By Aaron Lommers Herald Writer
SEATTLE — The Seattle Storm open the 2012 WNBA season tonight at KeyArena against the Los Angeles Sparks with a roster that looks a little different than in year’s past.
The Storm are still built around point guard Sue Bird and center/power forward Lauren Jackson — though Jackson will miss the first half of the season while training for the 2012 Summer Olympics with the Australian national team — but their surrounding cast has changed dramatically.
Gone are Swin Cash, Le’coe Willingham and Ashley Robinson. Replacing them are WNBA legend Tina Thompson, former No. 1 overall pick Ann Wauters, Victoria Dunlap and the No. 2 overall selection in this year’s draft, Shekinna Stricklen.
The Storm won the WNBA championship in 2010. Last year, Seattle posted a 21-13 regular-season record before falling to the Phoenix Mercury in the opening round of the playoffs. A perennial playoff team, the Storm still seemed poised to make another run at a title.
So why all the changes?
“It was a variety of things,” Storm head coach and general manager Brian Agler said. “One, our salary cap — there were a lot of demands placed on it. We didn’t have the flexibility. So we had to find a way to get more talent in here and to do that sometimes you have to make changes and give things up to improve in other areas or to get deeper. Secondly, the ownership group wanted us to focus, not just on the now, but the future as well. So we also had a feeling that we wanted to go out and get some good young talent.”
The Storm accomplished that goal by trading Cash and Willingham to Chicago for the second pick in the 2012 draft, which they used to select Tennessee’s Stricklen.
“When we made the trade with Swin and Le’coe, it got us an opportunity to get a good young player which ended up being Shekinna,” Agler said. “And then it also created cap space which helped us go out and sign Ann and sign Tina Thompson.”
Stricklen is a player the Storm hope they can build a future around. The signings of veterans Thompson and Wauters are part of the team’s effort to win now.
“The free agents we signed also help us to stay competitive,” Agler said. “Lots of times when a team decides to go young, they also drop off in their success rate, just because historically a young team doesn’t do quite as well in the professional ranks because experience plays so much of a key. So we were trying to do both.”
That doesn’t mean parting with Cash and Willingham was easy.
“It’s very difficult,” Agler said. “We had a great chemistry with that group and that was part of the reason I felt like we had the success.”
The constraints on the salary cap didn’t happen overnight. The consistent improvement of players such as Camille Little and Tanisha Wright earned them raises, which inched the Storm closer and closer to the cap.
“I guess what people need to understand is, ‘Why all the sudden did you guys have cap issues?’ Well, it was because some of our younger players like Tanisha and Camille, who had played great … and deserved raises, we had to try to keep them as well,” Agler said. “So when they got raises then it put a lot more pressure on our salary cap. That being said, we got to the point where we could have kept that team together, but it would have really hurt our depth.”
Depth will be crucial to the Storm this season with Jackson out. But it isn’t anything new for the Storm. Jackson missed half of last season with a torn labrum.
Veteran guard Katie Smith said knowing ahead of time Jackson is going be gone helped the Storm prepare.
“Ultimately I think when you know the circumstances going in, everyone prepares themselves and you know what is going to be asked of you,” she said. “I think last year it was like, ‘OK, Lauren is going to be doing this,’ and then all of the sudden it’s like, ‘Ooohhh.’ When you have an idea of how it’s going to be, I think you settle in, it’s almost just about settling in to the rhythm of practice and games and expectations.”
Agler said he hopes the Storm are in contention when Jackson returns, but is this team a championship-level team?
“It could be,” Agler said. “If we get everybody back here healthy and we have the ability to play well together, we could be. I won’t ever question our experience or our competitiveness. But there is more to it than that. We have to be willing to play a little bit selfless and keep a good attitude and defend well when we are asked to do that.”
In a preseason survey of the league’s general managers, the Minnesota Lynx were picked as the favorites to win the WNBA championship for a second year in a row. Smith said she doesn’t mind the Storm flying under the radar.
“I think we have the pieces,” she said. “I think just getting in the playoffs in the West is going to be hard. The West is, no disrespect to the East, but from top to bottom the West is very, very strong. It’s going to be a battle every night. I think we have all the pieces we need to compete. I think we can win a championship.
“I like it, I like kind of being maybe an underdog. Seattle I’m not sure would be anyone’s choice for winning a championship, but I think sometimes it’s nice because it gives you a little bit of a chip on your shoulder.”
Aaron Lommers covers the Seattle Storm for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.