Storm finds proper way to complement Sue Bird, Lauren Jackson
Storm has supported stars Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird with other players on what could be another championship team.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Mercury @ Storm, Game 1, West finals, 7 p.m., NBA TV
In basketball, superstars are the pride and crutch of a team. The easiest thing in this five-on-five sport is to enable one or two great players to make your squad competitive. The hardest thing, however, is to build a real team around them, one that enhances their talent instead of feasting on it.
Basketball is wickedly deceptive that way. You can be fooled into thinking you have something special because you have someone special. That thinking only goes so far. Eventually, you hit a wall and blame the star for not being starry enough. Then you sink into mediocrity until the team or star demands change.
It happens all the time in hoops. Which is why you should appreciate how the Storm climbed out of this rut.
Just three years ago, they were stuck in that state. They had Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, wondrous all-world talents, a formidable point guard/post player duo. They had two franchise players to market, sell tickets and stay in the playoff hunt every year. But they didn't have a true championship team, merely the illusion of one.
Now look at where they stand. Over the past three seasons, the Storm has acquired the proper pieces. As a result, the franchise has ended a five-year string of first-round playoff exits and will make only its second Western Conference finals appearance Thursday night against Phoenix.
It all fits. Bird probes defenses and makes the right play. Jackson scores from all over the court and serves as the defensive anchor. Swin Cash dashes around, making spectacular plays and doing the dirty work. Tanisha Wright hawks opposing guards. Camille Little plays much bigger than her 6-foot-2 height. And we haven't even talked about an underrated bench.
For the first time since winning a title in 2004, the Storm possesses ideal balance. But the current squad is much scarier than those champions. The role players are better, and Bird and Jackson are in their prime. For a change, a basketball team is living with its superstars instead of living off them.
The Storm plugged holes the old-fashioned way. The franchise made several simple, smart decisions. It started early in 2008, with the hiring of Brian Agler to replace Anne Donovan as the team's coach and director of player personnel.
Storm CEO Karen Bryant wanted a defensive coach and a taskmaster, and she found the right match in Agler. As he started to mold the roster to the way he likes to coach, he thought the team needed more toughness and more physical, defensive-minded players.
"I looked at the roster, and first of all, I saw Sue and Lauren," Agler said. "That's a nice start, isn't it? They're extremely talented and skilled finesse players. Now, don't mistake that for not being tough. Those two are tough, mentally and physically. But we needed some real physical players to complement them."
During his three seasons, Agler has made almost every move with that mission in mind. His first big move was the trade for Cash. After trading up from No. 8 to No. 4 in the 2008 WNBA draft, the Storm then dealt the fourth overall pick to the Detroit (now Tulsa) Shock to get Cash. It was a risk because Cash was battling a painful back injury, and her production had dipped in Detroit.
Cash has since had surgery and returned to form. Meanwhile, the No. 4 pick in that draft, guard Alexis Hornbuckle, has averaged 5.6 points in her career.
That first year, Agler signed WNBA legends Sheryl Swoopes and Yolanda Griffith, and if not for injuries, the Storm could have won the 2008 title. But those signings were temporary fixes. It took player development to uncover some permanent solutions.
Agler helped turn Wright, a 2005 first-round draft pick who played a small role her first three seasons, into a reliable starting combo guard and a two-time all-defensive team member. Agler made a midseason trade in June 2008 to acquire Little, who was averaging 4.4 points for the Atlanta Dream. But Agler had coached her the year before as an assistant in San Antonio and saw potential. Little has developed into a double-figure scorer and a hard-nosed defender in Seattle.
During this past offseason, the Storm acquired Svetlana Abrosimova, Le'coe Willingham and Jana Vesela to form some nice bench options along with center Ashley Robinson.
The Storm's nine-woman rotation is special. Every player is capable of making jumpers, and outside of Robinson, they all have three-point range. With the inside/outside offensive game of Jackson and the court vision of Bird, the role players' skills are a perfect match. And on defense, the Storm can do a lot of switching and not be at a disadvantage.
The team complements Jackson. The fact she is not a clog-the-post center isn't a burden. Cash, Little and Willingham are there to assist in the post. And Bird can pick her spots because of the offensive talent around her.
No wonder Bird and Jackson are healthy and fresh for this playoff run. They're happy, too.
"I just want to win," Jackson said. "We have found the right fit, and we have a really good team. It's taken awhile, but we have so many threats now, offensively and defensively, that it's hard on teams to key on one thing for too long."
Said Little: "This is our third year together. We play for each other. We have a high standard. We play to each other's strengths."
The Storm is in balance, at last.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
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