“No pressure, right?”
Not exactly. But the Storm finally gets a fighting chance to defend the WNBA title it won in 2018. That opportunity was effectively yanked away last year when both Stewart (torn Achilles) and Bird (knee surgery) missed the season.
The Storm still went a respectable 18-16, and now has the benefit of merging the experience under fire gained by large swaths of the roster with the proven expertise of Bird and Stewart.
Throw in some new blood with the additions of veterans Epiphanny Price and Morgan Tuck and rookie Ezi Magbegor, and well, you have a team that is everyone’s favorite to garner its fourth championship.
Which is, of course, precisely the mindset they are fighting against. In an abbreviated 22-game season — which begins July 25 for the Storm in the Bradenton, Florida, bubble — weird things can, and probably will, happen. Bird, the wise, old hand in her 17th season, is happy to remind everyone that nothing is guaranteed.
“Do I think right out of the gate we’re probably in the top part of the league?” she said. “Yeah, but that’s just on paper. One thing I’ve learned in this league, it doesn’t matter if you won the year before or have the same team back. Paper is paper. It means nothing.
“For myself and Stewie, we haven’t played for a long time. This group hasn’t played together for a long time. I think it would be a major trap to fall into us believing in the mantra of, ‘Oh, in 2018 we did it, so we’re the favorite.’ Or, ‘Oh, this is what it was like in 2018 and try to mimic that.’ I think this is a new year.”
Bird said she is filled with “anxious energy” to get the season going. For all her cautionary tales, she knows the Storm — with which she won titles in 2004 and 2010 as well as 2018 — has a chance to do something special yet again.
Besides having all the starters back from the 2018 title squad, and a couple of starters from last year in Jordin Canada and Mercedes Russell who will now be sparkplugs off the bench, the Storm has two other huge pluses.
Unlike many other teams, none of their players opted out of the season (though coach Dan Hughes will sit it out because of health concerns related to his cancer surgery last year). And every player is healthy so far (an observation that Bird prefaced with, “I don’t even want to say … knock on wood.”)
Much will depend on how Stewart and Bird come back from their extended absences — Bird doing so as the WNBA’s oldest player at 39. It’s hard to bet against either. Stewart was the league MVP in 2018 and on an ascension to being the face of the league. Bird was showing no signs of slowing down when last seen in the championship run and has overcome every obstacle thrown at her in a stellar career.
Stewart says cheerfully, “I have a new Achilles. I tell people I have a brand new Achilles.”
At a recent practice, Stewart and Bird couldn’t help but mark the moment when the core of the championship team was back on the court together.
“It was like the band getting back together,” Bird said. “Like, ‘Oh, it’s been a minute.’ “
“It feels like we went from 2018 right to 2020,” Stewart added. “For Sue and I, that’s how it’s going to feel, because we didn’t play in 2019. I think the thing is, we’re here in the bubble, and we’re going to try and win. That’s our attitude and our mindset. A lot of things we can’t control, but we can control what we do inside the bubble.”
As for that pressure to which Kloppenburg alluded, he has a plan to combat that. Think: Less is more.
“The best way to coach these guys is don’t mess them up,” he said. “Don’t overcoach them. We have a couple of coaches out on the court that can really play. That’s been my outlook — let’s get them playing good basketball. Don’t try to do too much or overthink it.”