Several weeks before perennial WNBA All-Star point guard Sue Bird underwent knee surgery that could possibly sideline her for the entire 2019 season, Storm coach Dan Hughes decided to fundamentally change the team’s personality.
This was in April and the defending WNBA champions were coming to grips with the devastating news reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart had suffered a season-ending Achilles injury.
Soon after, Hughes gathered with assistant coaches and devised a plan that would keep Seattle in playoff contention.
Without Stewart, who finished second in the league while averaging 21.8 points last year, it was unlikely the high-scoring Storm would once again set three-point shooting records as it did en route to the title.
To go forward, the Storm returned to the past of the previous professional basketball team in Seattle and stole a page from the Sonics’ playbook.
Assistant Gary Kloppenburg, whose father, Bob, was the architect of the ball-hawking Sonics defenses that tormented the NBA in the 1990s, installed a series of traps and double teams that has turned the Storm into the No. 1 scoring defense in the WNBA.
“I look back to the conversations we had back in April when we got news about Stewie,” Hughes said. “We came in as a staff and we started talking. Not knowing we wouldn’t have Sue and we’d be dealing with a lot of players out.
“We started talking about what we could be. The general feeling was we’re going to have to go through some growing pains … offensively. But our defense, we could lean on a little bit. And that’s Gary and his father’s system.”
Led by Gary Payton, Nate McMillan and Shawn Kemp, Bob Kloppenburg’s Sonics averaged 12.8 steals during the 1993-94 season, which ranks second in NBA history.
Twenty-five years later, Gary Kloppenburg’s Storm is averaging a league-leading 9.7 steals thanks to Jordin Canada and Natasha Howard, who rank first and second in the WNBA while averaging 2.7 and 2.0 steals, respectively.
Despite missing three games because of a knee injury, Canada has 49 steals and is on pace to finish with 84, which would shatter the team record of 61 held by Bird (2006) and Sonja Henning (2000).
Meanwhile, the Storm is on track to surpass the franchise record of 302 steals and finish with 329, which would be the most by a WNBA team since 2013.
“The whole idea is to speed up the other team a bit and we have smart, athletic players who can move and force teams into situations they don’t want to be in,” Kloppenburg said weeks ago when he was the interim coach. “At a few spots we have some size, but generally we’re a little small in other areas so you overcome that any way you can.”
Seattle is first in the WNBA while forcing 16.5 turnovers, which is a big reason why the Storm is tops in the league in fewest points allowed (73.4).
The improved defense has offset the steep decline in an offense scoring an average of 13 fewer points from last year and ranks ninth in the league at 74.9 ppg.
The emergence of first-year All-Star forward Natasha Howard and Seattle’s smothering defense was a constant during the first half of the season, in which the Storm had six top players suffer injuries that forced them to miss at least three games.
“We’ve gone through more changes and ups and downs than anyone expected and we’re still right in the mix of things,” said All-Star guard Jewell Loyd, who missed seven games because of an ankle sprain. “That just shows how deep this team is and how hard we fight. No matter who’s in there, you see that effort.”
The WNBA All-Star break gave the Storm a 10-day respite to make a final playoff push in the second half of the season.
Seattle (12-9) returns for its final two regular-season games at the Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett starting with Friday’s 7 p.m. battle against Washington (12-6).
The Storm has posted a 3-0 record in Everett and is 5-3 at Alaska Airlines Arena on the UW campus.
“All things considered, we’re in a pretty good spot,” Hughes said. “We just haven’t had much continuity.”
With 13 games remaining, Seattle is sixth in the league standings. The Storm is two games behind first-place leaders Connecticut (13-6) and Las Vegas (13-6) and three ahead of ninth-place New York (8-11) in the playoff race.
The top eight teams qualify for the postseason and more than a half-dozen squads hold championship aspirations.
“Las Vegas, Connecticut and Washington are bunched at the top, but it’s a wide-open race for the title,” WNBA analyst LaChina Robinson said during ABC’s telecast of the All-Star Game. “Chicago is one of the hottest teams in the league and they’ve got three All-Stars.
“Teams like Los Angeles and Phoenix are still right there and they’re looking to get healthy at the end of the season. … And don’t discount Seattle, the WNBA champion.”
Similarly, the WNBA MVP race is too close to call heading into the final month of the season.
Howard has emerged as a front-runner in a group that also includes Washington’s Elena Delle Donne, Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones, Las Vegas’ Liz Cambage and Phoenix’s Brittney Griner.
The Storm forward, who has denied domestic-abuse allegations by her wife, is the only player in the league who ranks among the top six in points per game (18.1, third), rebounds (8.3, sixth), steals (2.0, second) and blocks (1.7, fourth).
“I’d be lying if I said we went into the season expecting this type of season from Natasha,” Hughes said, smiling. “She’s been a welcome surprise.
“What amazes you is just how consistent she’s been how she impacts the game in so many different ways. And we’re going to need more of that if we want to get to where we want to go.”