Storm forward Breanna Stewart (center) gets between Aces center A’ja Wilson (left) and forward Cierra Burdick during the second half of a WNBA Finals game on Oct. 6, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Storm forward Breanna Stewart (center) gets between Aces center A’ja Wilson (left) and forward Cierra Burdick during the second half of a WNBA Finals game on Oct. 6, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Road to WNBA title still runs through Seattle

The new-look Storm, who play their entire home slate in Everett this season, are still the team to beat.

By Larry Stone / The Seattle Times

Since last we saw them play a game that counted — one that spawned yet another championship celebration, a unique one in the “Wubble” — the Seattle Storm have changed in significant ways.

They have lost key players such as Alysha Clark, Natasha Howard, Sami Whitcomb and Crystal Langhorne, the latter to retirement. Correspondingly, the Storm added a slew of new players who will try to fill the voids. Coach Dan Hughes has returned to the bench after a season of parsing his wisdom virtually while on a COVID-19-related hiatus. And several WNBA teams bolstered their rosters to take a run at Seattle.

Yet despite all that change and uncertainty, one constant remains: The Storm will once again be in the thick of the race for the WNBA title. It’s a familiar place to be for a franchise that has won four of them, dating to 2004.

This time the Storm may not be the prohibitive favorite, as was the case from the outset last season, when that prophecy proved accurate. But there is a very distinct reason that every other team knows the road to a WNBA championship will have to go through Seattle.

“I think we have the hard part,” said guard Sue Bird, who has an intimate knowledge of what constitutes championship mettle. “And this is coming from just the years I’ve been in this league: the hard part is getting your franchise players. … I think, for some reason, people forget how good Stewie and Jewell are. I don’t know how it’s possible.”

The reference, of course, is to Breanna Stewart, who racked up her second Finals MVP award last year and is on the shortlist of most dominant players in the league, and Jewell Loyd, who seems to get better every year.

Bird is too modest to throw her name out there, but her presence has been a vital part of all four titles. She remains a difference-maker at age 40, entering her 18th season as an active player and 20th year in the WNBA (she missed two years because of injury).

As long as the Storm have that trio as a foundation they will be a team to be reckoned with. It won’t be as easy as last season, when Seattle rolled to an 18-4 regular-season record and rampaged through the playoffs with six consecutive victories.

Seattle will have to find a way to replicate the defensive presence that Clark and Howard provided. It will have to integrate new players such as Candice Dupree, Katie Lou Samuelson, Mikiah “Kiki” Herbert Harrigan and Stephanie Talbot, a particular challenge because so many players arrived late in camp while finishing their overseas commitments.

Finally, and most important, the Storm need to find a way to develop the chemistry that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Their ability to do so has been a hidden impetus to their title campaigns.

“We’ve had the chemistry, and we filled the holes,” Bird said of the Storm’s run of two titles in the past three years, sandwiched around an injury-riddled 2019 in which both she and Stewart missed the season.

“We found a way to do that. So now we’re starting over in those departments. The way I look at it, I think the potential is extremely high. Chemistry is going to be the key for this team. There’s going to be some growing pains. The good news is, this is the situation for a lot of teams in the league. A lot of teams are dealing with shake-ups in their roster, so we’re all kind of in the same boat.”

Hughes, who wasn’t cleared for the WNBA bubble last year because of his recent bout with cancer, anticipates a jammed boat. Last year, he notes, the Storm’s roster remained more or less intact while other teams were riddled by injuries and COVID-19-related absences. This year, more teams will be at full strength.

“I think we are one of the teams that have a chance to win a championship,” he said. “I think it is a much more crowded field. A year ago I felt we were the best team. Period. We were in a situation to be successful.

“With some of the additions, some of the nuances of change that we inherited, I think if I’m fulfilling the right things with the team, I’m giving them a chance to win a championship. But it’s a crowded field. Some of the other teams are more whole, and there’s more great players playing on those teams.”

Gary Kloppenburg, who guided the Storm last year in Hughes’ absence, will resume his role as Hughes’ assistant. It’s relationship that Hughes calls “a partnership.” Their very first challenge will be a stiff one — opening Saturday against a loaded Las Vegas team that has replaced Seattle as the trendy pick to win it all.

This will be the first step of the long-term process Hughes envisions as the Storm jell over the course of the season and grow into their full potential. Every time a team reshuffles the deck, that meshing of skills and personalities must take place. Sometimes it take longer than expected. On occasion, it never happens.

“As regards the people who played for us, I love them to death, appreciate what they did for us, wish them well as they go on,” Hughes said. “But teams change in pro sports. That’s just inevitable with success. I’m anxious to watch this particular group grow.”

And while that’s taking place, it’s awfully comforting for the Storm to have its franchise players still leading the way.

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