An embarrassment-of-riches starting lineup highlighted by the WNBA’s 2018 MVP, the 2019 defensive MVP, an 11-time All-Star and a two-time All-Star generates most of the Storm’s preseason hype.
Seattle’s fate during the truncated 22-game season that begins July 25 unquestionably lies in the hands of its star-studded quartet of Breanna Stewart, Natasha Howard, Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd.
But look beyond the first unit, and it quickly becomes apparent why the Storm is favored to capture the franchise’s fourth WNBA championship.
“We literally have a starting five on the bench,” Bird said. “Players who have proven themselves in those roles.”
That’s not hyperbole.
The return of Bird and Stewart from season-long layoffs due to injury has pushed point guard Jordin Canada and center Mercedes Russell back to the bench after both third-year veterans stepped in last year and enjoyed breakout seasons.
Canada started 29 games while leading the league with 2.3 steals per game and averaging 9.8 points and 5.2 assists.
Meanwhile, Russell, who averaged 5.6 minutes in mop-up duty as a rookie in 2018, blossomed into a consistent contributor who averaged 7.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 25.6 minutes in 30 starts.
“They understand that obviously their roles are going to change this year,” coach Gary Kloppenburg said. “However, those two starters that are now coming off the bench have really established that they’re very good players in this league.
“It really enhances our team. We have a lot of firepower coming off the bench. Our second unit is a solid team. They’ve all been — at some point in their careers — starters. It’s exciting.”
Third-year sharpshooter Sami Whitcomb, who led Seattle with 63 three-pointers and started 13 games last year in place of an injured Loyd, reprises her role as a sparkplug from the sideline.
Backup forward Crystal Langhorne, the Storm’s third-oldest player at 33, was a star in the league with 298 starts and an 11.2 career scoring average before moving to the bench two years ago.
Newcomer Morgan Tuck, primarily a reserve during her four-year career, was acquired in a trade with the Connecticut Sun. The 26-year-old, 6-foot-2 forward is a slightly younger and bigger version of Kaleena Mosequeda-Lewis, who was dealt to Connecticut in a separate deal.
Backup point guard Epiphanny Prince, who has averaged 13.2 points, 2.9 assists and 2.3 rebounds during her 10-year career, and rookie center Ezi Magbegor, Seattle’s first-round pick in 2019, round out the Storm’s 12-player roster.
“This is the first year since I’ve been here where we have a solid 5-6 coming off the bench,” Loyd said. “We have starters coming off the bench, which we never had before.”
During the past four seasons, nine players have averaged at least 10 minutes for the Storm, but Kloppenburg is considering expanding the rotation to mitigate potential injury during a shortened seven-week regular season.
The frequency of games could force the Storm to rest players like the 39-year-old Bird, who averaged a career-low 26.6 minutes in 2018.
“Our depth is a strength, and not many teams are as fortunate as we are in that area,” Kloppenburg said. “We’re going to play a lot of players, no doubt about that. What you want to see is not a lot of fall-off when that second unit gets in there.”
Managing minutes and egos can be a delicate balancing act on a team with established veterans and up-and-coming stars. Diverging agendas can ruin championship aspirations.
“We have intelligent players and selfless players that don’t get caught up in that stuff,” said nine-year forward Alysha Clark. “We want to win, and at the end of the day our goals are to put ourselves in position to compete for a championship.
“When you have a team full of individuals that share that same mindset, it makes the adjustment period a lot easier.”