By Matthew Roberson
On Sept. 6 in Tempe, Ariz., facing an all-too-familiar opponent, Seattle stormed out of the gates to a 22-16 lead in a single-elimination playoff game. Thirty minutes later, the Mercury celebrated its advancement to the next round while Seattle dealt with the fact that its up and down season had reached its final down. A 79-69 loss to Phoenix shut the door on the Storm, a team that had its fair share of notable moments in 2017.
Several things stand out from the Storm’s 2017 season, a campaign that will be remembered as much for its indelible highs as its series of frustrating lows. Seattle won five of its first seven games before cratering in the middle of the season, putting together a 5-14 record from June 9 through Aug. 8. During those two months, the Storm failed to win back-to-back games at any point. The firing of former head coach Jenny Boucek, promotion of Gary Kloppenburg to interim head coach, and the subsequent four-game winning streak that launched the team into the playoff picture will be the defining stretch of the rollercoaster year.
“Klopp has certain strategies defensively and a certain way of communicating them,” point guard Sue Bird said of the hot streak. “It was easy to pick up. We changed some things. Basically what Klopp likes to do – and I agree with this – teams go to practice every day, run through their plays the way they want, and all you have to do is take certain passes away here and trap things there. He definitely came in and immediately implemented that. We took to it, and that’s why you saw some wins.”
Seattle was picked by many before the season as a dark horse candidate to make a deep playoff run. Citing the instant success of Breanna Stewart in her 2016 rookie season, the ascension of Jewell Loyd and the steady play of veterans Bird, Crystal Langhorne, and Alysha Clark, prognosticators had many reasons to believe the Storm would be playing into late-September. Instead, as the Connecticut Sun assumed the role of the WNBA’s next up-and-comer that Seattle was in line to take, the Storm must figure out how to make sure 2018 isn’t a repeat of the sputtering 2017 year.
Of course, making the playoffs in the WNBA is nothing to sneeze at. While just squeaking in at the eighth seed wasn’t what the team had in mind in May, there were obviously bright spots to be built upon for the future.
Stewart parlayed her Rookie of the Year campaign a season ago into even stronger production in her second year. The All-Star forward improved her field goal percentage, three-point percentage and points per game average from year one to year two. She finished the regular season behind only Brittney Griner in points per game, and topped 20 points in 21 of the 33 games she played, including a string of 12 straight during the dog days of the season. Her 21 20-point games set a Storm single-season record.
“Obviously I know what I can do as far as skills,” Stewart said. “Being able to be dominant, be a force, and make my teammates around me better, if that happens, who knows how good we’ll be?”
Offense was unquestionably the strength of the team all season. Apart from Stewart, the green and gold also had Loyd finish in the top 10 of points per game. Her 17.7 per game average marked a career high for the third-year shooting guard. Like Stewart’s number, this also marked an improvement from last year. Loyd has seen her scoring rise seven points from the 10.7 she logged as a rookie in 2015.
“We’re still so raw,” Loyd said. “Once we figure things out it’s going to be a scary sight for everyone else. My first year here, I didn’t talk to anyone. I kind of stayed quiet and just tried to learn. Last year I talked a little bit more. I think this year I definitely stepped up, finding my role a little bit more, talking a little bit more, and being able to make plays late in the game. That just shows my growth.”
Langhorne was one of the unsung heroes of the 2017 squad, and a big reason for its playoff berth. At 12.4 points per game, she enjoyed her best scoring year since 2014. The lefty post presence finished second only to Sylvia Fowles in field goal percentage as she finessed in 64.7 percent of her shot attempts – also a Storm single-season record. Over the last two regular seasons, Langhorne has made 306-for-478 (64 percent) of her chances.
As a team, the Storm was one of the highest scoring and most efficient offensive outfits. Seattle finished in the top five leaguewide in points per game (82.6), field goal percentage (47.3), three-point percentage (36.3), offensive rating (104.7) and assists per game (20.2). The only other teams to land in the top five of all those categories? Minnesota, Los Angeles, and Connecticut, three of the top four seeds in the WNBA Playoffs.
So, what kept Seattle from joining that group atop the league standings? Turnovers, rebounding and defense stand out as three of the main reasons. While finishing in the top five in many of the stats indicative of offensive success, Seattle was in the bottom five of many numbers that are crucial to winning basketball games.
The Storm turned the ball over on 18.1 percent of its possessions (14.3 times per game), the third highest clip of any team. Its 71.1 defensive rebounding percentage checked in at third lowest, and the 104.7 defensive rating that Seattle mustered was fourth worst among the 12 WNBA franchises.
“There’s a certain level of grit that teams need that we didn’t necessarily have this year,” Bird said. “We have a really good offensive team. Our defense wasn’t the best. I don’t think the toughness is a defensive or offensive thing. I think it’s a mindset. We need players with that mindset on both ends of the floor.”
Positive memories certainly dotted the schedule, a testament to the resilience of a team that changed head coaches during the season and withstood yearlong inconsistency from the bench.
Amid the chaos of 2017, there was the Sami Whitcomb game, in which the sharpshooter from the University of Washington endeared herself to Storm fans in just her third game in the league. Whitcomb set a WNBA record by stroking six threes in the second half on her way to 22 points and an 87-81 takedown of the New York Liberty on May 26.
Bird, the oldest active player in the league at age 36, broke the WNBA’s all-time record for career starts with 471. She boasted a 6.6 assist per game average, which was a career high for the New York native and former University of Connecticut standout. She finished fourth on the team in scoring with 10.6 points per game and had two double-doubles in 2017 (21 points, 10 assists at New York on June 11; 19 points, 13 assists at Washington on Sept. 1).
The team earned victories over Minnesota, Los Angeles, and New York, the three best regular season teams the W had to offer. Loyd went off for 33 points on Aug. 27, setting a new career-high. Stewart blitzed her way to the aforementioned streak of 12 consecutive games with 20 or more points. Langhorne flirted with the single-season record for field goal percentage, bucketing 21 straight field goals over the course of four games in July.
The four wins in Kloppenburg’s first four games – with two coming against Phoenix and Minnesota – will live on in Storm lore forever. As will, of course, the image of Bird feathering a pass off the pick-and-roll to Carolyn Swords, who laid it in to complete Bird’s record-breaking 2,600th assist. Players, coaches, and front office personnel will likely say that anything short of a championship is a disappointment, but the 2017 Seattle Storm has a lot to be proud of as it prepares to get back to the playoffs for a third straight time next summer.