Despite its recent two-game skid, the Storm finished the first half of the WNBA’s abbreviated 32-game season with a half-game lead for first place in the standings at 12-4.
“We’re not worried about the losses at all,” forward Breanna Stewart said following the 95-92 overtime defeat Sunday at Las Vegas. “We just want to make sure that we’re learning and improving every day.”
After 16 games last year, Seattle was 13-3 before winning its fourth league championship.
Still, it’s difficult to draw meaningful comparisons with that 2020 team considering the WNBA held its entire 22-game regular season on the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, due to COVID-19.
An examination of the Storm’s title run in 2018 is a more apt comparison.
After 16 games, Seattle was 11-5 and 13-5 at the midpoint of the 34-game season for a .722 winning percentage that’s slightly below the team’s current .750 mark.
Noelle Quinn is 7-3 since taking over head-coaching duties after Dan Hughes abruptly retired May 29. During her short tenure, Seattle is 1-1 against teams with a winning record.
There is a whole lot to like about the Storm’s start, but here are five observations to ponder as the second half of the WNBA season begins.
ROLES HAVE BEEN DEFINED: After shuffling through five different lineups during the first nine games, the Storm has rolled out the same starting five in the past seven games.
Obviously, Seattle’s Big 3 (Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird) are foundational pieces on a championship-contending team. Fourth-year center Mercedes Russell was a late arrival due to playing overseas and has started 12 of 14 games.
Katie Lou Samuelson has claimed the fifth starting spot over Stephanie Talbot, who has made seven starts. Statistically and stylistically, they are similar in many ways. However, Talbot’s propensity to commit fouls and turnovers is likely why she’s on the bench despite leading the WNBA with her 50% three-point shooting.
Despite playing together for just eight games, Seattle’s starters have tallied 255 points, which ranks second in the league among five-player lineups.
Last week, Stewart, Loyd and Bird were selected to the U.S. women’s national team that’s headed to the Olympics. This week, they are virtual locks to earn WNBA All-Star recognition.
Still, the key to a second consecutive title for the Storm is coaxing more consistent production from Russell and Samuelson.
ADJUSTING TO RUSSELL AND SAMUELSON: Russell and Samuelson have the nearly impossible task of replacing offseason departures Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark, a pair of defensive dynamos that helped the Storm win WNBA titles in 2018 and 2020.
Winning with Russell and Samuelson is vastly different than dominating opponents with Howard and Clark.
In some ways, Russell is an upgrade to Howard on the inside. The 6-foot-6 and 195-pound center gives the Storm its first physically imposing post presence since Storm legend Lauren Jackson’s final season in 2012.
And yet, Russell is a surprisingly below-average shot blocker who has just four this season, which is tied with Bird and Loyd.
At her best, Russell is a solid on-ball defender and low-post scoring option who is capable of holding her own against the league’s top centers. Sunday, she held Las Vegas’ Liz Cambage to nine points and seven rebounds while finishing with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
It’s still a bit of mystery what Samuelson provides. It’s not entirely fair to judge her by her predecessor Clark, who had career highs last season while averaging 10.0 points, 2.7 assists, 1.5 steals and shooting 52.2% on three-pointers.
Samuelson, who was acquired in the offseason during a trade that sent the No. 1 overall WNBA draft choice to Dallas, is still adjusting to an offense in which she’s arguably the fifth scoring option among the starters.
She missed five games while competing with the Team USA 3×3 team that qualified for an Olympic berth. Since her return, Samuelson is averaging 6.9 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists while shooting 51.9% from the floor and 36.8% from long range.
BENCH PRODUCTION IS LAGGING: Since the start of the season, there’s been a nagging concern about the Storm’s backups that’s supported by the statistics.
This year, Seattle’s reserves are averaging 21.7 points, which is three points fewer than last season.
Moreover, in 2020 the Storm bench had a plus-2.4 plus/minus ratio that ranked second in the WNBA. This year, Seattle’s backups are minus-0.3, which ranks sixth in the league.
Quinn would like newcomer Candice Dupree to assume a leadership position among the reserves, which seems like a reasonable request for the 16-year veteran and seven-time All-Star who is making her first transition to the bench.
Jordin Canada lacks Dupree’s experience, but Bird’s understudy is a more viable choice to lead the reserves considering she’s been a proven contributor in a backup role during her four-year career.
Canada, Talbot and Ezi Magbegor have the ability to be difference-makers in limited minutes considering their unique skill sets whereas Dupree is just discovering how to make a significant impact in a short amount of time.
FINDING A CLOSER IS A PRIORITY: During its 12 victories, the Storm has won by an average of 12.1 points. However, aside from a 96-80 defeat against Las Vegas on May 18, Seattle’s other three defeats have been decided by four points or fewer.
Stewart has come up short in each defeat in the final seconds, which further exacerbates her inability to come through in clutch situations. The Storm superstar is 0 for 13 when given a chance to win or tie the game in the final 10 seconds, which is a remarkable blemish on an otherwise sensational five-year WNBA career.
Quinn has repeatedly noted she’s comfortable putting the team’s fate in the hands of its MVP candidate with the game on the line.
However, there are other late-game options besides Stewart.
Loyd is a viable choice, considering she’s one of two players in WNBA history to hit multiple game-winning buckets at the buzzer, including a last-second three-pointer to beat Dallas 105-102 in overtime June 4.
Bird is 7 for 28 on shots in the last 10 seconds dating back to 2005.
And Samuelson, who has connected on a couple of long-range daggers as time expired in quarters, is seemingly capable of knocking down pressure shots if given a chance.
A LOOK AT WHAT’S AHEAD: Seattle closes the pre-Olympic portion of its schedule with the home game Friday against Atlanta followed by a pair of home-and-away sets against Los Angeles and Phoenix – which are the Storm’s final four Commissioner Cup games.
On the other side of the Olympic break, Seattle has 11 games highlighted by three contests against Chicago and a five-game road trip in August. The Storm plays five of its final six regular-season games at home.
— The Storm waived rookie point guard Kiana Williams, a second-round draft choice who appeared in eight games. She tallied her first and only basket on a four-point play, a three-pointer and subsequent free throw.
— The WNBA announced zero new players have returned a confirmed positive test for COVID-19 since the start of the regular season. Additionally, 99% of the league’s 144 players are fully vaccinated and all 12 teams have met the threshold for being a fully vaccinated team.