The final moments of scrimmage to end the first day of Storm training camp told the story about the connective chemistry and seemingly effortless symmetry that exists between the team’s stars.
Breanna Stewart, who hadn’t played competitive basketball in nearly six months while recovering from offseason Achilles tendon surgery, curled around a screen and collected a beautiful bounce pass in traffic from Sue Bird for a layup.
On the next offensive trip, Bird darted in the lane, which drew two defenders, before firing a no-look pass to Jewell Loyd who buried a corner three.
“What can I say,” Bird said when asked about being able to pick up right where they left despite a lengthy layoff. “We play well together.”
It was just like old times and a reminder that no matter how much has changed in personnel and throughout the league, the Storm are still WNBA championship contenders as long as the Big Three is on the court and healthy.
“The beauty of those three is as much success as they’ve had, they’re still hungry for more,” coach Noelle Quinn said. “I’m like (everybody else) and wondering what more do you guys need? You’re Olympians. You’re WNBA champions. You’re the best players in the world.
“But it teaches you a lot about their mindset, which is never settling. Even champions have room to grow.”
It’s that glorious past — as well as the looming possibility that this could be their final year together — which shapes expectations heading into the 2022 season starting Friday with a regular-season opener at Climate Pledge Arena against the Minnesota Lynx.
“For them it’s continuing to grow their game,” Quinn said. “It’s continuing to add to their legacy. If it’s another championship, then that’s amazing. If it’s what they’re doing in the community, growing their businesses, growing their families or whatever it is. To them, they’re like rookies in a sense. They always want more. It’s a mindset that teaches me and quite frankly, I’m in awe of it.”
Bird, Stewart and Loyd have played 132 WNBA regular-season games together and compiled an 82-50 record while winning two league titles in 2018 and 2020 and capturing the first-ever Commissioner’s Cup championship.
“You’re playing with Hall of Famers,” Loyd said. “Not everyone can say that. They’re not just Hall of Famers and they’re not just teammates, they’re some of my best friends. … To have memories and be a part of their careers is special. Sometimes we take it for granted.”
The 28-year-old Loyd learned firsthand what life is like without her Big Three cohorts in 2019 when Bird sat out due to a knee injury and Stewart was rehabilitating following offseason right Achilles surgery.
Loyd earned the second of three trips to the WNBA All-Star Game, but her production declined in part due to an ankle injury and increased defensive attention from opponents.
When Bird and Stewart returned in 2020, Loyd’s career skyrocketed. Last year, she earned All-WNBA first team honors for the first time and was an early MVP candidate while averaging a career-high 17.9 points.
Loyd considered leaving Seattle in the offseason via free agency, however the Storm secured her with the core designation and both sides agreed on a two-year guaranteed supermax deal worth $463,000.
Next year, Loyd might have to eventually resume control of the Storm without Bird and Stewart. But for now, she enjoys sharing the spotlight.
“I cherish it every day,” Loyd said. “I really don’t want to take it for granted ever (because) it’s not normal. The things that we do, the things we’re a part of is not normal.”
The 27-year-old Stewart, who is a three-time WNBA All-Star, the 2018 MVP and voted one of the league’s top 25 players of all-time last year, understands her career might have unfolded entirely different if not for Bird and Loyd.
During a recent photo shoot, Stewart recognized how much the trio has matured since she entered the league in 2016 as the No. 1 overall draft pick out of Connecticut.
“I thought about my rookie year when we were taking those same pictures,” Stewart said. “Just to see our growth, Jewell and I especially, as we figured out this league and what we’re good at and what we need to do every single night.
Stewart, who is on pace to eclipse Bird as the greatest player in franchise history, is noncommittal about her long-term relationship with Seattle. During the offseason, the Syracuse, New York, native met with N.Y. Liberty owner Joe Tsai, which sparked rumors the Storm might lose its dynamic, once-in-a-generation forward.
Ultimately, Stewart re-signed with Seattle on a one-year, $228,094 deal, which allows her to be an unrestricted free agent once again after the season.
“Right now, at this point in my career, it’s important for me to have options and this deal keeps a lot of options on the table,” said Stewart, who has been a vocal critic of the prioritization clause in the WNBA’s collective-bargaining agreement that will make it difficult for players to compete overseas where salaries can be more lucrative.
Next year, WNBA players who are late reporting to training camp are subject to fines; and in 2024, the league can suspend their pay for the season for tardiness.
“Obviously (we’re) able to make a lot of money (overseas),” said Stewart, who reportedly earns over $1 million to play in Russia. “It’s just hard for me because with the prioritization, you’re cutting off one of my sources of income and not substituting it. I think that that’s something that needs to be figured out.”
Stewart acknowledged the possibility she could sit out a WNBA season to play overseas much like Phoenix Mercury star Diana Taurasi did in 2015.
“Not knowing what’s going to happen in the future makes me hyper focused on what’s happening right now,” Stewart said. “It sounds cliché, but I’m really taking it day by day. I’m just happy to be back on the court, playing like I know I can and seeing how far we can go this season.”
Last year, Seattle fell from first to fourth in the WNBA standings in the final weeks of the season, and without Stewart, the Storm were upset by the Phoenix Mercury in the second round of the WNBA playoffs. The loss snapped Seattle’s six-win postseason streak dating back to 2019 when Stewart and Bird were absent.
If this Storm season were a Hollywood movie, then the 41-year-old Bird, who is pondering retirement, would hit the game-winning shot in Game 5 of the best-of-five WNBA Finals in front of a roaring Climate Pledge Arena crowd for her fifth league title before hanging up her sneakers.
“Man, did you just come up with that?” Bird said, smiling when presented the fictional scenario. “That’s pretty good. I’ll go for that. … But unfortunately, we’ll just have to wait and see how it all plays out.”
Bird isn’t looking too far ahead right now, not when the end of a magnificent 21-year career might be imminent.
During her 19 seasons, Bird has been a part of several spectacular trios, including a pairing with Hall of Famers Lauren Jackson and Swin Cash that led Seattle to a WNBA title in 2010.
However, Bird, Stewart and Loyd are the second most prolific scoring trio in WNBA history behind Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper and Tina Thompson, who led the defunct Houston Comets to four consecutive WNBA titles (1997-2000).
Seattle’s Big Three has led the league in scoring in four of the past five years, not including 2019 when Bird and Stewart were out.
“They’ve kept me young,” said Bird, who credits Stewart and Loyd for prolonging her career. “Being able to play with them from Day 1 right out of college and being a part of their growth process and being someone who — by no means am I taking credit for their greatness — but I know I had a little small role helping them become who they are and helping teach them what the WNBA is like.
“That’s what makes this trio so unique. You have this older player with experience who is also the point guard. Then you have these two young guns who complement each other so well. A guard who is so dynamic. A post player who is so dynamic. So the way we’ve been able to coexist within that has been special.”