So much has changed with the Storm since winning its fourth WNBA title nearly seven months ago.
The defending champions who report to Seattle Pacific University’s Royal Brougham Pavilion on Sunday for the first day of training camp bear some resemblance to the team that went undefeated in the 2020 playoffs, including a mesmerizing 3-0 sweep over the Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA Finals.
Plenty of familiar names and faces are returning, including All-Stars Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd. The Storm also retained emerging stars Jordin Canada, Mercedes Russell, Ezi Magbegor while re-signing veteran Epiphanny Prince.
Still, losing starters Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark as well as Sami Whitcomb, Crystal Langhorne and Morgan Tuck will be impossible to quantify until the season begins.
To offset the departures, the Storm signed All-Star Candice Dupree in free agency, traded for Katie Lou Samuelson, Mikiah ‘Kiki’ Herbert Harrigan and Kennedy Burke, while drafting three rookies, including second-round pick Kiana Williams from Stanford.
Last month, The Times spoke with Storm President and CEO Alisha Valavanis to talk about what had been a busy offseason for the franchise.
After seven years as Storm general manager, Valavanis, who also oversees Force 10 Sports Management, relinquished the role to Talisa Rhea on April 13.
Here’s an edited version of the wide-ranging 25-minute interview.
(You don’t normally see so much roster turnover on a defending league champion. What were the priorities heading into the offseason?) “We won the championships and that was exciting. Heading into the offseason, it was our priority to return our free agents. So we went into free agency with that mindset and to engage in conversations with that as the priority.”
(Given the salary-cap constraints, was it impossible to re-sign everybody and run it back?) “A lot of things go into the decisions for the players particularly. With our success, we knew there would be some opportunities. As we continued the conversations, it was clear we were going to bring back Sue and Pip (Prince) and we were excited about that and certainly respecting the decisions of the other players and the opportunities in front of them. We went into the free-agency period hoping we would be able to return the majority of this roster and then as things continued to develop, focused on bringing the players back that were interested in coming back and moving forward and thinking about the next phase. Certainly wish the players that left the very best and respect their decisions.”
(It sounds as if the next CBA needs a luxury tax.) “I would defer to the league on that one. They’ll be in those conversations continuing to look at the CBA and continuing to work with the players’ union on what’s possible in the future. I think that’s something they’ll take a look at.”
(Were you resigned to losing Alysha Clark via free agency?) “Not at all. We were hopeful that we could bring AC back. That was a priority going into the free agency.” [Clark signed a two-year deal with the Washington Mystics worth $183,000 per year before suffering a foot injury that will force her to miss the 2021 season.]
(Perhaps the biggest offseason move was Seattle trading the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft to Dallas for Katie Lou Samuelson and 2022 second round pick. Why did y’all give up the top pick for a backup forward who has averaged less than four points in the WNBA?) “As we went into free agency and once we were clear on who we were bringing back and who would not be returning, we looked at this in totality. It’s really not isolated decisions. As we started moving through the process, the opportunity to bring in Katie Lou really was an exciting one for this organization. As we thought about this in totality, we were able to bring in Candice Dupree in the free-agency period and then we were able to bring in some young talent in Katie Lou and Kiki Harrigan through trade scenarios. And we’re thrilled that we were able to look at some immediate needs for 2021 as we focus on this upcoming season and really it was a priority for us to think about players who would be able to come in. It would be a culture fit. Would fit Storm basketball. Shore up the roster so that we can compete for a championship in 2021. All of the decisions were made in totality.”
(Why make that trade two months before the draft when you might be able to get more closer to draft day?) “There’s always a lot of moving parts. This particular offseason and this particular free-agency season there was a ton of motion and that was the right time.”
(Samuelson is having a big season overseas, she’s been added to the U.S. Olympics 3-on-3 team, she’s struggled in the WNBA. How does she help the Storm?) “We’re excited about Katie Lou’s potential in the league. Playing with the best point guard in the game, with Stewie and Jewell, we’re excited to see what she can do with this group.”
(What is Samuelson’s role?) “We’ll wait to see how this plays out. I think we’ll have an exciting camp. We got a lot players coming in. We’ll see how this all comes together. That’s the exciting next part.”
(It seems as if you guys have enough offensive firepower, but who defends the other team’s top wing players like Diana Taurasi, Angel McCoughtry and Arike Ongunbowale, which is what AC used to do?) “We’re really excited about the group we have coming in and the returning group. As we get closer to the season, these are the conversations the coaching staff is having and talking about how we can develop our systems and compete for a championship. That’s the focus and we’re going to see how things play out with the new players coming in and jelling with the group that’s here. All of those questions are going to be addressed head on as we talk about how we can compete.”
(Herbert Harrigan didn’t get a lot of minutes last year during her rookie season in Minnesota, but she shot over 42% on three-pointers and folks say she can be a good defender. What do you like about her game?) “We see a lot of potential in Kiki and just felt like she would be a great young player to add to this roster with a ton of upside and potential. As we were in conversation around immediate need and also what decisions could be made to set us up for the future. Both Katie Lou and Kiki are young players that fit the culture of the Storm and the basketball that we play. We’re really excited to see what’s ahead for both of them.”
(Dupree is an intriguing addition considering her age (36), experience and skill set. What does she bring?) “We really have a lot of respect for Candice Dupree and her game. She is an experienced veteran in the WNBA. When you look at his totality, we were able to bring in a veteran and young players. We think that’s a great balance. Certainly excited for the experience that Candice brings and the motivation that Candice brings to win.”
(Still, it’s a bit of an odd fit considering Dupree isn’t a three-point threat and Seattle tied for second in three-point made field goals last year.) “We think Candice really fits our system and really fits this group. We’re excited to see how she comes in and contributes.”
(Gotta ask about Sue Bird. What was the calculus in making a 40-year-old point guard your highest paid player?) “Sue Bird leads the Seattle Storm. We were absolutely thrilled that she would be returning for the 2021 season.”
(I get it. She’s Sue Bird and she’s synonymous with Storm. But any concerns at all with committing nearly 17% of the salary cap in a player who has played in just 11 regular-season games in the past two years due to injuries?) “From our end, we were just absolutely thrilled Sue wanted to return to the court in ’21. We won a championship in 2020. To bring back Sue, Jewell, Stewie plus the players were able to bring in and this returning roster I can go through each player. Jordin and Mercedes. We got young talent in Ezi. We’re just really excited about this group coming back. Certainly recognize the leadership role that Sue plays in bringing this all together and what she’s done with this organization. So just thrilled that she’ll be back on the court in 2021.”
(Considering Stewie, Jewell and Sue are among four unrestricted free agents in 2022 and Jordin is a restricted free agent, is this the last hurrah for this corps that’s been together the past four years?) “We’ll see how things play out. We’re excited about 2021. We’re really looking forward to how this returning group with these new players comes together. And then as I mentioned, we were able to bring in some new pieces as well. Excited to see Katie Lou and Kiki Harrigan and the future is ahead of them. As we think about 2021, we’re thinking about the group coming back with these new players.”
(Any chance Climate Pledge Arena is available this year?) “We’re hopeful by the playoffs. The ongoing conversations is there’s a possibility and so definitely hopeful that plays out.”
(Bird said GMs and agents will now have to earn their money with the new CBA, what do you think she meant by that?) “We all are watching how this new CBA has created different movement around the league and new opportunities for players and for teams.”
(Does the increased player movement make your job more difficult?) “The growth of this league, the new CBA, the opportunities for players — it’s all a positive and it’s been great to see the visibility. It’s been great to see this league really take off and gain momentum. It’s a real positive for the WNBA.”
(Thanks for doing this. Last question, which goes back to the beginning, did the Storm get better in the offseason?) “We are returning Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and an incredible roster. We had the opportunity to bring in a veteran in Candice Dupree and some young talent in Katie Lou and Kiki Harrigan. It’s really exciting for us as we plan to come out strong and do what we can to compete for a championship in 2021.”