Sue Bird plans to return to the Storm next season for her 14th year in the WNBA. The veteran guard says she and her teammates can be proud of making the playoffs and should use the disappointment of postseason defeat as motivation to go further next season.
That was fun, but now the real work begins.
That’s the mentality of Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd, who wrapped up a four-month WNBA season with the Storm last week and head to China on Friday where they’ll be competitors.
“For me it makes it easier to understand that I’m here (in China) for work,” said Loyd, who played last year in Turkey and signed a one-year contract with Shanxi Flame of the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association. “That’s kind of the mindset that I have almost to the extent that the WNBA is my offseason and overseas is my (main) season.”
Playing year-round is a fact of life for many professional women basketball players who supplement relatively modest WNBA incomes with typically bigger paychecks overseas.
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Eight of the Storm’s 12 players are playing abroad during the offseason. According the WNBA, about three-quarters of its players compete overseas.
WNBA salaries range from $36,570 to $103,500 while a handful of the league’s stars have reportedly made seven-figure contracts from foreign teams that also provide living expenses and endorsement possibilities.
Still, the financial perks come at a cost.
“You know when you’re playing year-round that you can’t actually play year round,” said Stewart, who signed with Shanghai in the WCBA. “Or you shouldn’t because at some point your body is going to break down. Your mind is going to not want to play.
“But for me that’s one of the reasons why I chose China. It’s a shorter season. I’ll be done February and the beginning of March. I’ll have that time before we get back to Seattle.”
The Storm stars are following the path of other high-profile WNBA players who have played in China. The 12-team WCBA was established in 2002 and plays a four-month season during the winter.
This year WNBA teams opened training camp in late April, which was earlier than usual due to a four-week break for the Summer Olympics. In non-Olympic years, WNBA training camps typically start in late May which still gives players scant time to recover if they played abroad.
Nine-time WNBA All-Star Sue Bird won’t play overseas anymore.
“When you get older, your priorities change,” she said. “Money is a wonderful thing, but it’s not everything.”
Bird plans to return to the Storm next year for her 14th season. She credits her longevity to an offseason workout regime that’s allowed the star point guard to recover from three surgeries on her hips and knee in 2011 and 2012.
This season, Bird averaged 12.8 points, which is the most since 2011. She also shot a personal-best 44.4 percent on three-pointers.
“The game is different now,’ said Bird, who turns 36 in October. “When I was a rookie and in my second year, overseas wasn’t what it was and people didn’t go as much. Now it’s the norm. And it’s a lifestyle.
“It’s one that is trying physically, but more so mentally. It’s the mental part that gets you. … At times that can take away from the importance in what you’re trying to accomplish and winning a championship. They’re all leaving to go to their overseas team and you have to re-boot. And it’s not easy to re-boot.”
It also won’t be easy for the Storm to rediscover the chemistry it found after the Olympic break when it went 7-3 over the final 10 regular-season games to claim the No. 7 seed playoffs seed and end a two-year postseason drought.
That momentum came to an abrupt halt in the second half of Seattle’s first-round game at Atlanta. The Storm led 45-37 at halftime and was outscored 57-40 during a 94-85 heartbreaking defeat.
The Dream were without its second leading scorer Tiffany Hayes (suspension) and its second leading rebounder Sancho Lyttle (foot injury), but Seattle had no answer for four-time WNBA All-Star Angel McCoughry who finished with 37 points.
The Storm also failed to decipher Atlanta’s 2-3 zone and box-and-1 defensive scheme that took Stewart out of the offense in the final minutes. She had 19 points in her playoff debut, but was scoreless and did not attempt a shot in the fourth quarter.
“It definitely brought me back to college,” said Stewart, who won four NCAA tournament titles at Connecticut. “I went back to what would coach (Geno Auriemma) or CD (associated head coach Chris Dailey) be yelling at me. And that’s to try and screen. Screen and you take away two people and someone else is open.
“Obviously, we need to do better than what we did.”
The Storm was 7 for 21 from the field, including 2 of 10 on three-pointers while being outscored 28-19 in the fourth.
How Seattle builds around Stewart – and to some extent Loyd – will determine if the franchise will add to its collection of championship trophies.
“I’ve played with her (Stewart) so long that it’s not that hard to implement yourself on team with her,” said Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, the former UConn standout. “She’s not a selfish player. She’s not someone that’s going to demand the ball every single possession even though sometimes she should.
“For our team to be at its best, even if she doesn’t score, if she at least touches the ball something good is going to happen.”
Said eight-year veteran forward Crystal Langhorne: “Stewie brings so much focus. So many teams put so much effort in guarding her. It makes it different for everyone else. This season was me learning how to play (with her) and when to be aggressive.”
By most measurables, the 2016 season was a success for the resurgent franchise that had fallen to the bottom of the 12-team league the past two years..
The Storm finished the regular season at 16-18, which was a six-game improvement from 2015.
Attendance at KeyArena rose slightly from last year to an average of 7,230.
Stewart, the No. 1 overall draft pick, had the top-selling jersey in the WNBA and Bird was ninth this year. And Seattle was the most popular team merchandise, according to the league.
Three Seattle players (Bird, Stewart and Tokashiki) competed in the Rio Games and in essence Loyd was an alternate.
Stewart swept the Rookie of the Month awards this season and is expected to win the league’s Rookie of the Year award. Loyd, who won the 2015 Rookie of the Year award, improved her scoring average by nearly six points to 16.5 per game and is on track to become on of the game’s elite guards.
Bird likens the 2016 season to her first year with the Storm in 2002 when Seattle made a late season push to qualify for the playoffs before being bounced in the first round.
Two years later, Storm won the WNBA title in 2004 – and again in 2010.
After last week’s heartbreaker in Atlanta, Bird had one last message for the team inside the locker room.
“Be proud of what you accomplished because we accomplished a lot,” she said. “But also remember this feeling because this is probably what’s going to propel you. If we do win (a championship) at some point it’s probably going to be because of this moment.”
Pack your bags
Eight of the 12 players on the Storm roster are playing overseas during the offeseason. Here’s a look at where they’re going.
Name Offseason destination
Sue Bird Not playing
Abby Bishop France
Alysha Clark Turkey
Crystal Langhorne China
Jewell Loyd China
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis France
Jenna O’Hea Not playing
Noelle Quinn Not playing
Breanna Stewart China
Krystal Thomas Not playing
Ramu Tokashiki Japan
Monica Wright Australia