On the way to claiming their fourth WNBA Championship last week, the Seattle Storm played some incredible basketball.
They functioned as one, moving the ball between each other with rocket science precision, whether it was a pass, an assist or a fast break. If someone wasn’t able to produce, one of her teammates stepped in to take up the slack.
The deep-roster Storm bested all teams in the playoffs by an average nine points and seven assists per game, and were top five in every other statistical category. Their net rating was 11 points more than the next team’s and their offensive rating, almost nine points higher. It was a clinical display, and a much stronger one than they had in 2018, when they won their last title.
It wasn’t that long ago that Seattle was living in the league’s basement and making annual first-round playoff exits. But their current success hasn’t manifested overnight; it brewed and percolated to perfection over many seasons under the watchful eyes of its ownership team, and CEO and general manager Alisha Valavanis.
That care, and collective approach, may have constructed a winner for several more seasons to come.
Longtime basketball executive Valavanis came to the Storm in 2014, as the team was struggling to find a new identity and a different direction. They had won two Championships, in 2004 and 2010, behind No. 1 picks Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird. But Jackson’s persistent injuries had kept her from playing in 2013, and she was poised to miss the following season, as well. Bird also missed 2013 after knee surgery. Seattle brought a few veteran stars in, but the team floundered.
Valavanis was hired to rebuild the roster, and she wasted no time getting to work on what she said “wasn’t an easy process.” Included in her planning was Bird, who had been with the franchise since 2002.
“There was a commitment to rebuilding around Sue, and players who could be a part of the future and a part of the rebuild. Sue was part of that conversation,” Valavanis said. “We talked with her about what the future would look like. We did talk about how hard a rebuild is, and how we were going to develop young players around her.”
Though a slow reconstruction would take patience, all involved were focused on the big-picture goal of developing a strong team.
“We knew those first couple of years were going to be a commitment to the process, a commitment to the end goal,” Valavanis said. “It wasn’t just going to be about the immediate win.”
“We understood that rebuilding was a process and that the first couple of years would be a commitment to development. The focus was on where we were going.”
Valavanis appreciated Bird’s willingness to participate.
“Sue was committed to the mentorship role that it was going to take to rebuild,” she said. “It was really special, and speaks to who she is on and off the court and how much she really is the leader of the Storm.”
For her last stop in planning, Valavanis met with groups of Seattle season ticket holders and fans, who are some of the most loyal and vocal supporters in the league.
“I remember some honest conversations about what it meant to rebuild and how we needed their support,” she said. “They appreciated understanding what vision was, and what the process was.”
From there, the organization moved to on-court logistics, and made calculated and deliberate choices.
“For us it started with what brand of basketball we wanted moving forward,” Valavanis said. “It was really important to understand the pieces we had and the type of game Sue wanted to play, the types of games we wanted to do, and the way the game was continuing to evolve.”
“We certainly were looking to bring in some length around the rim, but really we were looking for an entire roster of players that would push the ball and play high-intensity defense, but shoot the ball.”
The Storm had one piece in place, besides Bird, in forward Alysha Clark, who signed to the team in 2012. Noelle Quinn came aboard in 2013 and Crystal Langhorne, 2014. The following year Valavanis landed guard Jewell Loyd with the team’s No. 1 draft pick, filling the need for young talent.
Seattle struggled that season and won the No. 1 draft pick for the following year, setting up a repeat of history from 2001 and 2002, when they took Jackson and Bird. In 2016 the Storm selected Breanna Stewart – one of the best players in collegiate history. It was a launching pad for what was to come.
“Jewell, Stewie, Sue – their chemistry and their ability to work well with Alysha Clark, who was already here, Crystal Langhorne, who was already on the roster – this is where the chemistry that you see now started to develop,” Valavanis said.
For Seattle, that means chemistry that isn’t limited to basketball.
“Chemistry off the court is just as critical to this organization as it is on the court,” Valavanis said. “These are culture fits for this organization.”
She said chemistry and fit are the keys to success.
“We often talk about chemistry and culture – the X factor in sports. There are so many talented teams in the WNBA…across all 12 rosters,” Valavanis said. “It does take something special, and I believe our team has an incredible chemistry and a culture that supports who they are on the court, and an organization that supports who they are off the court. It’s an important part of the formula.”
What proved to be the final pieces of a winning puzzle fell to the Storm in 2018. The organization hired Dan Hughes as head coach, signed free agent forward Natasha Howard, drafted point guard Jordin Canada with their fifth pick, and signed rookie center Mercedes Russell. The player moves gave the team so much depth that they still had a winning record, and made the playoffs last season, despite the absence of Bird and Stewart to injury.
So solid was this year’s roster that 2018 MVP Stewart had to sit in last week’s Finals Game 2 for most of the second quarter, in foul trouble, and her teammates went on a 16-10 run without her. Valavanis said that and similar situations were common for the team this year not only due to depth, but maturity.
“It starts with Sue’s leadership, and Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and it goes through the roster,” she said. “On any given night when we needed a different player to step up, it happened. Jordin Canada, Mercedes Russell, those players started last year and they brought incredible poise and confidence coming off the bench after starting the entire 2019 season. And then we watched them perform at the highest level in the semifinals and finals.”
“All 12 of these players had a critical role in winning this championship. This team is a special group.”
Valavanis also gives high praise to Hughes, who had to coach from a distance due to COVID-19 protocols; assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg, who took over as head coach; and associate head coach Quinn, who moved to that side of the bench last year.
“This is a special coaching staff,” she said. “The truth is, it takes the team and the team behind the team to win the championship. We’re really lucky and grateful we’re all in this together. It’s a nice balance.”
Seattle is fortunate to have Valavanis, too. In a small league where there is pressure to produce quick results, she and the Storm instead choose their athletes carefully, and invest in them for the long haul.
Australian rookie Ezi Magbegor, who showed flashes of brilliance off the bench this year, was drafted in 2019 and waited to come to the United States. This season Seattle drafted Kitija Laksa with the agreement she would wait to make the trip from Latvia until 2021.
“These are young players that were interested in balancing the veterans that we have,” Valavanis said of Magbegor and Laksa.
For Valavanis, fit is critical.
“We have conversations with our team and want to make sure we bring in players that are the right fit,” she said.
But the bottom line is that building a Championship squad has to be a shared effort.
“My approach to building a team is highly collaborative,” Valavanis said. “To me the most important factor is, from ownership to players, building something together. The coaches along the way have had a critical role as well. A lot of really special individuals worked hard and collaborated.”