The first time Gary Kloppenburg took over as an interim coach, the Storm was in dire straits and barely clinging to a playoff berth with three weeks left in the season.
It was the summer of 2017 and Seattle fired coach Jenny Boucek after losing its fourth consecutive game and falling into a three-way tie for the eighth and final playoff spot in the 12-team league.
Under Kloppenburg, the Storm won four in a row and was 5-3 in the final eight games to finish the regular season at 15-19 and clinch a postseason berth.
“I’m pretty good at this interim stuff,” said Kloppenburg, the Storm’s trusted assistant who once again assumes control while head coach Dan Hughes is away on medical leave. “But that was a different team and a different time.
“Back then, the urgency and desperation of getting in the playoffs was first and foremost. I tried to, on the fly, figure out what can we do to tweak it enough so we can get in. And we ended up finishing pretty good. But this is different because right now there’s a lot that we don’t know.”
Hughes was diagnosed with carcinoid cancer during an emergency appendectomy in February and is expected to undergo surgery this week.
“Right now, I can’t tell you when I’ll be back but we’ve laid out a plan to where I suspect it’ll be a seamless transition from me to Coach (Kloppenburg),” Hughes said before stepping away from the team last Thursday. “He knows this team inside and out.”
Kloppenburg will coach Seattle during the exhibition opener Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Everett against Phoenix and in the exhibition game Friday at Los Angeles.
It’s uncertain if Hughes will return before the Storm’s regular-season opener May 25.
“I don’t anticipate coach being out that long,” Kloppenburg said. “I think he’ll bounce back pretty quick. We’re preparing to get through this week with the exhibition games, then see where we’re at. Then we can regroup next week and see what we’re looking at.”
Until then, Kloppenburg commands the 2018 defending WNBA champions who still have playoff aspirations despite the loss for the season of reigning MVP Breanna Stewart.
During its exhibitions, the Storm will begin to discover a new identity built around All-Stars Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd as well as budding star Natasha Howard.
Seattle also will use the exhibition games to get a look at its handful of newcomers, including second-round draft choice Anriel Howard and third-round choice Macy Miller, who are battling for what appears to be just one open spot on a veteran-laden roster.
WNBA teams, which are required to carry a minimum of 11 players and no more than 12, must finalize rosters before May 23.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty awkward when your head coach is not here,” Bird said. “It’s kind of like when the substitute teacher came to school when you were in the fifth grade. It’s kind of like what can we get away with.
“Luckily, we have enough of a core group that understands what Dan wants offensively and defensively. We have a coaching staff that’s worked with Dan last year and this year that understands those things, so it really hasn’t been different.”
The 66-year-old Kloppenburg and Hughes, 64, share many similarities. Both are defensive-minded coaches who started in the WNBA two decades ago and found a kinship last year while winning their first league title.
“As far as I’m concerned, nothing really changes,” Kloppenburg said. “We’re just trying to do all that we can to support Coach Hughes and getting him through this.
“We feel like we have good systems in place with how we want to play on both ends of the floor. I feel like it’s my job to make sure we don’t over-coach it or screw it up. We have a really good corps.”
Still, Hughes’ absence is a tremendous loss for the Storm considering he’s coached more WNBA games (524) than anyone in league history and has an overall record of 237-287.
“You look at the record and he’s won a lot of games,” said Kloppenburg, who has a 25-51 WNBA record, including a two-year stint (2012-13) at Tulsa where he was 20-48. “You can’t really replace that.”
The Storm will elevate player development coach Ryan Webb to assistant alongside Noelle Quinn, who ended a 12-year WNBA playing career and is coaching for the first time.
“We’re in good hands with Klop, Noey and Ryan,” guard Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis said. “They know our systems. They know what we need to run to be effective.
“At the same time, we have a leader on the court who is with us all the time in Sue. I’m never worried in that department of who’s going to lead us and what we’re going to do and how things are going to work out.”
— Mosqueda-Lewis flew to Seattle on Monday after finishing commitments with her overseas team Flames Carolo Basket Ardennes in France. She’s expected to practice Tuesday, but it’s uncertain if she’ll play in the exhibition opener Wednesday.
— The Storm will receive its 2018 WNBA championship rings during a pregame ceremony at its May 25 regular-season opener.
— Seattle waived rookie guard Brooke Salas, a former standout at New Mexico State who was signed to a training-camp contract.