of home games on their schedule. If they’re healthy going into the playoffs, no one in the West would want to deal with that frontcourt. It’s just a matter of hoping all those creaking limbs can hold together until the crucial moments.