PG: Sue Bird(/Wright/Smith)
SG: Tanisha Wright/Katie Smith(/Snell)
SF: Swin Cash/Ify Ibekwe/Belinda Snell
PF: Camille Little/Le’coe Willingham
C: Lauren Jackson/Ashley Robinson/Krystal Thomas
Head Coach: Brian Agler
Significant additions: Smith, maybe Snell or Ibekwe if either can get off Agler’s notoriously short bench.
Significant losses: Svetlana Abrosimova (maybe not for the whole year), Jana Vesela, and Erin Phillips (sort of). Young Aussie big Abby Bishop isn’t coming this year either
So, the team that romped through the 2010 WNBA regular season, losing only six games all year before sweeping seven straight in the playoffs, brings back the top six in their rotation and adds an all-time great to the bench. You can see why Vegas had the Storm as their overwhelming favourite to repeat as champs in 2011. I can nitpick here and nitpick there – God knows I have no trouble doing that with any team you care to mention – but the only real reason why this team might be any worse than last year is health. And last year they were scary good.
They earned a championship last year because their help was improved and both stayed predominantly healthy all season, but anything good that Seattle put together over the last decade has been built upon their dynamic duo of Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson. No one even argues much any more over Bird’s status as the best point guard in the women’s game. She doesn’t drive the lane with abandon quite like she did when she was younger, but Bird has become the consummate director of the game, running Brian Agler’s offense with ease and dictating the flow of the action on the floor. She’s also developed quite the knack for hitting crucial shots in late-game situations to break the hearts of the opposition. Bird’s never going to shut anyone down on defense, but she’s learned how to do her job in Agler’s defensive system, and her quick hands will typically chip in with a steal or two per night.
Completing the little and large act, Aussie Lauren Jackson took home her third WNBA MVP award last season and it was well-deserved (even though I picked Catchings – sorry LJ). Ruthlessly efficient inside and an offensive threat out beyond the three-point line, LJ simply provided 20 points, 8 rebounds and some of the smartest and strongest interior defense you’ll find in the league on a nightly basis. Her all-around game isn’t flashy or hyper-athletic, just pretty much unstoppable whenever she’s in the mood. The only caveat is that multiple Storm title challenges have foundered due to LJ injuries late in the season. Last year she barely played in the WNBA offseason through choice, whereas this year an injury suffered in Russia sent her early home for rehab. She’s reportedly fully healthy to start the US season, but every Storm fan lives in fear of her going down yet again. Without her they’re still pretty good, but they’re not winning any hardware.
Joining Bird on Seattle’s perimeter, Tanisha Wright and Swin Cash return as central pieces of the core that took them to a title last year. After miserable years as Bird’s backup to start her career, Wright has flourished in recent times once she got to play her natural spot at the 2. A more aggressive driver than Bird at this stage in their careers, the two complement each other nicely, offering different ways to attack a defense whenever necessary. After gaining comfort and confidence through the move to off-guard, Wright has also become a significantly better point guard, allowing Bird to frequently play off the ball in late-game sets. You’ll also find Tanisha defending the strongest guard on the other team on a nightly basis, and doing an excellent job. Cash had her best season in years in 2010, offering flashbacks to her time before the knee injuries in Detroit. Strong rebounding, solid defense and another inside-out offensive option who puts up double-digit points per contest, Cash has become a key factor in the Storm equation. She and Wright also both shot over 40% from three-point range last year, numbers neither had come anywhere close to in earlier seasons. Hopefully for Storm fans that was a natural development in their arsenal, but they might have to deal with a little regression toward the mean this year.
The bench support behind Bird, Wright and Cash had to be rebuilt in the offseason after Svetlana Abrosimova and Jana Vesela both chose to stay in Europe with their respective national teams, but fans can hardly complain when the replacements include Katie Smith. Australian sparkplug guard Erin Phillips was signed earlier in the offseason but then sacrificed by Agler in the trade for Smith, who he has a relationship with from their time in the ABL. Plus Brian has always favoured established veterans, and Smith is certainly established. Capable of playing any of the perimeter spots, Smith is a strong physical specimen who’ll take big shots, offer hard-nosed defense and a winning attitude, and just generally fit right in with this team. She’s had some health issues in recent years, but tends to play through the ailments and won’t have to feature for anywhere near as many minutes coming off the bench for the Storm. Besides Katie, things are a little less secure. Rookie Ify Ibekwe may get some time backing up Cash but Agler’s well known trepidation over using rookies will likely see her watching most of the action from the bench. Coming into the season with a minor injury, Australian wing Belinda Snell is probably more likely to see some time when she recovers. Capable of hitting from long-range and fitting in well within a team concept, Snell could turn out to be just Brian Agler’s kind of player. There’s also a chance that Abrosimova might show up midseason, which wouldn’t hurt either.
Helping LJ out with the dirty work underneath the hoop, Camille Little and Le’coe Willingham are both back for more in 2011. I can’t help but love Little’s game, a player who’s literally guarded everyone from point guards to centers during her five years in the WNBA. She was one of San Antonio’s best defenders as a rookie when they made the Western Conference Finals in 2007 and she’s only gotten better since, now starting alongside LJ and taking on the opposition bigs on a nightly basis. She’ll chip in with her fair share of rebounds and around 10 points every night as well, without any plays being run for her. Willingham arrived as a free agent last season and instantly deepened the reliable post options at Agler’s disposal. Strong and dependable, Le’coe can come into a game and the Storm won’t miss a beat with her down low. She’s also developed a funky-looking three-point set shot that seems to go in pretty regularly as well.
The post backups after Willingham aren’t going to set anyone’s world on fire, which does sometimes leave the Storm looking a little small. LJ’s the only starter over 6-1, so the loss of Jana Vesela and even raw Aussie youngster Abby Bishop could be felt most against teams who can throw true size at Seattle. Ashley Robinson is back yet again on the Storm bench and may have to actually play 5 or 10 minutes a night outside of garbage time this year. She’s tall and Agler often praises her defense, but to call Robinson’s offensive game unrefined would probably be generous. After her we’re down to rookie big Krystal Thomas on the end of the bench, who knowing Agler will be lucky to see the floor even inside garbage time. If she’s playing much, Storm fans will likely be crying into their beers about the multiple players who are out injured.
No one in the West, and quite possibly in the East as well, has improved enough to truly threaten this squad if they stay healthy. It’s an oft-repeated phrase in this League, and a central piece of their championship puzzle last season was the Storm’s entire rotation avoiding significant injury all year long. Jackson and Cash especially have a worrying history that makes you wonder if two full years might be more luck than they can ask for, but until someone breaks down it’s hard to talk yourself into anyone else out West. This team is so efficient and so precise at both ends of the floor, they can make you play at their own deliberate tempo or even just beat you at yours, and they’ve got the best big-little combo in the game. It’s always harder second time around, and the rest of the league will be gunning for them, but if the Storm are in one piece come September, the fall of 2011 might just be featuring a repeat of 2010.