It took a full season, but during the playoffs, the Seattle Storm finally got a look at what the full 2012 roster was capable of doing. The result was the Storm coming within one shot of knocking off the defending WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx, who posted the league's best record during the regular season. So as players conducted their exit interviews Thursday at the Storm's practice gym on the Seattle Pacific University campus, players wished for one thing above all else for 2013: better health.
"We had the right pieces," said point guard Sue Bird. "There have been years where it's like 'We need to go back to the drawing board' or 'We need to get this or that.' This year, we got hit hard by the injury bug. We just kind of ran out of time. That's how I feel about this team."
Even during the series against the Lynx, with all 11 players available, the Storm was at far less than full strength. Bird played with an injury to her left hip labrum that was a factor in her finishing Game 1 on the bench. Lauren Jackson, who shot just 27.8 percent in the series, was hampered by a back nerve injury that affected her left hamstring. Tina Thompson was still not close to 100 percent after spraining her left MCL at midseason and Tanisha Wright battled left knee pain throughout the season.
Still, the Storm won an epic double-overtime Game 2 at KeyArena to extend the series the distance. In the deciding Game 3 at Minnesota, the two teams played even for 40 minutes before Jackson missed at the buzzer, ending a season that had seen the Storm persevere through repeated adversity.
"I told them after the game that I don't think I'd ever been more proud of a team and how they battled," said Storm Head Coach Brian Agler. "Knowing what they're going through individually and all the issues that we battled throughout the season. Whether it be injury, absence, schedule, all those things were very taxing on our team."
As the Storm looks ahead to next season, getting healthy is a top priority. Bird will undergo surgery on her left hip labrum Friday and anticipates a full recovery. She underwent the same surgery on her other hip labrum after last season and was back on the court playing overseas by the start of January. Thompson and Wright, neither of whom plans to play overseas, will use rest to heal their ailments.
Three-time MVP Jackson is headed back home to Australia, where she will play in the WNBL for the Canberra Capitals while also rehabbing at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. Jackson credits doctors at the AIS for her complete recovery from a stress fracture in her lower back during the 2009 season. After spending the following winter playing for the Capitals, Jackson was healthy in 2010 and won MVP honors while leading the Storm to the WNBA championship.
"They worked on me literally until I came back to America - that was like six months," she said. "I was also playing in the WNBL. I came back and had the best season of my life. Having that confidence in the people that you're working with, doing it every day, I know that they will get my body right."
Because of her health, the Storm hasn't seen Jackson at her best since 2010. Just 31, Jackson believes she can get back to that form.
"I know I can play," she said. "At the Olympics, things started getting sore again, but things I was doing, I was like, 'I can still play.' Even coming here and not being great, I had games where I surprised myself. I just need to get back to a point where I'm confident I can play and my body is there for me. I know that going back to Australia right now is a blessing."
"She's one of the best, if not the best player in the world," said Wright. "She's been that for the past few years. I don't expect that to change whatsoever. She's too good. She's too dominant. And she's too much of a competitor."
Health aside, Jackson's midseason return after the Olympics proved trickier than she expected. Bird said that it was "like an injury" because the Storm had to learn how to play without Jackson, then integrate her during the season with little practice time. Having Jackson from the start of training camp will be a major difference. It also means the Storm will have a full roster after playing with 10 players during Jackson's absence due to the salary cap. That meant depth became an issue when the Storm suffered multiple injuries in the frontcourt.
Though trades are always a possibility, the Storm figures to bring its core back intact. Of the top eight players in the team's rotation, seven are under contract for 2013. The only exception is veteran Katie Smith, who will turn 39 next June. Smith told reporters she wants to return for another season, though both sides will have to evaluate whether Seattle remains the right fit.
"Right now, I'd like to play," she said. "That's my mindset right now is that I want to play next summer. We'll see how it pans out and where I'll be. Right now I feel pretty good and still feel like I can help a team out. I still feel like I can contribute to a team and I can be an asset. That's what I want to be."
Thompson, who will be 38 by the start of next season, was not so definitive about her plans. She is under contract for 2013 if she chooses to continue playing, but will go through her typical postseason evaluation before making a decision.
"I'm going to do the things that are physically taxing once I get rest and get back healthy again," said Thompson. "If I feel like I can do it at a level that is comfortable for me, I'll definitely be back. I won't be playing anywhere else for sure."
After a solid rookie season off the bench, forward Shekinna Stricklen may be able to expand her role in 2013. The Storm will look to add another contributor with the No. 6 overall pick in next year's draft, the highest the team has had entering an offseason since 2004. (The No.2 pick used on Stricklen was acquired via trade.)
"We'll scout real hard to see who that person is and we'll have some options there," Agler said. "It's hard to say right now because those people are just coming off their junior year in college but just like Shekinna worked herself into the rotation this year, we could find someone like her."
Another possible route for adding younger talent is bringing over players whose rights are held by the Storm. The team must decide before free agency which four players to protect out of a group that includes Abby Bishop and Jana Vesela from the 2010 championship team, 2012 second-round pick Keisha Hampton, 2010 third-round pick Tijana Krivacevic and Spanish guard Silvia Dominguez, who was unable to attend training camp due to visa issues. Depending on the participation of European players in the EuroBasket competition, several members of that group could be part of camp next spring.
More than additions from outside, the Storm is counting on a full, healthy season with a roster like this season's translating into the kind of results the team acehived in the playoffs.
"I think we pushed through a lot this year," Wright said. "We'll be better next year because of it."
"We're proud of our efforts," added Agler, "we're disappointed in the outcome and we're going to study this and look at our team and see how we can improve."