Howard Will Be Key To Storm’s Playoff Success

By Tyler Berry

 

Last week, my column covered how the Seattle Storm were able to turn things around over the course of 365 days. Much of 2018’s success has been attributed to Breanna Stewart’s MVP-caliber season, the necessary coaching change, and the continued leadership of Sue Bird. However, there’s another clear factor that’s helped the Storm already clinch a spot in the Western Conference semifinals: Natasha Howard. The fifth-year forward will be key to Seattle’s championship hopes and it’s time to talk about why.

A Breakout Year

Just a quick glance at her stats makes it clear that a move to Seattle was extremely beneficial for both Howard and the Storm. Her minutes per game have more than doubled from what they were in Minnesota, and, as such, her impact on a game-to-game basis has highly increased. Her points per game are up from 4.3 in 2017 to 13.5 this season. Her rebounds are up from 2.4 to 6.5. She’s also killing it defensively, averaging 2.1 blocks and 1.3 steals per game. On any given night, Howard can give you a double-double and absolutely demolish her opponents in the paint - on both ends of the floor.

Bag of Tricks

As mentioned, Howard is a problem for opponents in the paint. At 6-foot-2, that should come as little surprise. However, she’s a sneakily versatile player, something that she didn’t get a lot of chances to show in her limited minutes during those first four seasons.

First off, Howard is a great player for the Storm’s pick-and-roll sets. Her size and strength make her an excellent screener, but her quick feet and high basketball IQ make her an equally excellent roll woman. She has a better-than-average ability to make cuts and find space in the paint to receive passes and score off the roll. But what makes her even more dangerous in those sets is the fact that she can pick-and-pop as well.

Howard doesn’t balk at jump shots and outside opportunities. She can shoot off the catch and contribute from range. Now, she’s not going to win any three-point contests but, at 34 percent this season (her previous best-ever was 21.4 percent), she’s capable enough to force defenders to pay attention when she’s behind the arc.

Her fantastic defense – something we’ll get to momentarily – often puts Seattle in position to run the floor. Howard helps out by getting her team transition opportunities and then also converting them on the offensive end. Not only can she run and space the floor better than many players her size, but she’s also demonstrated the ability to go coast-to-coast while handling the ball. A recent example of this came against Indiana last week. Howard grabbed a rebound, moved gracefully down the court, pulled out a Euro-step and finished at the rim. Indy defenders didn’t have a chance.

Howard’s ability to contribute in different ways on offense helps open things up for Seattle, while keeping opponents guessing. She brings versatility at her position, something that last year’s Storm just didn’t have, and that versatility will be crucial if the Storm want another championship.

Defense Wins…Well…You Know

Whether or not you agree with the old adage, there’s no denying that Seattle’s defense has been part of its success in 2018. As we mentioned last week, the Storm ranked 8th in opponents’ points per game last season (82.6 PPG) but this year rank 5th (80.1). That point difference might not seem immense – especially when you consider how much Seattle’s own points per game has improved – but it’s a clear indicator that the defense has been much better all-around in 2018.

What’s the difference maker on that end of the floor from last year to this year? It’s Howard. She’s been a monster defensively, giving opponents fits all season. To remind you, she’s averaging 2.1 blocks and 1.3 steals per game. In terms of blocks, she’s second only to Brittney Griner and, in terms of steals, she’s 14th in the league. That can’t be overlocked, especially when you consider the player she replaced in the starting lineup – Crystal Langhorne – averaged only 0.6 steals and 0.4 blocks in 2017.

No disrespect to Langhorne, who worked hard in her starting role last season, but Howard has simply been a step up in almost every category. That’s a massive plot point in this year’s WNBA, considering she was just a short rotation player a year ago.

All that being said, it’s clear that Howard has been a massive difference between last year’s 15-19 season and this year’s 24-8 (possibly 26-8) season. While the MVP chants have mostly been for Stewart, we can’t forget about what Howard has brought to Seattle. It’s exactly what she’ll need to bring during the quest for the 2018 WNBA Championship.