2016 was a year of transition for the Seattle Storm.
Boasting back-to-back No. 1 picks in Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart in the lineup — and the inescapable comparisons to Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson that followed — fans got a long look at the team’s future.
At the same time, a rejuvenated Bird, Crystal Langhorne and Alysha Clark were at the core of the present, as the Storm made the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
All five players are back in Seattle this year, with the hope that the continued development of the last two Rookies of the Year, steady performances from the aforementioned veterans and several offseason additions can push the franchise into the tier of postseason hosts.
“If we can stay healthy, I think it’ll be real interesting,” said head coach Jenny Boucek. “If we can build on what we did last year, incorporate our new pieces, and stay healthy, I think things could get interesting for this group.”
Though the team’s 16-18 record was merely middling, it’s Seattle’s 7-3 record after the Olympic break (and 4-1 in the final five regular season games) that has players hopeful for a breakout 2017.
“I think everyone kind of felt a different vibe coming into training camp,” Loyd said. “I think everyone was focused, definitely the returners. A lot of us had some time off to get our bodies right, and train a little bit, so you definitely see people’s games grow and expand, and I think our composure is difference and our focus is definitely different from last year.”
For Stewart, “it’ll be a little calmer this year,” after spending part of her offseason playing in China, and using the break between that season and the WNBA year to rest. That’s a far cry from her arrival last year, which came on the heels of a national title with UConn, in a year that also included a trip to Rio for the Olympics.
“I think that last year, at times, it felt like my hair was on fire,” she said. “Always going all over the place, doing all different types of things, and now, going overseas, coming back, and having that time to relax, figure out what day it is, what month is it, and just rest my body, my mind, and then come back here in Seattle.”
The addition of Carolyn Swords was the team’s biggest acquisition in what was an understated winter, with the 6-foot-6 post coming over from New York in a deal that sent the sixth pick in the draft to Washington in a three-team deal.
Swords said the momentum from the way Seattle finished the 2016 campaign was apparent from the moment she arrived.
“From the beginning, that energy has been really intangible, and I’m excited to bring my skills to this team,” she said.
What skills does she have in mind?
“I know that my length is one of my advantages, and being able to use that length both on offense and defense, try to protect the paint, and then just try to relieve some pressure on offense, maybe draw a couple of defenders by putting pressure on the rim, adding to what’s already really good here, and just looking to help out how I can.”
That’s help that Stewart is happy to have.
“Just to have another post who’s able to bang down low, be a legit five, and just help us especially defensively containing some of the bigger players in the league, and offensively cleaning up everything around the paint,” she said.
Along with the addition of Swords, Seattle has also revamped its bench by adding more youth alongside third-year players Ramu Tokashiki and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.
Considered a first-round talent by many, Syracuse guard and ACC Player of the Year Alexis Peterson fell to the Storm with the 15th pick in last month’s draft, while Seattle used its third-round selection on West Virginia center Lanay Montgomery. The team also brought UW grad Sami Whitcomb stateside after several years in Australia. The guard broke the WNBL’s single-season scoring record this past season with the Perth Lynx, and finished second to Suzy Batkovic in the league’s MVP voting.
In a surprise move, Seattle opted to keep all three, while parting ways with veteran guard Jenna O’Hea to make room on the roster.
The hope is that those additions can play a bigger role than the bench did last season. Stewart, Loyd, and Bird all started all 34 games in 2016 and averaged more than 30 minutes per game, while Langhorne and Clark made 33 and 32 starts, respectively, and played at least 25 minutes a night.
It’s unlikely Bird will play quite as much this season, as the team should pay closer attention to her minutes after she underwent a left knee scope in April. But her status, both this season and beyond, will go a long way in determining how far Seattle can go.
“We just don’t know how long Sue’s going to play,” Boucek said. “Can we win [a title] this year? I think that’s a big order, not to say it’s impossible. It might be a little bit out ahead of us from this year, but we’re going to go for it. If Sue retires after this year, that’s a tough transition for us, and I don’t know how quickly we’ll close the gap there depending on what we can do in personnel moves, but if Sue can be healthy for a couple more years, I think that this year, going into next year, we get really compelling.”
After Saturday’s nationally-televised season-opener in Los Angeles, the Storm will play five consecutive home games between May 14 and June 3. With eight of the team’s first 12 games at KeyArena, early results — and any momentum from 2016 — may loom large.