Since winning the WNBA title last fall, the Seattle Storm has been blown apart by the winds of change as three key players departed in free agency.
The green and gold confetti that poured from the KeyArena rafters last October did more than celebrate Seattle’s first major professional championship since 1979. It also seemed to wash away much of what was constant about the WNBA champion Storm.
With teammates scattered around the globe during the offseason, the squad has almost completely changed from its title season.
Gone are forward Sheri Sam, guard Tully Bevilaqua and center Kamila Vodichkova. Janell Burse had just returned to her home in New Orleans from playing in China as one by one her Storm teammates became free agents picked off by other WNBA teams.
“When I first heard about Sheri leaving, I was pretty sad,” Burse said. “I got pretty close to her, and that was the first piece. Then I heard about Tully. Then I heard about Kamila, and it was like, geez.
“It’s just sad because you have so many great memories from the team from last year, and just to have that broken up is sad. But, you know, it’s a business and things happen. There are salary caps, and everybody wants to make money. But you meet these great people and have these great relationships, and then they’re gone. That’s the worst part about the whole deal.”
The Storm lost two starters and a key reserve through free agency. In addition to Jackson continuing to work her way back from surgery to repair her right ankle, she will have to adjust to two mystery running mates in the starting five and several new supporting cast members.
While Sam’s position may be interchangeable as long as the Storm receives potent offense from shooting guard Betty Lennox, who averaged 22.3 points in the Finals, Vodichkova’s position at center is becoming a crucial one in the WNBA.
The last three champions — Los Angeles twice, Detroit and Seattle — all had centers who played key roles.
Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault, whose team lost to the Storm in the Finals, spent the offseason saying his team was one Margo Dydek away from winning the title. He traded his top draft pick to San Antonio for the 7-foot-2 Polish center. Charlotte (Janell McCarville), Houston (Tari Phillips) and Phoenix (Vodichkova) also secured centers during the offseason.
“In recent years it has become important,” Storm coach Anne Donovan said. “If you can get a central post player, you’re in great shape.”
The Storm could have designated Vodichkova, a Storm original, as a “core” player, making her an untouchable during free agency. Each WNBA team is allowed to designate two “core” players.
Despite past trade interest for Vodichkova, the Storm didn’t think she would be that hot of a commodity. Most looked at the 32-year-old’s dip in numbers last season (8.0 points and 4.9 rebounds) as a sign of aging.
But the Phoenix Mercury offered the five-year veteran from the Czech Republic a guaranteed, three-year contract worth about $89,000 this season. It was a commitment the Storm couldn’t match.
“We lost three of our top six,” said Donovan, also the Storm’s director of player personnel. “In black and white, that’s ugly and it’s unsettling. It’s not the situation you hoped to be in, but the only thing now is to hope to rebuild it, and hopefully we’ve scouted the right players to take the steps in that process.”
Many penciled in Australian Olympian Suzy Batkovic as Vodichkova’s replacement. The 6-4 center was coming to Seattle for a summer holiday, but then decided to play after being selected in the second round of the 2003 draft.
“She’s like one of my sisters,” Jackson said. “At the (Australian Institute of Sport) we lived together, like we grew up together basically from when we were 12 to 18.”
Batkovic-as-savior doesn’t bother Burse. The 25-year-old Burse was the other piece to the trade that brought Sam from Minnesota, the add-in that Donovan held out for. She didn’t grab much attention last season because of Vodichkova and because of hip bursitis and a small tear in her quadriceps.
Burse initially missed five games, but in September she re-injured the hip in practice. Burse spent most of the season clinging to a heating pad as if it were the latest accessory while waiting to substitute for Jackson or Vodichkova.
Burse, a four-year veteran who came to Seattle after averaging a career-best 7.1 points and 3.7 rebounds in Minnesota, slipped to 4.9 points and 3.3 rebounds in 29 games last summer.
“I was hurt a lot of last season,” she said. “I’m out there playing with a tear in my quad, you know? Just me being healthy will improve my production a lot. But people don’t see all of that. They just figure you’re out there on the court playing, that everything is all good.”
“Kamila, don’t get me wrong, we are gonna miss her. She was a big key as to why we were successful last year. But at the same time, I really feel like I can fill those shoes and be just as productive, if not more, especially being healthy.”
Burse added about six pounds to her 6-5 frame and now weighs 199. She’s quicker than Vodichkova and is a strong shot-blocker. Her addition to the lineup means the Storm can run more in transition, especially with Brazilian Olympian Iziane Castro Marques, Donovan’s early selection to replace Sam on the wing.
In China, Burse was a North all-star, averaging more than 20 points and 10 rebounds. She said she has worked on her mid-range shooting and believes her feet are quicker because the Asian-style game forced her to defend on the perimeter.
Jackson is still rehabilitating her ankle and hoping to be ready for the season opener May 21. But Burse isn’t worried about developing a rhythm with the three-time All-Star.
“I love playing with Lauren,” Burse said. “Whenever I get a blocked shot or something, she just loves it and gets all excited. She’s such a great post partner to pass the ball to. I feel like I can always get LJ the ball down low because she’s so athletic and she can pretty much grab anything.”
Sometimes Storm players can’t help but think about last season. On a recent car trip, Burse and teammate Alicia “Chelle” Thompson talked about Sam’s coolness. And Vodichkova’s leadership. And how Bevilaqua played like she was 8 feet tall.
“There’s not a lot of WNBA players that really know what it takes to win a championship,” Burse said. “After last season, me, Betty, Sue, Lauren, Chelle, we all know how hard we worked for that.
“If we can just get the players coming in to understand what it’s going to take and how hard you have to work, especially now because we’re defending it. If we can get them to understand how we can’t take a day off, how every game is important, then we’ll have a great chance.”
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or email@example.com