Seattle reshapes playoff race with Charles addition

Jantel Lavender, Stephanie Talbot and Tina Charles cheer on teammates against the Aces last week. Seattle Storm photo.

Few people could have imagined that last year’s leading scorer in the WNBA would hit the open market at midseason. 

Not even Tina Charles herself. 

“I didn’t go into the season this year thinking I would switch teams,” she said. “That’s never been something that I’ve ever done in my career.”

But her sudden foray into free agency, and her subsequent addition to an already veteran-laden Storm roster, has the potential to reshape the playoff race in the season’s second half. 

Coming off the bench for the first time in her career, the nine-time All-WNBA pick gives Seattle desperately-needed depth in the post with the extended absence of center Mercedes Russell, who has missed all but five games with a non-basketball injury.  

The roster shuffle does, however, come at a challenging time. 

During a stretch of five games in 10 days, the Storm have had to add Charles to the rotation on the fly, with little practice time to ease in their new addition, due to this week’s East Coast road trip. 

“It’s about figuring out during games for this particular time period,” said head coach Noelle Quinn after Friday’s win over Indiana. “I think our team is amazing in that they just welcomed her with open arms, no matter where she is on the floor, what rotation she’s in, what unit’s she in with, and we’re still working through that [and] hoping to find some rhythm and comfort for her soon.” 

It’s a small price to pay for adding one of the league’s most decorated players, and one who averaged 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds over 16 games with Phoenix this year.

Especially in a sixth woman role.

“I think I’ll be able to be who I am within the minutes, or within the span when I’m out there, whichever unit that I’m out there with,” Charles said in her introductory press conference last week. “And I’m just thankful for the opportunity.”

Bench production has arguably been Seattle’s biggest weakness in 2022, with the reserves outscored in 12 consecutive contests prior to last Wednesday’s win over the Aces.

An early-season COVID outbreak certainly didn’t help either, sidelining Ezi Magbegor, Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, and Epiphanny Prince for multiple games. That pressed players like Briann January and Jantel Lavender into the starting lineup, and put hardship-signed players into the rotation. 

Tina Charles, at center, said she is “thankful for the opportunity” to play for a team on which she has several friends. Seattle Storm photo.

Nevertheless, Seattle survived its shorthanded stretch, and sits 2.5 games back of the league-leading Sky with 15 to play, giving them ample time to close the gap and secure home-court advantage.

The best opportunity to do so may be over the next three weeks, with only one of their next seven games coming against teams with a winning record (a July 24 matchup with the Sky in Chicago). What follows is a gauntlet with six of their final eight on the road, including three games in four days on an East Coast swing against the Sun and Mystics. 

How Seattle handles that stretch may come down to how successful they are integrating Charles into the rotation, and how she shares the court with Magbegor in the midst of her breakout season. That’s somewhere Quinn sees potential.

“I like that Ezi can still be Ezi, as far as what she does defensively, as far as what she has grown to be offensive, that is her backside spacing and screening and moving and cutting,” Quinn said. “Tina is a floor-spacer, so though Tina plays a lot with her back to the basket at times, I think Ezi’s growth is knowing where to be, where to cut, how to best utilize her off-ball movement, and it’s good to see that with a dominant post player.”