What A Difference A Year Makes For Storm

 

By Tyler Berry

 

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A year ago, the Seattle Storm were struggling. There were uncertainties about whether a team featuring Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd would even make the playoffs. Road wins were scarce, and the team play wasn’t instilling a lot of confidence in its fans from night to night. It took until the final regular season game against Chicago for the Storm to secure a playoff spot, recording just its 15th win of the year. Three days later, the 2017 campaign was over, after Phoenix beat Seattle 79-69 in the first round of the playoffs. It was a disappointing end to a disappointing season.

Fast forward a year and the results in Seattle couldn’t be more different. The Storm’s 15th win came nearly two months earlier on July 8 and the team clinched a playoff spot a month earlier on August 4. Currently, the Storm sit at 22-7, 3.5 games in front of the second-place Atlanta Dream. In all likelihood, Seattle will have the top spot going into the playoffs, thereby securing a double bye through the first two rounds.

 

What a difference a year makes.

 

MVP! MVP! MVP!

The 2017 season was good for Breanna Stewart. It featured two of her best-ever individual performances, a 32-point game against San Antonio and a 29-point game to clinch that final playoffs spot. For the year, she averaged 19.9 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 2.7 assists. She was phenomenal, but she’s surpassed last season in basically every way.

In 29 games this year, Stewart is averaging 22.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists. She’s shooting 53 percent from the field and 38.2 percent from behind the arc. She’s shown a penchant for being a closer, taking over in the final minutes to help the Storm win important games. One of the best examples of this came in a 91-84 win over Dallas on July 14. With Bird and Loyd struggling most of the night – combining for just 18 points – Stewart took over with an exhilarating 35-point, 10-rebound performance. Without her, there’s no way Seattle would have won that game.

You’ll find examples of these MVP-caliber performances all throughout her stat sheet and her growth in the last year has been a large reason for Seattle’s bounce-back season.

 

Coaching

Suffice it to say, 2017 wasn’t a great year for Seattle’s coaching staff. Jenny Boucek was fired after a 10-16 start and a 36-58 overall record. Frankly, a coaching chance probably should have been made sooner in the year if the organization thought it was going to make that much of a difference. Despite that, interim Gary Kloppenburg was able to push the Storm to the postseason, finishing the final eight games at 5-3, but a miracle turnaround in the playoffs just wasn’t in the cards.

This season has been completely different coaching wise thanks to two-time WNBA Coach of the Year Dan Hughes. It was vital for the Storm to find an experienced, winning coach to help get this team back to championship form and he’s done just that. The team has clearly responded to him, especially offensively. The Storm are atop the league in scoring (87.8) and offensive rating (111.4), up from 5th and 4th, respectively, last season. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the winningest coach in WNBA history knows how to, well, win and his tactics have helped the Storm improve on both sides of the ball.

 

Upgrades

In last week’s column, we highlighted rookie Jordin Canada and her solid play off the bench. She’s the future of this team after Bird retires (hopefully not for a while) and she’s already proving to be a smart draft pick for the Storm. However, there’s one player that doesn’t get enough love for helping improving Seattle. That’s forward Natasha Howard.

Howard came over from the Minnesota Lynx back in February in exchange for a second-round pick. It was a smart trade and a great upgrade for Seattle. She’s shined in her starting role, averaging 13 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. After being utilized primarily as a role player in her first four seasons, Seattle has brought out the best in her. On any given night, Howard can put up a double-double – she has five on the year including a 15 and 15 game against Atlanta.

Her points per game might equate Crystal Langhorne’s number as a starter last year, but Howard’s rebounding ability and defensive prowess have made her a big upgrade for the starting lineup.

 

So, let’s recap: The Storm equaled its 2017 win total with two months left in the season. The team clinched a playoff berth a month earlier than last year. It has the MVP favorite, a new inside presence at the forward position, and a promising rookie. Oh, not to mention it has a 2-guard averaging 17 points a game, Loyd, as well as the all-time leader in games played (Bird), and are favored to win the championship.

What a difference a year makes.