The Silver Lining Behind 2019 Seattle Storm’s Poor Injury Luck

The Seattle Storm’s hopes of repeating in 2019 were already all but dashed by the time the season tipped off. In the six weeks before the season began, league MVP Breanna Stewart suffered a ruptured Achilles overseas and star point guard Sue Bird underwent arthroscopic knee surgery.

That left a lot of question marks and a lot of opportunities for others to step up. There’s a good possibility that the 2020 Storm may be stronger for it, with supporting players having gained a greater share of experience while making some impressive jumps in production.

Let’s see how they did and what it might mean for the upcoming season.

YEAR-TO-YEAR, BY THE NUMBERS

The 2018 Storm set records in both 3-point makes (307) and 3-point attempts (817)—records that only held until 2019’s Washington Mystics—on their way to a league-best 26-8 record. The 2019 Storm dropped eight more games, finishing sixth in the standings at 18-16. After topping the seventh-seeded Minnesota Lynx in the first one-game playoff, Seattle fell to the third-seeded Los Angeles Sparks in the second win-or-go-home contest.

The championship version rated highly across the board. They posted an offensive rating of 108.5, second in the W during 2018; a defensive rating of 99.3, good for third; and a combined net rating of 9.2, which was first in the league. Their turnover percentage was just 16.7 percent (which ranked sixth), and their 95.70 pace graded out at seventh.

With the exception of its defensive rating, Seattle’s numbers understandably (and significantly) dropped this past season. The Storm’s offensive rating (96.2) ranked ninth, their defensive rating (96.4) fourth, and their net of -0.2 dropped them to seventh. The losses of Stewart and Bird affected the turnover percentage (up to 20.2, 11th in the W) and pace (a drop to 93.39 put them to 10th).

The team’s drop in assists from a first place tie to ninth, coupled with their record-setting 3-point shooting falling to fifth in makes, combined to highlight some of the deficiencies the shorthanded team attempted to overcome.

In 2018, Stewart ranked second in the W in scoring (21.8 PPG) and third in rebounding (8.4 RPG) while pacing the team in effective field goal percentage (58.9 percent). In just 26.6 minutes per game, Bird offered production that was also difficult to emulate: Her 10.1 points (fourth on the team) and team-leading 7.1 assists (second in the W)—coupled with a team-leading 114.7 offensive rating—left a void for a second-year guard to fill in 2019.

JORDIN CANADA

The increase in playing time for Jordin Canada yielded impressive results in Bird’s absence. She improved her 5.7 PPG and 3.3 APG to 9.8 and 5.2, respectively. Her 2.3 steals led the league, and she was named to the WNBA’s All-Defensive First Team.

For the second straight year, Canada shot poorly from the field, however, converting just 38.8 percent of her shot attempts and just 18.6 percent from deep. Seattle instead turned to its second and third highest scorers on the 2018 roster for additional support in 2019: Jewell Loyd had averaged 15.5 PPG while Natasha Howard had averaged 13.2 PPG, and both also stepped up big time.

JEWELL LOYD

An All-Star in 2018, Loyd was expected to shoulder the majority of the scoring load.

She was up for the challenge at the start of the season, averaging 15.8 in her first 12 games before spraining her ankle early during a contest against the Las Vegas Aces. The injury cost her nearly a month of action and, once back, she didn’t look quite right. In the 15 games after her return, her points per game dropped to 9.5 and she only hit the 15-point plateau on three occasions.

Though her strong first half saw her named to the All-Star Game for the second straight year—this time as a starter—the team could have used more out of its scoring guard down the final stretch.

NATASHA HOWARD

Sep 12, 2018; Washington, DC, USA; Seattle Storm forward Natasha Howard (6) shoots the ball over Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins (7) during the first quarter in game three of the WNBA Finals at Eagle Bank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Howard’s goal in 2019 was to build off the incredible leap she made the year before, which saw her named Most Improved Player after being acquired from Minnesota for a second-rounder and a pick swap.

Again, she delivered.

Team Minutes Points Rebounds Steals Blocks
MIN (2017) 11.7 4.3 2.4 0.5 0.6
SEA (2018) 25.6 13.2 6.4 1.3 2.0
SEA (2019) 31.3 18.1 8.2 2.2 1.7

By season’s end, Howard had been named All-WNBA First Team and the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Like Canada, she was named All-Defensive First team. In fact, Howard’s 2.2 steals per game were second only to her teammate. She was also selected as an All-Star starter for Team Wilson.

One blemish on Howard’s season—and on the league as a whole—is a  recent domestic abuse allegation. While she denied all charges at the time, the league has yet to officially complete its investigation. While Howard was not disciplined in 2019, she likely will be at some point in 2020. In a league that is so empowering for women around the world, the lack of any concrete DV rule is a severe blind spot. (Los Angeles’ guard Riquna Williams served a 10-game suspension without pay during the 2019 season after a league investigation into a domestic violence incident.)

On Tuesday, the league and the WNBPA agreed to a new eight-year CBA. The presser announced “an augmented and holistic domestic/intimate partner violence program that includes education and counseling.” While vague in its wording, it appears both the W and its players better understand the importance of this issue going forward.

THE REST OF THE SUPPORTING CAST

Other players also stepped up to keep Seattle in contention this past season.

Alysha Clark’s 9.6 PPG and 4.7 RPG were both career-highs, and her 48.1 3-point percentage topped the entire league.

Sophomore center Mercedes Russell saw her floor time climb exponentially, upping her minutes from 5.6 to 25.6 while raising her 1.7 PPG and 1.4 RPG to 7.5 PPG and 6.1 RPG.

Sami Whitcomb posted a career-best 7.2 PPG in her third season while making 1.9 3-pointers. Her 63 makes ranked seventh in the league, and she showed off one of the quickest releases across the W.

All six of Seattle’s top scorers—Howard, Loyd, Canada, Clark, Russell and Whitcomb—also averaged at least one steal apiece, and the team’s 9.5 steals per game led the WNBA. It’s safe to expect Seattle to again be one of the league’s most active units defensively, especially as Stewart and Bird get back into the mix and the supporting cast can shoulder more proportional responsibilities on both sides of the court.

2020 VISION

Both of Seattle’s stars are expected to be back in action for the full 2020 season. Last week, both Bird and Stewart announced that they’d be returning to the court with Team USA to face off in an exhibition against UConn, their alma mater.

While the 2019 team failed to reach the same heights as the Storm from the year before, the two now-healthy vets are returning to an outfit with much more depth and experience. Next season’s Seattle Storm pose an intimidating challenge to Washington’s attempt to repeat as champions.

It’s entirely possible that 2019’s cloudy season brings a silver lining that pays off in gold during 2020.

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