The Seattle Storm — despite missing both Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart for the entire season — enjoyed a surprisingly fruitful season, buoyed by the performances of Jordin Canada, Jewell Loyd and Natasha Howard. In 2018, the Storm won their third championship and were looking to repeat in 2019 until Stewart ruptured her Achilles tendon during a EuroLeague game in April, a month before the WNBA season was slated to start. But even without their two future Hall of Famers, the 2019 Storm still managed to finish with a 18-16 overall record and make the playoffs for the 15th time in their 20-year history. Sophomore point guard Canada stepped off the bench and into Bird’s Nikes to average career-highs in points (9.8), assists (5.2), rebounds (2.4) and steals (2.3) per game. Alysha Clark, Mercedes Russell, Howard and Loyd also made impressive gains last season, with the latter pair earning All-Star distinctions.
This season, Stewart and Bird are set to return to the floor along with some new additions to the team in Ezi Magbegor, Epiphany Prince and Morgan Tuck. Head coach Dan Hughes is not in Florida due to health concerns, so assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg has been handed the reins. Kloppenburg has a very experienced and deeply talented roster in the “wubble,” and it will be a welcome sight to see Bird and Stewart back on the court in Storm jerseys.
KEY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Sue Bird: If it’s not clear enough already, the Storm will have their floor general back and healthy this season. In 2018, the Bird averaged 10.1 points and 7.1 assists per game before helping her team defeat the up-and-coming Washington Mystics while playing with a mask over her broken nose in the Finals. After having to sit on on the sidelines all of last year, Bird will be hungry for her fourth title. The veteran point guard is one of the greatest to ever play in the WNBA, and while it’s unclear if this is Bird’s last hurrah, all eyes will be on her.
Breanna Stewart: Having a healthy Stewart back at the four will be much welcome news to the Storm. The 2018 league MVP was Seattle’s biggest impetus in winning the title, and they will need her to do it again this year. In 2018, she was unstoppable, averaging 21.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game on her way to helping Seattle earn the best record in the league. In the Finals, she even took it to another level, earning the Finals MVP award after scoring 30 points in Game 3, a career-high in the playoffs. It seemed like Stewart’s story in the league was only just beginning to take off when she suffered an injury prior to the 2019 season. This year, the league will watch “Stewie” return and if she can hit the heights of her MVP season, the sky’s the limit.
Everyone expects the Storm to pick back up where they left off in 2018 following the returns of Bird and Stewart and contend for a title. The roster remains mostly the same, and is incredibly well-rounded. Last season, Clark, Canada and Howard proved their defensive abilities, earning spots on the All-Defensive First Team and helping the Storm earn the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. Everyone stepped up for the Storm in 2019: Canada was an assist machine and Whitcomb and Clark made their names as three-point threats after shooting 34% and 48%, respectively from beyond the arc. Howard made it seem like there was nothing she couldn’t do and 6’6 Russell made her presence known around the rim after averaging 6.1 rebounds per game.
This year, Kloppenburg should be able to manage minutes effectively knowing that he has proven talent on the bench. Certain players like Canada will see less time compared to last year, but the hope is that she can continue to learn from Bird and eventually ascend to greatness. Seattle certainly has one of the best teams on paper and many expect them to figure into the title race, but Bird and co. are not fooling themselves by assuming this season is a wrap by any means. “Paper is paper — it means nothing,” Bird said in a recent press conference.
Natasha Howard: Last season, Howard stepped up tremendously in the absence of Bird and Stewart and could’ve easily been named Most Improved Player for the second year in a row. In addition to showing up on the defensive end — the 6’2 forward was named Defensive Player of the Year after averaging the second-most steals per game (behind Canada) and third-most blocks in the league — she also took on the responsibility of being the team’s primary scorer. Howard averaged a career-high 18.1 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 2.2 steals per game while having the third-highest usage rate in the league. Last year, Howard’s star potential really started to emerge and this season, the Storm will hope that she can continue to progress and show the kind of consistency that the WNBA demands.
BIGGEST ON-COURT QUESTION
Will Bird and Stewart truly be able to return to their stellar best? An Achilles injury is among the most serious for a basketball player, and though the delayed start to the 2020 WNBA season was likely an added boon for Stewart’s recovery, we won’t truly know if she can return to her MVP-caliber level of play until the first few games. Stewart and Bird did suit up with Team USA earlier this year in the team’s college tour, although playing week in, week out in the WNBA is an entirely different experience. Bird, who is going on 40 years old, has been cognizant of the increasing pace in the WNBA and of her status as the oldest player in the league. Of course, it is impossible to rule either of these stars out — and Bird looks to be in the best shape of her life based on the photos.