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Originally published April 16, 2012 at 8:02 PM | Page modified April 17, 2012 at 12:25 PM

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Storm hopes to create opportunity to win now — and later

WNBA team deserves credit for remaking team on several fronts.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Patience, folks. Let's see how the parts play together before we start the... MORE
Don`t rebuild,reload that`s what the Storm did. Hope this year`s edition has great... MORE
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Brian Agler is the antidote to hyperbole.

The Storm coach and general manager could win a championship game by 50 and avoid calling it extraordinary. He could lose his entire starting lineup to injury and avoid calling it harrowing. He's too analytical, too methodical, too logical to overstate life.

So when you hear Agler refer to the Storm's offseason challenge as "kind of a dilemma," then you know it was quite the quandary.

Just a season removed from a championship, the franchise was in a pickle last fall. Still smarting over losing a first-round playoff series to Phoenix, the Storm faced a harsh reality of building a winner in a league with a hard salary cap. It had no cap space. It had traded away its 2012 WNBA first-round draft pick. And it already knew it would have to play the first half of this upcoming season without superstar Lauren Jackson, who will be with the Australian national team through the Olympics.

"Kind of a dilemma" for sure.

What to do? The Storm had two obvious options. Do nothing, which would mean losing defensive stopper Tanisha Wright in free agency and become a roster in serious decline. Or use Jackson's absence as an excuse to tear down the team and rebuild.

Agler, CEO Karen Bryant, the Storm owners and the rest of the basketball operations staff quickly decided that a gradual demise wasn't the answer. They gave serious consideration to the possibility of a complete rebuild, but ultimately, they couldn't stomach the idea, not with Jackson and another superstar, point guard Sue Bird, on the roster.

"We kept asking ourselves, 'What do we really want to accomplish here?' " Agler said. "We want to get younger, but do we want to get younger just to get younger? What are we trying to do? It came down to one thing: Don't waste the years you have Sue and Lauren. They deserve to be put in a position to win a championship, and with the way they impact the game, there are a lot of things you can do to put them in that position. At the same time, we had to think about life after Sue and Lauren.

"Yeah, we talked about rebuilding. But we didn't think it would be fair to our fans or to Sue, Lauren, Tanisha or Camille Little, the core of this team."

So they decided to do something even crazier: everything, at once.

Win while reshuffling the roster. Get younger, but stay wise.

Now, six months later, the Storm has finished the initial phase of an intriguing project. The reshuffling started in January with the bold trade of All-Star forward Swin Cash, along with key reserve Le'coe Willingham, to Chicago in an effort to gain salary-cap relief and the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. On Monday, the Storm selected Tennessee forward Shekinna Stricklen with that No. 2 pick to complete its transformation, at least for now.

During this offseason, the Storm re-signed Bird to a contract that should keep her in a Storm uniform for the remainder of her career. By trading Cash and Willingham, the team freed up 25 percent of its salary cap, which enabled it to re-sign Wright, who is an integral part of Agler's defense-centric system, and acquire impact free agents such as aging legend Tina Thompson and Ann Wauters, the team's new starting center. Agler also traded popular reserve center Ashley Robinson to Washington for 22-year-old forward Victoria Dunlap.

Now, the Storm has a chance to do the near impossible: win and rebuild at once.

Agler, who signed a three-year contract extension last November and has the job security to see through this retooling, did a tremendous job putting the franchise in a position to maximize having Bird and Jackson while reducing the risk of becoming too old.

Agler still must make all of the pieces work together on the court, but on paper, the Storm has a deeper, more athletic and more versatile roster. It also has tiers of ages: young and intriguing players for the future; players in their prime; players closing out their prime; and dependable veterans who can help the team win now. And the Storm has future cap flexibility and the potential to get younger without damaging its core.

On paper, it's a legitimate playoff contender that could compete for a championship with some luck.

It's not a bad overhaul for a team that was capped out and low on options just a short time ago. The hardest task in professional sports is to sustain winning. Give Agler and the franchise credit for being innovative and taking a risk.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @JerryBrewer.

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