As the Seattle Storm enter the playoffs Thursday in pursuit of their fifth WNBA championship, numerous poignant story lines are percolating.
Can they end Sue Bird’s career with yet another ring, a scenario that coach Noelle Quinn said would be “amazing — like a storybook ending”?
And while everyone knows this is the final run for Bird, could it also be the last hurrah in Seattle for Breanna Stewart, who will once again be an unrestricted free agent after the season?
But against that backdrop lies another compelling subplot when the Storm begin their best-of-three series with the Washington Mystics at Climate Pledge Arena. Many eyes will be on Quinn, who has her own championship pedigree yet is young and inexperienced in the coaching realm.
Can she get the undeniably talented Storm to coalesce at the right time and ride that wave to yet another title? If so, Quinn will become the fifth different coach to win a crown with the Storm, after Anne Donovan (2004), Brian Agler (2010), Dan Hughes (2018) and Gary Kloppenburg (2020).
Yes, even-numbered years have been good to the Storm. And after a 22-14 regular season that left the Storm — many analysts’ preseason pick to win it all — as the No. 4 seed in the eight-team field, there is reason for optimism.
They have survived the disruptive effect of various COVID bouts, including a recent one that sidelined Quinn. They have had six weeks to integrate midseason acquisition Tina Charles into their lineup. And, most encouragingly, Stewart — on Tuesday named the WNBA’s Player of the Year by The Associated Press, a possible precursor to the league’s MVP award — is at full strength.
Quinn, 37, who was unexpectedly thrust into the Storm coaching job six games into the 2021 season when Hughes retired, has just one playoff game as head coach on her résumé. But she won a WNBA title as a player with the Storm in 2018, and as an assistant to Kloppenburg, in charge of Seattle’s offense, in 2020.
The Storm last year lost their single-elimination playoff game to the Phoenix Mercury, 85-80 in overtime, at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett. Significantly, they played without Stewart, sidelined with an Achilles injury. Asked Tuesday what she remembered about that game, Quinn replied: “I remember not having Stewie. But I also know that we played well enough to be a layup away from the semis.”
Quinn has a 38-24 record in her two seasons, an excellent .613 winning percentage. Yet there is still a contingent of skeptical Storm fans who are waiting to see what Quinn can do in the heat of the playoffs with a team that has four No. 1 overall WNBA draft picks — Stewart, Bird, Charles and Jewell Loyd.
But Quinn was quick to deflect the notion that she might be feeling any extra pressure to prove herself going into Thursday’s playoff opener.
“It’s not about me,’’ she said. “I put pressure on myself to make sure our team is where they need to be at, day to day. And right now, the focus is playoffs, and D.C. is in front of us. Obviously, the record is what my name is attached to, but I just want to make sure I’m the best version of myself for my team, and put my best foot forward in everything that I do in my preparation and in my coaching. Hopefully, that drives us to get us where we need to be.”
There’s quite a contrast in experience between Quinn with her one playoff game, and veteran Mystics head man Mike Thibault, the winningest coach in WNBA history who led them to back-to-back WNBA finals appearances in 2018 and 2019, winning the franchise’s first title in the latter season.
“What I lack in the amount of playoff games that Coach Thibault has,’’ countered Quinn, “I gain in having superstar players like Sue, who has been through a lot of playoff games; a [assistant] coach in Pokey Chatman, who has been in a lot of playoff games and a lot of games in general. And multiple players who have been in this, including myself.
“So, again, it’s not me versus him. I respect him a ton. He is a great coach. At some point, he was new and inexperienced, and he gained all of that through his journey; that’s where I am. I’m gaining all of the knowledge and experience at a different rate. I can’t compare myself to him.”
But Quinn likes where the Storm are right now, and where they can go. She said that assistant coach Perry Huang crunched the numbers and found the Storm have had the league’s top-rated offense and defense over the past 15 games. That reflects the lineup continuity that evaded them in the early part of the season.
“We’re trending in the right direction,’’ she said.
Stewart is obviously among the most impactful players in the league, and her availability is the most important trend of all.
“To have her healthy at full strength playing elite basketball — whenever Stewie’s on the floor, we have a chance,’’ Quinn said. “She’s been very hungry, very consistent for us. We want her to carry us, in a way. I know how she gets when she gets in playoff mode, and what that looks like and feels like for her … To have her — I mean, it’s a blessing.”
The Storm also hope to ride the emotion of Bird’s pending departure, knowing that each series could be her last. That could elevate a team that is already bursting with talent.
“We have elite players everywhere,’’ Quinn said. “When everyone is clicking on all cylinders at the same time, we’re a very tough team. What has happened throughout the year is trying to find the consistency of everyone playing those great games at the same time. And I think what’s been happening at the latter part of our season is we’ve had multiple players being efficient.
“If we can continue to defend at a high level and score the basketball at a high level, we can be very competitive in the playoffs.”
And Quinn can solidify her own postseason coaching credentials.