The Seattle Storm are the defending champions of the WNBA. The title of “defending champs” fits each team with that title differently. Some defending champs are poised to go for another title. Other defending champs sink back down to normality and won’t defend that title properly. Still others have a multitude of question marks heading into the season following the title.
The Seattle Storm are one of those teams with questions. Many questions, and many different headlines. Those headlines include – and are not limited to – Sue Bird heading into her 17th year, head coach Dan Hughes announcing that he has been diagnosed with cancer and reigning regular season and Finals MVP Breanna Stewart missing the 2019 season with a torn achilles tendon.
That’s a lot of headlines to unpack, and that’s not even including the “unspoken” headline of the pressure that comes with the title of “defending champs.” These headlines go beyond the statline, especially with the last headline mentioned.
Replacing a player on a champion team is hard, let alone that team’s best player and the league’s MVP. That player, Stewart in this case, does so much more for a basketball team than just put the ball in the basket. She changes the whole outlook of the season for the Storm, as now everyone else must step up behind her.
The Storm must find a way to replace her 21.8 points per game, her 8.4 rebounds per game and her overall presence on the court. Stewart is a player that demands respect on the court, and she had been improving through her first 3 years in the league. Not only that, but after last season was over she went on to lead Team USA to a gold medal at the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup. Stewart was then named the 2018 USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year.
Replacing her with one player will be nearly impossible. That is why each and every player on the Storm must step up, from veterans like Sue Bird to youngsters like recently-drafted Ezi Magbegor and Anriel Howard.
One current starter in Jewell Loyd will have lots of responsibility in Stewart’s absence. She started in all 34 games a year ago, averaging 15.5 points per game, good for second on the team. Her minutes per game (29.7) will most likely see an uptick, as she will be relied on heavily to fill the void.
Some non-starters that will see some more minutes, including some extra starts, are Crystal Langhorne and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. KML started four games and averaged 5.1 points in 13.4 minutes. Langhorne, at 6’2”, will see minutes for her size alone, as her size could be a comforting presence for the Storm. She averaged just 4.6 points per game in just 26 games.
Those are just a few Storm players that could see an increase in opportunity, but all will have to step up to replace Stewart. Not only will the Storm be without her for the year, but they will have the question mark of Hughes and his cancer on their brains.
Hughes and his wife made a video announcement of the news on April 19. There has been no timetable given on his return or his recovery. Per a team release, the “coaching staff is in place and will support should any time be missed for recovery.” Whether he misses a handful of games or months remains to be seen, but the effect on the players has no doubt already taken effect.
Hughes’ health will take “top priority” to the team. The relationship between a coach and his/her players is one like no other, especially when they win a championship together. After a league-best 26-8 record a season ago, that relationship was cemented as a special one when Seattle captured the WNBA title.
The Storm players will be playing with this one their minds throughout the season, adding a special meaning to the year. A meaning to an already special year, a year of defending a title.
That title defense begins in just under a month. That title defense already has question marks on it. That title defense will test Seattle. The question is, how does Seattle respond? The ultimate defining trait of a champion is dealing with adversity.
Can Seattle weather the storm and defend its title? That answer will come in due time.