Wednesday, October 21, 2020
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Storm Championship recipe? Add the right ingredients, simmer slowly

The Seattle Storm pose with the trophy last week after winning the 2020 WNBA Championship. NBAE via Getty Images photo, courtesy of WNBA.
The Seattle Storm pose with the trophy last week after winning the 2020 WNBA Championship. NBAE via Getty Images photo, courtesy of WNBA.
The Seattle Storm pose with the trophy last week after winning the 2020 WNBA Championship. NBAE via Getty Images photo, courtesy of WNBA.

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.”

The Storm ownership group, from right to left: Dawn Trudeau, CEO and general manager Alisha Valavanis, Ginny Gilder, Lisa Brummel, Brummel's wife Celeste Keton, and Gilder's wife Lynn Slaughter. Photo courtesy of the Seattle Storm.
The Storm ownership group, from right to left: Dawn Trudeau, CEO and general manager Alisha Valavanis, Ginny Gilder, Lisa Brummel, Brummel’s wife Celeste Keton, and Gilder’s wife Lynn Slaughter. Photo courtesy of the Seattle 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.”

Seattle Storm players charge the court at the sound of the final buzzer, which gave them the Championship win. NBAE via Getty Images photo, courtesy of Seattle Storm.
Seattle Storm players charge the court at the sound of the final buzzer, which gave them the Championship win. NBAE via Getty Images photo, courtesy of Seattle Storm.

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.

Alisha Valavanis was named CEO and general manager of the Seattle Storm in 2014.
Alisha Valavanis was named CEO and general manager of the Seattle Storm in 2014.

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.”

Cappie Pondexter missing report was false, LAPD says

Rumors that retired WNBA All-Star Cappie Pondexter was missing are apparently false.

Wednesday night Pondexter was said to be missing for at least 24 hours, and those rumors continued Thursday morning. A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Police Department said that Pondexter was arrested Tuesday night for battery – a “private person’s arrest,” or citizen’s arrest. She refused to identify herself, leading some to believe she was missing.

Pondexter, 37, was released about 10 a.m. this morning, the spokeswoman said.

Storm sweep Aces to win fourth WNBA Championship

PALMETTO, FL - OCTOBER 6: The Seattle Storm celebrate after defeating the Las Vegas Aces and winning the 2020 WNBA Championship in Game Three of the WNBA Finals against the Las Vegas Aces. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.
PALMETTO, FL - OCTOBER 6:  The Seattle Storm celebrate after defeating the Las Vegas Aces and winning the 2020 WNBA Championship in Game Three of the WNBA Finals against the Las Vegas Aces. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.
PALMETTO, FL – OCTOBER 6: The Seattle Storm celebrate after defeating the Las Vegas Aces and winning the 2020 WNBA Championship in Game Three of the WNBA Finals against the Las Vegas Aces. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

The Seattle Storm closed out the most unusual WNBA season in the league’s 24-year history Tuesday in besting the Las Vegas Aces, 92-59, for their fourth Championship.

The Storm dominated the Aces in sweeping the five-game series, outscoring them by 51 points over three outings. Breanna Stewart, who sat out last season after rupturing her Achilles tendon in the spring, led a balanced Seattle attack with 26 points. She was named Finals MVP.

Jewell Loyd scored 19 points and Alysha Clark 10, while Jordin Canada came off the bench to add 15 points for the winners. Point guard Sue Bird, in her 19th year with the franchise and 17th season playing, earned her fourth title by setting a WNBA Finals single-game assists record in Game 1, with 16.

The Storm followed won by using their usual formula of solid shooting, high assists numbers and taking care of the ball, as they had only six turnovers on the night. This came after a slow start, which saw Las Vegas rush out to a 9-2 lead. When Stewart got her third foul at 7:13 in the second quarter, she headed to the bench. But Loyd stepped up to score and Seattle closed the half on a 16-10 run.

The Aces looked listless at times in the third quarter, and Seattle took advantage of the lapse and never looked back.

Regular-season MVP A’ja Wilson led Las Vegas with 18 points, while Jackie Young came off the bench to score 11 points. They were the only two in double figures.

Storm coach Gary Kloppenburg credited his team’s defense in the win.

“We started out a little bit soft, I think, on Wilson, but as we got going, I thought our intensity and our energy and our disruption really picked up,” he said. “That kind of broke it in that second quarter. I think we held them to 13 points, and got a little bit of separation.”

“I think the way we came out for the third was just tremendous. Sort of took their will away. Wanted to come out and really take their confidence away in that third quarter, and I think we did a really good job of that.”

The season ended for the two teams three months to the day after they arrived in Bradenton, Florida, to play in a pandemic-proof bubble. Seattle saw their first semifinal game postponed two weeks ago when three players received inconclusive COVID-19 test results.

Besides the stresses involved in living in a contained environment, players also overcame personal challenges in their title journey.

Stewart, who was regular-season MVP in 2018 as she led the team to their third Championship, watched the 2019 playoffs.

“You know, I remember where I was last year during the WNBA Finals, and I was in North Carolina with my family,” Stewart said. “It was hard for me not to be upset, because I wanted to be a part of the league. Obviously I wanted to be with my team and have the opportunity to be back and defend our title.”

“To be able to be here, to get through all that we’ve gone through as a team obviously individually, it’s an amazing feeling. There’s so much of an unknown that you don’t know after rupturing my Achilles, but I’m super – I don’t know if I’m proud of myself but, you know, proud of what I’ve done. I think it’s hard to see it because it was so close, but really proud of just being able to be back.”

PALMETTO, FL - OCTOBER 6:  Jewell Loyd drives to the basket against Las Vegas Aces in Game Three of the WNBA Finals. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.
PALMETTO, FL – OCTOBER 6: Jewell Loyd drives to the basket against Las Vegas Aces in Game Three of the WNBA Finals. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

Bird, who also sat out last season after having knee surgery in May, reflected on winning titles with the Storm over 16 years.

“I think the fact that I’ve been able to do it in different decades, with the same franchise, not many people can say that,” Bird said. “To recreate it over time and stay at a high level over time is definitely something I’m proud of because it hasn’t been easy.”

“These last (15 months have) been hard. This is the one time I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s been hard. A lot of ups, a lot of downs.”

While Seattle was tabbed by many to take the title once Bird and Stewart announced their return, the Aces’ first trip to the Finals was a triumph and an indication of what may lie ahead for the young team.

Prior to the season All-Star center Liz Cambage opted to sit out, and starting guard Kelsey Plum tore her Achilles. But Las Vegas finished with the league’s best record and the No. 1 seed going into the playoffs. Wilson won the MVP award for the first time, and guard Dearica Hamby, who was lost to injury for the season before the Finals, won Sixth Woman of the Year for the second straight time.

Coach Bill Laimbeer said he considers 2020 a win for his squad.

“They have everything to be proud of this year. Nobody expected us to do anything this year,” he said. “They came together as a team. They executed their roles. We had some individual awards that were handed out to our team. We had the overall best record, got to the Finals. There’s so many things that were positive this year.”

“Yeah, everybody is going to dwell on the fact we didn’t win. We’re still a young basketball team and we’re growing. I think at the end of the day we did a hell of a job as an organization and as a basketball team.”

Laimbeer credited Wilson for “growing up this year.” Wilson said both she and her teammates learned together.

“I think we grew tremendously,” she said. “I think we honestly understand now what it takes to win a championship. I mean, Seattle is a championship team on paper, on court. It’s good to have that measure to know this is what we have to do every possession, every minute.”

“I don’t think we really understood that till you’re in it. That’s normally how it is in professional basketball. But it’s a good thing for us. I know that it hurts. I don’t know if anyone has lost something big in a game situation, but it’s hurts. At the end of the day you learn and grow from it. I feel like I grew, so that’s a success in my book. I’m just going to keep growing.”

Players from both teams said it meant a lot to them to work on social justice issues during the season by wearing slain Louisville paramedic Breonna Taylor’s name on their jerseys, among other initiatives.

Las Vegas guard Kayla McBride said athletes know that battles being fought around the U.S. are bigger than sports.

“We’re using our platform to fight for those that can’t fight for themselves, for the Breonna Taylors of the world, for those families going through it each and every day silently and out loud,” she said. “We’re trying to do that through basketball the best we can. Especially being a predominantly Black league, I think we feel it even more so.”

“I’ve been so proud of the 144 women of this league, how we’ve used our voices individually and collectively to continue to say her name, to remind everybody to vote, remind everyone of the things actually going on outside this bubble while being in the bubble.”

Storm guard Alysha Clark said this year’s Championship was special because of the social justice representation of all 12 teams.

“We wanted to bring awareness and give a voice to the Black women that are often forgotten in this country,” she said. “We are often overlooked and often unheard, and this Championship was for them, for us.”

“As a league of women, of Black women, and the ladder of being different, we have women out here fighting for the voice of Black women in this country, and, so to be able to come out here tonight and win this; it’s a Championship for little Black girls and Black women across this country, honestly.”

Kloppenburg, who filled in this season for head coach Dan Hughes, who overcame cancer last year, added that women’s basketball deserves more attention.

“I think that the other side of that is the women’s game hasn’t gotten the respect, and partly because of the white guys that are writing…” he said. “Y’all white guys, wake up out there, man. You’ve got a whole tremendous gender that can flat-out play basketball. So maybe it’s time to move into the mid-century.”

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