Last October, the Seattle Storm defeated the Las Vegas Aces 92-59 in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals, completing the sweep. After a dominant Finals, it looked like Seattle was poised to rule the WNBA for years to come.
But this past offseason, a seismic shift changed the construction of the team. While the core three of Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird, and Jewell Loyd stayed, the team saw three key members of its rotation—Alysha Clark, Natasha Howard, and Sami Whitcomb—depart the team.
For much of the 2021 season, those departures didn’t appear to be hurting the team. Seattle and Vegas were still atop the league standings, and Seattle was getting solid minutes out of new players like Katie Lou Samuelson and Stephanie Talbot.
But since the Olympic break, something has changed in Seattle. An 0-2 start to this half of the season was understandable as the team was without Stewart and Bird, but after winning their next two games, the Storm dropped three games in a row. The 3-5 record over the past eight games has pushed Seattle from contending for the top overall seed to fighting to stay in the top four.
So, what is this?
Is it a temporary blip? Or is there actual reason to worry that this Seattle Storm team isn’t the team that the WNBA community thought it was?
Have Teams Figured Out Breanna Stewart?
Here’s one of the questions that’s been going around online lately: have teams “figured out” Breanna Stewart?
It’s kind of an odd question. Stewart has played enough basketball in her WNBA career for teams to already know what they need to do to stop her. It’s not like she’s a rookie who there’s no tape on. Breanna Stewart isn’t the Miami Dolphins running the wildcat offense in the mid-2000s.
She’s a former MVP. If she’s being “figured out,” it’s not because defenses suddenly got smarter. It’s because team construction forces her to do extra things, and those extra things can burn a player out. One reason I’m wary of Seattle is the supporting cast had a pretty big drop off this season, and Stewart (and Jewell Loyd) are likely wearing down some as the season goes along.
Stewart’s usage rate is actually lower than it was last season—27.6 percent, down from 28.9 percent—but her rebounding rate is up, as she’s having to crash the boards a little more because of the players who are gone.
Stewart’s post-Olympic splits show a player who isn’t playing at the high level she’s known for, though. She’s shooting just 39.6 percent from the floor and 17.9 percent from three.
Looking through film of Stewart’s misses, it isn’t even that the defense is playing particularly tough. She’s missing one-on-one contest shots in the paint, but she’s also missing open looks from deep and inside as well. Stewart blowing a transition layup isn’t a thing that happens, but post-Olympics, it is.
Analyzing The Supporting Cast In Seattle
The biggest change this season for the Storm is that the supporting cast has taken a hit. Howard, Clark, and Whitcomb were all key pieces of last year’s championship team. With those players gone, there is more pressure on the team’s stars. For a while, it looked like that added pressure wasn’t going to be an issue, but that no longer seems true.
You can see the impact just by looking at the team’s offensive and defensive rating. Last year, the Storm averaged 110.4 points per 100 possessions while allowing just 95.9. This year, the offensive rating is down to 105.6, while the defensive rating is up to 100.2. That’s a huge swing.
And there are plenty of reasons for that swing. Replacing Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark in the starting lineup with Mercedes Russell and Katie Lou Samuelson is part of that.
Nothing against those two players, but their presence represents a distinct downgrade in certain ways on both sides of the ball. Clark shot an absurd 52.2 percent from three last season; Lou is shooting 33.8 percent. When you play with Stewart and Loyd, you’re going to get more open looks, and Clark being able to drain those looks at that level made everything easier on everyone.
As for Russell, she’s a capable WNBA big who is shooting over 60 percent from the floor, which does add a presence in the offensive paint that Seattle didn’t necessarily have with Howard. But Howard was more versatile on that end than Russell, offering an ability to step outside and warp the spacing on the floor. And defensively, Howard could guard essentially anyone. Clark too. Seattle can’t be as aggressive on that end now.
Also, Ezi Magbegor needs to play more. Also also, Seattle moved Jordin Canada into the starting five, and she responded with a solid game against Chicago, but the Storm were still blown out. I love what Canada can bring on defense, but her offensive game can be rough at times.
Can Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd Win Alone?
I know that Sue Bird just won a gold medal, but looking forward, a 40-year-old Sue Bird isn’t part of the future for the Storm. Assuming the team uses the money they saved by letting Clark and Howard leave to lock Stewart and Loyd up long term, can the Storm be perennial contenders with those two players as the core?
It’s a complicated question.
The WNBA is a small league, which means that having star power is really, really important. Having your top three players all hit free agency next year will make for some interesting math, especially with Russell, Talbot, and Jordin Canada all being restricted free agents. Sue Bird deciding to or not to come back will greatly impact the financial picture in Seattle as well.
But we’re seeing right now that if Stewart has a slump or if Loyd has one of those games where her shot is off—in games where Loyd has taken 15 or more shots and has made under 35 percent of them, the Storm are 1-4—then Seattle just doesn’t have the right players to help make up for that. And that potentially becomes even worse when Bird retires, depending on how the team uses that money.
But In 2021, Should The Storm Be Worried?
Only the top two seeds in the WNBA get to skip the single-elimination games. Every team that doesn’t finish first or second should be worried.
But Seattle worries me more than other teams right now, because they’re struggling at the wrong time. If Stewart’s shot doesn’t come back soon, and Loyd has to take more shots than she should because there aren’t enough other offensive threats on this team, Seattle can lose to anyone in a single-elimination game.
I still think this team can beat teams in a real series, but I’m becoming less confident by the day. Connecticut and Vegas have such good inside games, and Seattle doesn’t have the defensive personnel to slow them down enough there.
And even if Stewart gets back to playing like the best player in the world, the gap between her and A’ja Wilson and/or Jonquel Jones is so small. Loyd might be the league’s second-best player, but Vegas and Connecticut—especially Vegas—just have far better pieces surrounding their stars.
Seattle can still win the WNBA title, but I’m worried. If you’re a Storm fan, the time for at least some panic has arrived.