The Seattle Storm will be without the MVP, Breanna Stewart, for the entirety of the 2019 season. We know that much after she ruptured her Achilles’ tendon playing overseas in Europe and has since had surgery to repair it. What we don’t know yet is exactly how this will affect the Storm as they prepare to defend their WNBA Championship this season.
Obviously, it’s a huge hit to the franchise, but it’s not completely unfamiliar territory. Former three-time MVP Lauren Jackson dealt with her fair share of injuries throughout her illustrious career; most notably missing 13 games in 2008, 21 games in 2011, and 25 games in 2012. Sue Bird also missed the entire 2013 season with a knee injury. And yet, the Storm managed to make the playoffs all four years that they were hit by major injury bugs.
In Part One of A Season Without Stewie, we discussed the need for Jewell Loyd and Natasha Howard to step up and play even bigger roles this season, the importance of re-signing Crystal Langhorne this off-season, and the thought behind possibly bringing back Ramu Tokashiki or bringing rookie Ezi Magbegor over a year earlier than anticipated. You can read the full article at the link above.
In Part Two, we’ll take a look at which bench players can step up, what other opportunities will be there for players, how this could affect Sue Bird’s season and the thought process behind tanking for the #1 draft pick.
Tanking for a Top Pick in 2020
While not a very popular theory, there will always be some fans who already believe the 2019 season is lost without Breanna Stewart. They can envision it now – sacrifice the 2019 WNBA season in order to reap the massive benefits for the next decade. There’s a certain triple-double machine down in Eugene, Oregon who has been tearing up the college ranks over the past three years. The Oregon Ducks star point guard, Sabrina Ionescu, surprised some by announcing that she would return to the University of Oregon for her senior season after losing to the eventual champions (Baylor) in the NCAA Final Four. Ionescu is now the favorite to be selected number one overall in the 2020 WNBA Draft.
We’ve seen similar situations play out in the past. The Phoenix Mercury, a two-time WNBA Champion franchise heading into the 2012 season, lost Diana Taurasi when she agreed to sit out the season to rest. The Mercury, a perennial playoff team, then conveniently ended up winning the lottery in 2013 and landed #1 overall pick Brittney Griner. Since drafting Griner, the Mercury have gone on to win a third championship in 2014 and have reached the Conference Finals/Semi-Finals of the WNBA Playoffs every single season since then.
Seattle obviously also benefited from landing the #1 overall pick two years in a row in 2015 and 2016. The Storm were able to draft franchise players in Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart which has led to three straight playoff appearances and a third WNBA Championship in 2018.
While Sue Bird’s career and longevity have been nothing short of amazing, we all know nothing lasts forever in this world. Fans can’t help but salivate over the idea of Sabrina Ionescu joining Seattle in 2020 adding to the core of Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd, Natasha Howard, and Jordin Canada for the next decade in Seattle. With Ionescu in the fold, the Storm could go on one of those Minnesota Lynx-like runs (4 titles in 7 years).
But let’s pump the brakes on that fantasy for a moment. Even without Stewart, Seattle will still have a great opportunity to make the playoffs this season. Minnesota barely made the playoffs last season and will be without Maya Moore this year. Dallas might be without both Liz Cambage and Skylar Diggins-Smith. And there are still major questions for Indiana, New York, Chicago and Las Vegas heading into this season.
On top of that, the same new draft rule that was implemented back in 2016 that helped Seattle land Breanna Stewart would all but mathematically eliminate the Storm from ever landing the number one overall pick in 2020. For those unaware, back in 2016, the WNBA created a new rule where the four teams that missed the playoffs would have their two-year standings calculated to determine the true bottom four seeds. This rule could essentially be called the “Brittney Griner” rule because it was created to help truly benefit the worst teams in the league and not reward a perennial powerhouse like the Phoenix Mercury, who may sacrifice one season in order to be great for a decade.
Because Seattle dominated the league last season with an overall record of 26-8 their combined two-year record would almost certainly be the very best of any lottery team. Even if Seattle were to win just 5 games this year, they’d have 31 wins over their past two seasons. Seattle would have the 4th best odds to win the lottery at around only 10%.
If the Storm were to miss the playoffs, they would still wind up with a great draft choice (likely 4th overall), but the likelihood to land the number one overall pick is so small it’s not something the fans should look forward to.
What can Mercedes Russell bring to the table?
During one of the broadcasts, last season Play-By-Play man Dick Fain and Color Commentator Elise Woodward talked about how Mercedes Russell has a great upside; that the Storm felt they really got a steal after picking her up. Seattle signed Russell to the team after the New York Liberty cut the second round pick a few games into the season.
Russell was a highly rated player coming out of college from the University of Tennessee. She averaged over 15 points and nine rebounds her senior season and over 16 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game her Junior year of college. She was drafted 22nd overall in the 2018 WNBA Draft by the New York Liberty.
While Russell only saw limited minutes on the court during her first year in the WNBA, she showed her potential in the final game of the regular season against the Dallas Wings. Russell played nearly 19 minutes that game and came away with a near double-double with eight points and nine rebounds (both career highs).
Playing overseas in Poland this off-season, Russell averaged nearly 11.5 points and 7 rebounds in 23 minutes per game.
While Crystal Langhorne certainly is the most likely to replace Breanna Stewart in the starting lineup due to her experience and career stats, it’s not impossible to think that Mercedes Russell or Courtney Paris could at least compete for the starting Center role. If both Natasha Howard and Langhorne start, Seattle will be giving up quite a bit of height in their frontcourt. Both players are 6’2″ and the Storm could struggle when going up against other teams with much greater height like the 6’9″ Brittney Griner or 6’6″ Sylvia Fowles.
That’s where Russell’s height (6’6″) could really come in handy. If she is able to continue to improve her game on both ends of the floor she has the opportunity of getting a lot more playing time this season, whether it’s in the starting lineup or coming off the bench.
Which bench player(s) will make the biggest changes?
A lot of the success for the Seattle Storm’s upcoming season will not be dependent on just one player. No individual player can replace Breanna Stewart because no one else on this planet is Breanna Stewart. While Seattle’s other stars will all be expected to step up, it must be a collective effort from the entire team if the Storm hope to compete for a playoff spot and possibly a fourth WNBA Championship.
The most likely candidate to step up is Crystal Langhorne who should see her playing time increase significantly this season without Stewart in the starting lineup. This was addressed in the previous article in this series. But besides Langhorne, which other bench players will step up?
Sami Whitcomb did not have a spectacular regular season last year, averaging just under three points per game in 8.6 minutes. However, she doubled her scoring average in the playoffs and was a huge spark off the bench. Particularly, in Game 5 of the WNBA Semi-Finals against Phoenix where she had 11 points, four assists, and three rebounds and helped close out the 4th quarter in place of Jewell Loyd. She also knocked down two clutch three-pointers late in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals and helped Seattle sweep away the Washington Mystics to claim their third WNBA Championship. At a minimum, Whitcomb should be able to replicate her playoff stats for the 2019 regular season if given the opportunity off the bench.
This could be a make or break year for Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. She has shown promise as a legit bench scorer on occasion throughout her career, but it’s never been consistent. She reached double figures in scoring just six times last season (6 of 33 games). But she still has those flashes of brilliance like the June 15th game against Connecticut where she scored 18 points in 19 minutes and shot 75% from three-point range (3-4). With Stewart out, Seattle is going to need multiple scorers to step up. KML may be given the opportunity to really prove her worth this season if she can become a more consistent scoring threat off the bench.
Courtney Paris probably won’t replicate her 2014 season where she averaged over nine points and ten rebounds per game, but with Stewart out, Seattle is going to need other post players to step up. If Langhorne does get the starting job opposite Natasha Howard, then Courtney Paris is likely battling for the backup Center spot with Mercedes Russell. Last season, Paris often got the call over Russell likely due to her experience. This year, there’s going to be a lot more minutes available for post players. Paris has had three seasons where she averaged eight rebounds or more per game. Seattle is going to need all the rebounding help they can get without Stewie around.
Of all the players coming off the bench again this season, Jordin Canada might have the highest expectations. Canada is being groomed as the eventual heir-apparent of Sue Bird and the future starting point guard on the Seattle Storm in another year (or five). Canada had a modest rookie season averaging nearly six points and three and a half assists per game. She did lead all rookies in assists and she proved to be an exceptional on-ball defender. Unfortunately, the shooting touch just wasn’t there, shooting roughly 36% overall and just 18% from three-point range. A far cry from the 39% she averaged from beyond the arc during her senior season at UCLA.
Canada is likely to see more playing time this year as her responsibilities continue to grow in Seattle. At 38, Sue Bird will likely play even fewer minutes this season and Canada’s minutes will almost certainly increase above the 16.4 minutes she played per game her rookie season. If Canada can increase her shooting percentage, especially from three-point range alongside an increase in minutes, there’s no reason why she’s not capable of averaging 8-10 points per game this season.
The biggest X-Factor coming off the bench this season will be a new face in Seattle but a long-time veteran of the WNBA. Shavonte Zellous brings a wealth of experience to Seattle and the ability to score. Zellous has averaged double-digit scoring in four separate seasons and eight points or more in seven separate years in the WNBA. She is likely to compete with Sami Whitcomb and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis as a backup for one of the wing positions.
New Blood, New Opportunities
One of the very small benefits to losing Stewart to a season-ending surgery is that it will open up an unexpected roster spot this season. The WNBA is notorious for being incredibly difficult to make a roster. The league only allows 12 players for each of the 12 teams; which is three fewer players per roster than the NBA allows. There are also currently no options to hold onto and pay a practice squad of younger players like the NFL.
That’s only 144 players that will wind up on a team this summer. If you’re the 150th best basketball player in the entire world, you’re not making a WNBA roster, which is pretty crazy. It’s also why over the year’s it’s been almost impossible to make a roster as a 3rd round draft pick. And extremely difficult to make one even as a 2nd round draft choice.
But with Stewart out for the season and first-round pick, Ezi Magbegor staying in Australia in 2019, one of these other young players are going to have the opportunity of a lifetime.
Second round pick Anriel Howard will have a great chance at making the roster. But she will be facing a lot of competition. Seattle was really impressed with last year’s 3rd round pick Teana Muldrow who initially made the final roster before eventually being cut so the team could pick up Mercedes Russell who had been cut by the New York Liberty. The Storm brought Muldrow back to a training camp contract after she had a strong season overseas. Her familiarity with the team could give her a leg up on some of the other players. Third round pick, Macy Miller, will also be given an extra look in training camp. If there was ever the season where a third-round pick could make the roster, it would be this one; but she’ll have to beat out both Howard and Muldrow to make that happen.
Other players that have been invited to training camp are undrafted rookies: Recee Caldwell, Presley Hudson, Zykera Rice, and Brooke Salas.
Per the Storm’s official press release, they have begun training camp without Courtney Paris, Alysha Clark, Sami Whitcomb, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Jewell Loyd, Natasha Howard, and obviously Breanna Stewart. That means there will be plenty of practice time and evaluation for the seven players listed above.
Could this alter Sue Bird’s season?
During the championship celebration event after the Storm won the title, Sue Bird was asked if she was going to come back and play next season. Breanna Stewart (playfully) begged Sue to come back, so the team could attempt to repeat as WNBA Champions. Obviously, Stewart’s season-ending injury throws a huge wrench into those plans. So now the question becomes, “Does Stewart’s injury affect the plans for Sue Bird?”
When Seattle was 100% healthy, they were the odds on favorites to win the WNBA Championship again in 2019. But without Stewart, those expectations won’t be nearly as high. If Seattle ends up fighting for the number one overall seed like they did last season, Bird will likely be asked to play a larger role every game. But what happens if Seattle struggles and finds themselves outside of playoff contention?
Bird’s minutes were reduced to roughly 27 minutes per game last season, the lowest of her career. She also sat out three games to rest. It was exceptionally managed by Coach Dan Hughes and the Storm staff, which kept her fresh for the playoffs.
It is quite likely that this trend will continue this year. And as the season goes on, Seattle could end up resting Bird more and more. Don’t be surprised if Bird’s minutes are reduced even further this season, both to extend the longevity of her career and to help Jordin Canada get more playing time. If the season ends up going south, they could start resting Bird every three games or even every other game.
I am certain that both Bird and Stewart will want at least one last crack at another championship together in 2020. So it’s possible Bird might rest a little more this season than originally expected.
Bird continues to have a strong passion and drive to play basketball as was evident in a recent interview where the media asked why she continues to play basketball at her age.
Bird ended with, “If I’m still capable, if I still enjoy it, why wouldn’t I keep doing my job?“
Overall, there are a lot of things to consider heading into the 2019 WNBA season without Breanna Stewart, the league’s Most Valuable Player. Several players will have to step up, several will get new opportunities to shine and they just have to make the best out of this unfortunate situation.
We won’t have to wait long as training camp has already begun. The preseason starts Wednesday, May 15th against the Phoenix Mercury and the regular season starts just ten days later on Saturday, May 25th also against the Phoenix Mercury.