It was only a year ago that Natasha Howard was crowned the 2019 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, along with finishing top-five in MVP voting. Fast forward to the present time and Howard has really struggled to find her groove in the 2020 season.
Howard’s slow start has not affected the Storm, as they are off to an 8-1 start and are sitting atop the league standings. Even with Howard struggling, the Storm are still rightfully the overwhelming favorites to win the title, but without a healthy Howard, there could be some challenges.
After being traded to Seattle prior to the 2018 season, Natasha Howard has been one of the better players in the league for the Storm. She has been a defensive anchor and a potent offensive threat. In 2019, Howard enjoyed a career year, averaging 18.1 points, along with 8.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks.
The 2020 season has not been as kind to Howard. She’s only averaging 5.0 points a game and 5.3 rebounds. Although her offense is important, Seattle has plenty of other scorers to make up that deficit. The big concern is Howard’s defensive play. She is down to 0.4 blocks per game and simply does not look like her normal active, spry self.
Howard’s struggles haven’t hurt the Storm in the grand scheme of things, but there are still some drop-offs when Howard is on the floor. Take a look at Howard’s on/off-court ratings compared to Seattle’s other bigs:
|Name||Off Rtg On Court||Off Rtg Off Court||Def Rtg On Court||Def Rtg Off Court|
As you can see Seattle has been much better offensively without Howard on the court. The defensive difference is small but it is important to note that both Magbegor and Russel have contributed to a better defensive rating. Yes, they are playing primarily against second units, but it is still important to note.
When you go through the rest of the lineup, Howard has been the worst player so far out of the starting five. What does that mean? That means that come playoff season when there is more time to game plan, teams will relentlessly attack the opponent’s weaknesses, which at the moment has been Natasha Howard. Sue Bird is also not the best defender at this stage in her career. It’s not hard to envision teams attacking those two often, even at the same time with a heavy dose of pick and roll.
Here’s the big issue for the Storm: all of the contenders have either a top-five big or a rotation of really solid bigs. For the purpose of this article, we will consider the top six teams to be serious contenders at the moment. Take a look at their best centers/forwards:
Aces: A’ja Wilson, Dearica Hamby
Minnesota: Sylvia Fowles
Phoenix: Brittany Griner
Chicago: Stefanie Dolson, Azure Stevens
Los Angeles: Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike
Besides Chicago, all four of those contenders have players who have either won an MVP award or at the very least are MVP caliber players. That should be scary for Seattle. Those players pose a serious matchup problem, which will only be made worse by the playoffs where we see shortened rotations, more game planning, and a full 40 minutes of effort.
Hypothetically, if Howard continues to struggle, what are Seattle’s options?
Russel has the size at 6’6” to guard those bigs, but she is not the rim protector that Howard is, having never averaged even one block per game in her career. She also isn’t as quick as Howard, meaning that she would have trouble with someone faster like Ogwumike or Wilson. Her lack of quickness would also lead to teams relentlessly putting her in pick and rolls come playoff time.
The rookie has already been a great addition for the Storm. Many people are starting to wonder when she will start over Howard. That seems like it would be the best fix if Howard continues to struggle. Magbegor has posted a defensive rating of 91.6 and has averaged almost a block per game in only 13 minutes of average play time. She has also shown the ability to guard the perimeter, which could give her an edge over Russel. Magbegor seems to be the best offensive player out of the three bigs, which is yet another added bonus. The only concern with Magbegor is her slight frame which could pose an issue in a long series with a Griner or Fowles type player.
Currently, it is really tough to see how any team beats Seattle in a five-game series. That being said, the playoffs are all about exploiting weaknesses and that is what Howard has been thus far.
It is not time to press the panic button on Howard, especially in a season with so many variables. The Storm could easily win a championship with this output from Howard but if she figures it out, the Storm might be unstoppable.
I agree with your contention, Curtis, and I think the two games that Seattle has played since you published this article have borne it out. Howard has continued to get in better shape. Her defense and rebounding and overall activity rate are up where we are accustomed to seeing from the last two years.
Even when post opposing post players have the ball in the paint or right under the basket, nothing is assured when Howard and Stewart are contesting them. Against Washington, those two had several blocks, deflections, and takeways.
On top of that, against Washington on Sunday, Howard finished her shots, rather than having agonizing misses from close in.
This is the best outcome for the Storm. It’s easy to seize on excitement about Magbegor and say, “let’s bench Howard and start Ezi.” But getting Natasha back to her usual fit self lets Ezi continue to acclimate to the league in a supporting role. Clearly, she’s a skilled youngster. Coming off the bench lets her develop with less pressure. Natasha turns 29 next month; she’s peaking as a player. With her length, athleticism, and motor she seems ideal for the kind of trapping, pressure defense Coach Kloppenburg wants to play.
I’m excited about the Storm being at full strength with Natasha. Nothing is sure against the top teams (and excellent big players) you mentioned. But having the real Natasha maximizes the team’s chances of succeeding in the playoffs.