The Storm needs a coach, and there are plenty of questions about which players will return to a Seattle team that fell short of lofty expectations.
Sue Bird, the WNBA’s oldest player who turns 37 next month, is returning to the Storm next year for her 16th season.
However, it remains to be seen if interim coach Gary Kloppenburg will be retained.
And there are plenty of questions about which players will return to a Seattle team that fell short of lofty expectations and was eliminated for the second straight year on the road in a first-round playoff game as the No. 8 seed.
“It’s a top priority for the organization to bring in a head coach who can take us to the next level,” general manager Alisha Valavanis said. “We’re putting a timeline together now. We want to go through the process, be diligent in the process, but certainly hopeful that this is something we can get done in a timely manner.”
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Valavanis heaped praise on Kloppenburg, saying he will be a candidate for the job. Kloppenburg replaced Jenny Boucek on Aug. 10 at a time when the Storm lost four straight games and was in a three-way tie for the eighth and final spot in the postseason.
Seattle won its first four games after the coaching change, but lost three of four heading into Tuesday’s 79-69 season-ending defeat at Phoenix.
Kloppenburg, who was a head coach at Tulsa (2012-13) where he compiled a 20-48 (.313) record, hopes to return to the Storm, where he posted a 5-3 record, not including the postseason loss.
“I’d love to have a shot at it,” he said. “I know that’s a decision that ownership makes and they have to go through that process.
“But I felt like with an entire year and a training camp and an ability to develop a pressure defensive system and an early up-tempo offense, I think it would be an exciting challenge. We’ll see how that shakes out.”
After securing a coach, Valavanis plans to address a seemingly talented roster with two All-Stars (Bird and Breanna Stewart) that finished 15-19 and won two fewer games than the previous season.
The Storm has four free agents, including forward Crystal Langhorne, the team’s third-leading scorer who averaged 12.4 points per game and finished second in the WNBA with a 64.7 field-goal percentage.
“It’s different,” said Langhorne, 30, who is a free agent for the first time in her 10-year career. “I’ve never been able to make my decision. … But I like Seattle.”
The free-agency period begins Jan. 15 and the Storm will need to make decisions on backup guards Noelle Quinn and Sami Whitcomb, who are both free agents and expressed a desire to return.
Center Carolyn Swords is also a free agent whose future in Seattle is cloudy after she averaged career lows in scoring (2.6) and rebounding (1.5) following a three-team trade in which the Storm essentially gave away the No. 6 overall pick in the 2017 WNBA draft.
“I was excited to come here and have a responsibility to protect the paint on defense and put some pressure on teams under the rim on offense,” Swords said. “It was an exciting opportunity coming here.”
The Storm ranked next to last in the WNBA in rebounding differential (minus-4.3) and near the bottom of the league in opponent field-goal percentage (44.3).
“We’re definitely right now more of a finesse type of a team,” Kloppenburg said. “So certain matchups when you have to have a more physical presence, that’s an area the team needs to address. Probably adding a physical rebounding inside presence to go along with the skilled players.”
Bird added: “There’s a certain level of grit that teams need that we didn’t necessarily have this year.”
By all accounts, the Storm will continue to build around forward Stewart (19.9 points per game) and guard Jewell Loyd (17.7), who both averaged career highs and finished second and ninth in the league respectively in scoring.
And sixth-year veteran forward Alysha Clark, who started all 33 games, is the Storm’s second-longest tenured player after Bird.
“We’ve now got a couple years together under our belt and we need to learn from it and not think it’s going to be easy and understand it’s going to be hard,” Bird said. “There’s just a certain mentality and identity that our team needs to take on. Something needs to click.
“And then of course, there’s some question marks. We have to get a coach. Obviously with free agency, things change and rosters shake up so you’ve got to see how that all figures itself out.”
One thing is certain, Bird, who signed a multiyear contract extension in 2016, plans to retire with the Storm.
“If you’re still passionate about it, if you still have a hunger, if you still want to win and all of those things and you’re mentally still into it, then I don’t see why you don’t keep playing,” said Bird, who averaged 10.6 points and a career-high 6.6 assists. “Right now, all of those boxes seem to check.
“I never started playing basketball for it to give me anything. I played it because I enjoyed it and I’m still enjoying it.”