The Storm’s chase for a second straight WNBA championship — and fourth in franchise history — was crippled before it even started, with the season-ending Achilles tendon injury suffered by reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart.
Add in the uncertainty surrounding coach Dan Hughes, who was diagnosed with cancer and is expected to undergo surgery, and Seattle begins the 2019 season with a high amount of anxiety.
Additionally, six players not including Stewart will be absent Sunday when the Storm gathers for the first day of training camp.
The missing players (Jewell Loyd, Natasha Howard, Alysha Clark, Sami Whitcomb, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Courtney Paris) are completing their seasons with overseas teams.
Paris is expected to arrive Tuesday, but it’s uncertain when the others will report to Storm camp.
Sunday’s practice will feature perennial All-Star guard Sue Bird as well as backup guard Jordin Canada and reserve forward Crystal Langhorne.
The Storm will also get their first look at free-agent signee Shavonte Zellous and draft picks Anriel Howard and Macy Miller who were taken in the second and third rounds respectively.
Seattle’s first-round pick Ezi Magbegor, a 19-year-old forward, will remain in Australia this year with plans to join the team in 2020.
The Storm will have just three weeks of practice and two exhibitions (May 15 against Phoenix and May 17 at Los Angeles) before its May 25 regular-season opener.
Seattle is a veteran team, but with so many questions that’s not a lot of time to re-create the chemistry from a team that compiled a league-best 26-8 record last season and went 6-2 in the playoffs, including a 3-0 sweep against Washington in the WNBA Finals.
Here are the five biggest story lines for the Storm during camp.
How does the Storm replace Breanna Stewart?
Short answer. They don’t. At least not with one player. It would be next to impossible for anyone to match the star presence and high-level productivity of the dynamic 6-foot-4 forward who averaged 21.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.3 steals while starting all 42 games — including the postseason — last season.
The Storm will likely turn to five-year veteran Natasha Howard, a 6-4 forward who had her career year in 2018 during her first season with the Storm while averaging 13.2 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 1.2 steals and 1.0 assists — all career highs.
Defensively, Howard and Stewart are strikingly similar. Both are long-armed shot blockers who are equally disruptive in the post and on the perimeter.
However, Howard, who was efficient as a secondary scoring option and got many of her baskets on hustle plays, lacks the offensive skill set that makes Stewart a difficult matchup.
Twelve-year veteran Langhorne, a 6-2 forward who started four years with the Storm before moving to the bench last season, may return to the starting lineup.
Howard and Langhorne are dependable scorers around the basket, but limited on the outside.
Howard converted just 32.7 percent on three-pointers (17 of 52) and was eighth on the team in attempts behind the arc. Meanwhile, Langhorne was 0 for 4 on three-pointers.
Stewart shot 41.5 percent from long range (61 of 147) and losing her perimeter firepower weakens a team that led the WNBA in three-pointers and was second in scoring while averaging 85.8 points.
What’s next for Jewell Loyd?
In many ways, 2018 was a statistical step back for the 25-year-old guard who begins her fifth season with the Storm.
Despite making her first WNBA All-Star team, she averaged 15.5 points while shooting 42.3 percent from the field and 37.0 percent on three-pointers, which were all down from 2017.
Loyd has benefited greatly playing alongside Stewart, who attracts a lot of defensive attention.
When Loyd and Langhorne were the primary offensive weapons in 2015, the Storm averaged just 70.4 points — 11th among 12 teams — and finished 10-24.
Loyd was a rookie back then and she’s developed into one of the league’s best backcourt performers.
It remains to seen if she’s ready to carry the Storm for a season until Stewart returns.
Is this finally Sue Bird’s swan song?
Maybe this will be the season the 38-year-old star finally says goodbye and ends a brilliant Hall of Fame career.
Remarkably, the 18-year veteran, who starts her 17th season, is showing no signs of slowing down. (Bird sat out 2013 due to a knee injury.)
Last season, she averaged a career-high 7.1 assists per game while shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 48.8 percent on three-pointers — both personal bests.
Bird is in the final year of a deal that will pay her $117,500, according to High Post Hoops.
However, she’s expressed an interest in playing for the USA women’s basketball team at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and would conceivably begin that year for the Storm if healthy.
Can Dan Hughes get the Storm playing defense again?
Admittedly, Hughes didn’t tinker a whole lot with an explosive offense when he arrived after a disappointing 2017 season.
Most of his concentration was on the defensive end where he was able to improve the Storm’s rebounding and perimeter defense.
Seattle also allowed just 79.7 points last year, which was 3.1 fewer than the previous season.
Without Stewart, the Storm doesn’t have the personnel to morph into a defensive juggernaut. But Seattle probably won’t be able to win many shootouts either considering its top gun is out for the year.
It’s unclear if Hughes’ medical treatment will impact the Storm. Two weeks ago, the 64-year-old coach indicated plans to coach this season.
Will any role players have breakout years?
On a team in need of three-point shooting and defense, Whitcomb could garner a larger role than the one she had in 2018 when the 5-10 guard averaged just 2.9 points and 8.6 minutes during the regular season.
Whitcomb, who begins her third year with the Storm, proved to be invaluable in the playoffs when she tallied 11 points and four assists off the bench in a decisive Game 5 win against Phoenix in the semifinals.
In the WNBA Finals, Whitcomb averaged 6.0 points and 12.6 minutes.
The 30-year-old former Washington star continued to shine during the WNBA offseason while averaging 8.0 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists to help the Australian national team to a silver medal at the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup.
Whitcomb is currently averaging 14.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists with Basket Lattes Montpellier Agglomération in France’s top professional basketball league.
It will be interesting to see how Hughes doles out minutes between Whitcomb, Mosqueda-Lewis and Zellous.
Canada is another breakout candidate, who shined as a distributor and defensive pest. She had 108 assists and 30 steals while averaging just 16.5 minutes last season.
However, the second-year point guard and Bird’s heir apparent struggled offensively and shot just 18.2 percent (10 of 55) on three-pointers.