StormWatch: Six Games In, Five and a Half Lessons Learned

Into the third week of the 2019 WNBA season, the Storm have played six games (less than 20% of their season).  Here are five immediate takeaways, and a bonus half of one.

Lesson the First: The record does not speak for itself.  Masquerading as a respectable but unspectacular 3-3, the Storm’s record disguises the impressiveness of their playing so far about as well as your average DC superhero.  (Is there anything sadder than Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent pretending not to be heroes?) Consider that the Storm have been without: 2018 League MVP Breanna Stewart, who is out for the season with a torn achilles; International Assassin Sue Bird, who is suffering from another in a long series of injuries to her left knee, with an unspecified recovery time; and defensive Forward Alysha Clark, who missed the first three games due to recovery from play in the French League*, and played as a backup for the fourth game**.  The Storm began their season beating an average Mercury team (also without key starter Diana Taurasi) at “home” (in Everett, RIP old Key Arena), emerged from a brutal three-game road stretch with a 1-2 record (beating a perplexingly not great Dream), and concluded with a home stretch that began with an absurdly impressive victory over the previously undefeated Lynx and ended with a harrowingly curious loss to the Chicago Sky. (There’s a pun-based joke somewhere in the Storm’s two consecutive losses to the Sky about how Storms cannot beat Sky, but I, for one, will not make it.)  Given the caliber of opponents (with combined record of 7-5), and the losses on the roster, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Storm were sitting at the bottom of the league with a 1-5 record, maybe 2-4.  Instead, they’re only 1 game behind the first-place Lynx, who they’ve beaten once already.

* Here’s an editorialized friendly reminder that WNBA players are paid so horribly that they almost always play in international leagues year-round.  (Queen Bree’s injury occurred before the 2019 season even began, during play in the Russian League.) The WNBA Players Union has persuaded its membership to opt out of their current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), and it’s reasonable to expect that disproportionate pay or better injury settlements will be foremost among their demands going into the 2020 season.

** The Storm starting 5 for most of the season has been kinda akin to Tom Cable’s 2016 offensive line, when only Gilliam and Britt returned as starters, the rest of the players an equivalent of the shrug emoji.  Or, for that matter, like his 2017 offensive line, before the Brown trade, in which only Britt stayed at the same position. Or like in 2018 *dies*

Lesson the Second: Or, on the metamorphosis of Natasha Howard.  Running a course parallel to the narrative of Kafka’s revered story, Natasha Howard has transformed from something routine into something phenomenal and impossible to predict.  Going into 2019, the Storm had to be acutely aware that their best offensive weapon was gone. That the Storm have a league-average offense so far is thanks to Howard’s dominant play.  She leads the team with 18.5 PPG, which is third best in the league. While her shooting has declined somewhat from last year, much of this has to due with facing more double-coverages; and even still her 46.8 FG% is best among starters who have played all games.  Ian Levy at Fansided has written a much more detailed article on this subject alone, and finds significantly that her usage rate has increased dramatically (sixth league-wide, from the 68th to 94th percentile).  He also points to an assistance rate that has dropped from 72.6% last year to 47.2%, and an improvement in points-per-possession on post-ups and isolation scoring efficiency.  But this transformation to offensive powerhouse hasn’t come at the expense of her reputation as a fierce defender, well earned from last year’s championship run. She leads the team with 9.2 RPG and 1.7 BPG, the former being fifth best league-wide, and is perhaps the single most important contributor on what has become the league’s fourth best defense.

Lesson the Third: They are All That.  Like the much-maligned romantic comedy film from the late 90’s, when the Storm unleash the best of their best, it slays.  Indeed, the Storm’s impressive victory over the previously undefeated Lynx deserves its own point, because it shows that they could’ve easily kicked Freddie Prinze Jr.’s ass.  And a significant part of that may be an ensemble effort: in their 84-77 victory over the Lynx, four of the five starters scored at least 10 points — with guards Canada and Loyd scoring a dominant 17 and 19 points, respectively, and Clark in her first start scoring 16.  Even more impressive is that, going into the third week, the Lynx led the league in both Defensive Rating (84.0) and Net Rating (12.7). The Storm’s 84 points represented a nearly +18 point differential over the Lynx’s previous 66.3 points allowed per game, and their 59.3% shooting from the floor and 53.8% 3-point shooting (the latter aided by substitute guard Sami Whitcomb’s incredible 75% shooting) was almost 20% more than any previous outings, and more than 20% better than their season average to that point.  This was demonstrated perhaps the most clearly by the alternating deep shots of Canada and Loyd; working on the perimeter of the Lynx’s defense, at least one of them was consistently getting open. Indeed, the prettiest shot of the game was from the latter, who made a perfect bank shot from about 22 feet. And none of this is intended to diminish the play of the Lynx, who had a number of beautiful plays; watching their performance, one in fact wonders, like the constantly befuddled Prinze Jr., how they lost.

Lesson the Penultimate is a restatement of the kung fu maxim: “the hand which strikes also blocks”.  This is intended literally, right? No? Well, nevermind. Because! As it turns out, the best defense is actually just a good defense.  Through six games, the Storm have thrice held their opponent to a lower total score than their average ppg. In addition to Howard’s 9.2 rebounds per game being fifth best league-wide, Canada’s team-leading 3.3 steals per game is the best in the league, and Clark’s team-leading 2.3 blocks per game is third-best in the league.  This isn’t to suggest that the Storm are dominant, though – their D doesn’t rank higher than fourth in any metric, they have tended to allow a few teams to shoot better than those teams have in other games, and their depth is thin. Indeed, in their defeat of Minnesota, the Lynx were able to close a 48-39 gap at the end of the half to 63-62 at the start of the 4th during a period when the Storm were resting most of their starters.  But for the Storm to have transitioned to a style of play that relies on an ensemble of defensive players, from the 2018 squad that was an offensive powerhouse, shows promise.

The last lesson: The tale of Skuld the Norn who, ostensibly, as the youngest of them, looks only to that which may occur.  While it’s far too early to look ahead to the playoffs, it’s worth noting that the Storm have a +10 point differential on the season so far (first place Lynx +23 and Sun are at +23 and +43, respectively, through six game). They also have an expected Win Percentage hovering just above 50%, or 17.18 expected wins on the season.  Because no less than 8 (!) of 12 (!!) teams make the playoffs, regardless of conference, it’s far from unreasonable to expect that the Storm could make a post-season run. Going into the season, with the news about Stewie and Sue Bird, especially coupled with a first round draft pick that wasn’t expected to play at all, there was a sense that 2019 may as well be cancelled.  That no longer appears to be true. Obviously, this new expectation assumes that their rate of play continues on pace, but the re-addition of Clark to the starting lineup should certainly help with that. With Clark and Howard dominating the front, Loyd and Canada emerging as a powerhouse combination in the back, and Mosqueda-Lewis and Russell splitting time, the Storm could field an adaptable squad, difficult to plan for.

Of course, there never is a last lesson, and by the time of finishing this, the Storm had played a sixth game, another loss to the Sky, that may well have invalidated some, if not all, of the prior lessons.

So who knows, really.