How do you replace an MVP?
It’s a question the Seattle Storm would rather not have to answer, but one that has suddenly cast a pall over the team’s title defense after Breanna Stewart suffered a ruptured right Achilles tendon in Sunday’s EuroLeague championship game.
Though the long-term prognosis is good after successful surgery on Thursday, Seattle will be without one of the league’s brightest stars for all of 2019.
And as one of only three players to average at least 20 points and eight rebounds per game last season (A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage the others), there’s no one-for-one replacement.
But for the Storm to become the first team in more than 15 years to repeat as league champions, the production will have to come from somewhere.
At first glance, the onus seems likely to fall on Seattle’s existing core. And for two players in particular, an outsized opportunity exists to fill the void.
Coming off her first All-Star nod, Jewell Loyd has shown flashes of being the type of prolific scorer a sans-Stewart Storm could use, including a hot streak to start 2018 that saw her finish with at least 20 points in five of the first six games. Loyd took nearly 40 fewer free-throw attempts in 2018 than the season before — making less than 100 for the first time in her career — but that figure that stands to jump with an increased number of offensive touches.
In the post, Natasha Howard flourished last year as a full-time starter, posting career highs across the board as she earned Most Improved Player honors. Seattle will need a repeat performance and then some from the 6-foot-2 forward, who now becomes the team’s go-to option in the paint. While Howard saw great success alongside Stewart, how teams approach her in extended minutes alongside the likes of Crystal Langhorne and Courtney Paris will be something to watch closely as the season goes on.
Those two are among the others who will likely be asked to take on greater roles.
After starting all but one regular season game in her first four seasons with the Storm, Langhorne saw her minutes cut in half with Howard’s breakout, but could be just the scoring option Seattle needs. The 32-year-old shot over 60 percent from the field in both 2016 and 2017. Paris, the two-time league rebounding champion, could see a much larger role in 2019 with the team now in need of a presence on the glass. Also in the post, 6-foot-6 center Mercedes Russell spent most of her rookie campaign on the end of the bench, but could also be primed for an increased role.
To that end, the bench as a whole will be likely be counted on to shoulder a greater burden.
Newly-signed Shavonte Zellous, likely transitioning to a reserve role after starting 22 games for the Liberty last year, should be able to provide more minutes than her predecessor, Noelle Quinn.
Stewart’s absence also means an open roster spot for a team that returns nearly every player from last season.
There’s no indication that the team will alter its timeline for first-round pick Ezi Magbegor, with the 19-year-old Australian not expected in Seattle until the 2020 season, but second rounder Anriel Howard could stand to benefit from the opening. The first-team All-SEC pick is coming off a senior season for Mississippi State where she finished in the top-10 in the conference in both scoring and rebounding, one of just two players to do so (Teammate and No. 4 overall pick by Indiana Teaira McCowan the other).
Seattle will also have third-round pick and two-time Summit League Player of the Year Macy Miller (South Dakota State), All-WCC First Team selection Zykera Rice (Gonzaga), three-time All-MAC First Teamer Presley Hudson (Central Michigan), and ex-Cal guard Receé Caldwell in training camp, along with last year’s third-round pick, Teana Muldrow (West Virginia). However, it will take a breakout effort during the preseason for any to crack the roster.
Still somewhat unclear is the status of forward Ramu Tokashiki, who missed the 2018 season due to her Japan National Team commitments. Seattle retains the rights of the 27-year-old, who could provide strong defense off the bench if she returns stateside.
The Storm could also look to add a veteran from outside the organization, with New York’s Kia Vaughn and Washington’s Krystal Thomas among those still on the free agent market. But for now, that’s merely speculation.