Storm eye bigger prize, better luck in 2020

Injuries to integral players hurt, but healthy returns should make Seattle a title contender next year.

By Percy Allen

The Seattle Times

The end of the season for every team that falls short of winning a title is a time of reflection that’s often filled with regret and remorse.

When asked if there’s anything that he would change, Storm coach Dan Hughes didn’t hesitate to give an answer that put things in perspective for the defending champions.

“Not get cancer,” said the 64-year-old coach who underwent surgery on May 14 to remove a cancerous tumor from his digestive tract and missed the first nine games of the season. “That would be No. 1.”

It was a sobering reminder that some challenges the Storm faced this season on and off the court were more serious and personal than others.

Officially, Seattle’s season ended Sunday when the sixth-seeded Storm lost 92-69 at No. 3 Los Angeles in the quarterfinals.

On Monday, the team said its last goodbyes to each other before taking off for destinations all over the globe.

The Storm’s leading scorer, Natasha Howard, is playing in China. All-Star guard Jewell Loyd is returning to Spain while Alysha Clark and Sami Whitcomb are playing in France.

Meanwhile, point guard Jordin Canada received an invitation to train with the USA National team in Florida and guard Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis plans to train in Southern California with Storm star Breanna Stewart, who is recovering from a season-ending Achilles injury.

“There’s a sadness that there’s no tomorrow for this team because … they made it about these players and you wanted that to run as long as it could,” Hughes said. “These are always hard days for me. … Then you start to open the door and think about 2020 a little bit.

“And that’s kind of the spring board that you want. By and large they feel good about what they did, but they know this is like teeing it up for something even greater.”

Here are three questions looming over the Storm heading into the offseason.

Can Stewart and Howard co-exist?

Let’s start by acknowledging every coach in the WNBA would love to have this problem.

Still, it’s going to be interesting to see how Hughes re-integrates a 25-year-old superstar like Stewart, who averaged 24.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists in last year when she won the WNBA Player of the Year award.

Howard is a 28-year-old ascending star, who stepped into Stewart’s vacant role and averaged career highs in points (18.1), rebounds (8.2), assists (2.1), steals (2.1) and minutes (31.3) while nabbing the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year award and All-Star recognition.

It remains to be seen if Stewart and Howard — a pair of long, lanky 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-2 forwards, respectively — can re-create the chemistry that comprised a formidable 1-2 punch in the WNBA finals to overwhelm the Washington Mystics for a 3-0 sweep.

Who starts at point guard?

Again, these are terrific problems to have, but Hughes will have about six months to decide if Sue Bird returns to the starting lineup or if Canada remains at the helm.

In many ways, picking a starting point guard shapes the identity of the Storm.

Under Bird’s leadership in 2018, Seattle led the WNBA in three-pointers and was an offensive juggernaut that averaged 87.2 points. Bird, 38, is a maestro at running the pick-and-roll in large part because she’s a skilled passer and perimeter shooter who averaged 7.1 assists and shot 44.8% on 3-pointers in 2018.

Canada’s strengths lie on the defensive end where she led the league in 2.3 steals and was voted to the WNBA All-Defensive first team. Conversely, the Storm morphed into a ballhawking defensive dynamo that led the league in points allowed (75.1) and steals (9.5).

Admittedly, Canada has a spotty outside jumper — she shot 18.6% on 3-pointers — but she wasn’t an offensive liability while averaging 9.8 points and 5.2 assists.

Can the Storm share the spotlight?

The domino effect from the return of Stewart and Bird will have an impact on everyone on the roster from the starters to the bench.

Conceivably, Seattle will begin the season with a starting lineup that includes four All-Stars in Bird, Stewart, Howard and Loyd joining Clark, who is coming off her best season in the WNBA.

The next five potentially includes Canada, sharp-shooters Whitcomb and Mosqueda-Lewis, forward Crystal Langhorne and center Mercedes Russell, who started 30 games this year.

If Seattle brings back free-agent guard Shavonte Zellous, who has expressed an interest in returning, that leaves only one spot open on the 12-player roster.

The last opening could go to Ezi Magbegor, the 20-year-old Australian forward who was taken in the first round of this year’s draft.

However there’s a chance she’ll remain overseas and the final spot could go to Seattle’s pick in the 2020 WNBA draft. The Storm has the No. 7 selection in the first round.

Hughes used the word culture nearly a dozen times while downplaying potential problems that might arise regarding starting lineups or the distribution of playing time.

“There’s no egos on this team and that’s the beauty of Seattle,” Loyd said. “There’s no jealously. There’s no drama. Everyone is here for each other and everyone wants to win. Everyone wants the same goals and it makes it easy to welcome them back in because we want them here. We want them to be successful and we want to win.”

The Storm figures to one of the front-runners to win it all in next year.

“There’s going be a short list,” said Hughes who cited Washington, Connecticut, Las Vegas and Los Angeles as next year’s favorites. “But Seattle will be on that short list.”

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