By Aaron Lommers Herald Writer
SEATTLE — Whether the WNBA’s month-long hiatus for the 2012 Summer Olympics is a positive or a negative for the league’s 12 teams is up for debate — but there is little doubt the break comes at the perfect time for the Seattle Storm.
While some teams might prefer to keep their momentum going, the Storm can use the break to get some of their key players healthy. If not for the break, the team’s second-leading scorer, forward Tina Thompson, likely would have missed a significant portion of the season with her strained left knee. And the same could be said for center Ann Wauters, the team’s third-leading scorer, who has missed time with an Achilles’ tendon injury.
“In this time (off), we would be playing games,” Thompson said. “In a month’s time probably at least like 10. The thought of me missing 10 games is horrific. So we are going to have that month off and I’ll be able to rehab and work myself back. It’s great for a lot of us. We have a lot of little injuries or little knick-knack things going on with the team, so the rest is much needed.”
All things considered, the Storm shouldn’t be too upset with where they stand at the break. Seattle stumbled out of the gate to a 1-7 record, the worst start in franchise history. But the team rebounded by winning eight of its next 11 games to go into the layoff 9-10. The Storm are fourth in the Western Conference, which would be the final playoff spot if the postseason started today.
On the surface it might sound odd to say that being a game under .500 is acceptable, but for the Storm that argument can be made. Seattle played the first half of the season without Lauren Jackson, its premier post player. Jackson committed the first half of the season to training for the Olympics with the Australian national team.
Just how important is Jackson? She is a three-time league MVP and has helped lead the Storm to two WNBA championships, including the 2010 title when the Storm tied a league-record by winning 28 regular-season games. She is widely regarded as the best women’s basketball player on the planet.
Jackson won’t be the only Storm player competing in the Olympics. Point guard Sue Bird will attempt to lead the United States to a fifth consecutive gold medal.
Bird said continuing to play in game situations while the WNBA is on vacation will help once the season resumes.
“I think there is a benefit to that,” she said. “I remember the previous two times. I’ll stay in game shape, kind of stay on top of my game … whereas obviously the WNBA players, they are practicing, but that’s not really a game. You can’t really substitute game shape.”
Jackson’s absence was an expected obstacle coming into the season, but the Storm also had to adjust to significant roster changes. Forwards Swin Cash, Le’coe Willingham and center Ashley Robinson, all key members of the 2010 WNBA championship team, were gone. In their places were rookie and No. 2 overall draft pick Shekinna Stricklen, and veterans Thompson and Wauters.
It took a while for the team to develop a winning chemistry as evidenced by the 1-7 start, but a five-game winning streak in June helped Seattle climb back into the playoff race. Then a new challenge presented itself — injuries.
It started innocently enough when forward Victoria Dunlap suffered a concussion. But each time Dunlap missed a game, Seattle dressed just nine players since a roster spot already was being taken by Jackson.
Storm head coach and general manager Brian Agler made the decision to waive Dunlap to clear a roster spot — a spot he used to sign forward Svetlana Abrosimova, a member of the Storm’s 2010 championship team.
But the injuries continued to mount.
Wauters missed the final five games before the break. Thompson missed the last three. And Bird missed a game with a strained hip flexor.
Seattle had just eight players available in its final five games before the break.
Forward Camille Little said the break is most important for Thompson and Wauters, but can be beneficial to everyone.
“It will be nice for Tina and Ann to get their legs back under them,” Little said. “All of us have bumps and bruises, like I’m sure every team in the league does, but we have plenty of time to recuperate and get rested.”
One positive that came out of the injuries the team suffered in the first half of the season was the play of the team’s two rookies, Stricklen and forward Alysha Clark. In the Storm’s final home game before the break, a 70-59 loss to the Atlanta Dream, Stricklen set career highs in points (16) and rebounds (nine) and Clark established a career high in scoring with seven points.
Stricklen said the key to coming back sharp when the season resumes is continuing to work hard during the break. “You’ve got to just keep eating right and working out and just try to stay in good condition,” she said.
The team will be divided during the first half of the break, Agler said, with one group staying in Seattle for workouts and to make appearances for the team and the other group getting an opportunity to go on vacation. The groups will flip-flop their roles after about a week. Official practices resume Aug. 1.
Little said she will use her vacation to go home to North Carolina.
“I’m going home and just being with my family,” she said. “It’s kind of the energy that I get from them, so I will be in North Carolina the whole time that we get off.”
The Olympic break will be something new for Thompson, who was a member of the 2004 and 2008 U.S. Olympic teams.
“I’m kind of playing it all by ear,” she said. “I would assume that you would just train the way you would going into training camp, just doing cardio and playing when you can and then just trying to do skill stuff.”
The Storm season resumes Aug. 16 at KeyArena against the Phoenix Mercury. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, it will be the first time the team dresses the maximum of 11 players for a game this season.
Aaron Lommers covers the Seattle Storm for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.