Can Storm hit the right notes again this season?
Storm's key players return as team takes aim at first WNBA repeat since 2001.
Seattle Times staff reporter
A new beat harmonizes with every season.
Storm All-Star Swin Cash hears one stanza and knows it's the hit for that WNBA summer. Last year, the fitting theme song was DJ Khaled's "All I Do Is Win."
"Al Davis said it best, 'Just win, baby, win,' " Snoop Dogg raps on Khaled's song that had KeyArena thumping. On the court, the Storm tore through the WNBA's record books en route to its second WNBA championship.
Seattle went a league-best 17-0 at home last season and tied the league record for most wins in a season with its 28-6 record. And it swept through the playoffs (7-0), the first time a WNBA team has done that.
As the WNBA prepares to tip off its 15th season Friday, the question is whether the Storm can be the first team to repeat since the Los Angeles Sparks accomplished the feat in 2000 and 2001.
In other words, before 10-year veteran Sue Bird was even in the league.
"It's human nature to sometimes relax after you experience success," Storm coach Brian Agler said. "Only the special teams can do it. Do we have that? I don't know."
Ah, the remix. Agler, also the Storm's director of player personnel, retained the core orchestrators of the championship, giving a hefty raise to sixth-year post player Camille Little and a longterm agreement to Cash in free agency. Then Agler called in the big names to fill voids left by key backups Svetlana Abrosimova (Russia) and Jana Vesela (Czech Republic), who are both currently playing for their national teams in pursuit of an Olympic bid this summer.
Katie Smith came in a three-team trade, and Australian Olympian Belinda Snell joins her as another big name on the bench.
Is it enough?
"We (learned) a lot of lessons last year," said Cash, who averaged 13.8 points and 6 rebounds in 2010. "We saw if we work together and stick to the game plan, everyone plays their role within our system, it works and we can produce a championship at the end."
Gloss over the numbers and all the wins appear as if they came easily last season. Then consider Seattle has seven returning players to go with talented newcomers and who wouldn't pick the Storm to repeat as WNBA champions?
Only that's forgetting the true difficulty.
Of Seattle's 28 wins last season, the Storm trailed in 13 of those games after three quarters, Bird often needing to drain buzzer-beating shots to pull her team through. And that was with recent league MVPs Candace Parker (Los Angeles) and Diana Taurasi (Phoenix) not playing at their best due to injury or exhaustion from year-round play.
Parker underwent offseason shoulder surgery, and a wrongful doping allegation with her Turkish league gave Taurasi a five-month break as she cleared the allegations, giving both players a break. Add the depth from April's draft, Eastern Conference champion Atlanta retaining the majority of its talented core and natural shifts across the WNBA and surely the Storm won't clinch its division in July.
The team could have trouble keeping the undefeated streak at KeyArena alive beginning with the televised season opener against Phoenix on Saturday. The Mercury lost to the Storm seven times last season, so there's an itch to fix. Plus Seattle is 0-1 in openers featuring championship ring ceremonies, losing 68-50 to Los Angeles in 2005 after an emotional reflection on the 2004 title.
"I don't think there's pressure, there's a sense of pride here," said Little of continuing to win at KeyArena. "It's like a college you go to and they have a history. If you're at a winning school, that's what you're supposed to do. Since I've been here, winning at home is a big deal and it's a good rule to have."
With Jackson and Bird as the franchise's cornerstones the past decade, many believed the titles would come like Houston's when the WNBA originated. The Comets won the first four.
Instead, the Storm was bumped in the opening round of the playoffs five consecutive years.
Cultivating the right nucleus where Jackson, a three-time MVP, and Bird, regarded as the best point guard in the world, felt comfortable became key. Now, big shots are taken by Cash, key rebounds grabbed by Little, and reserve players dig the Storm out of deficits, watching Jackson and Bird seal off wins.
"She relied on us and she had a lot of trust and confidence (in us)," said Cash of Jackson, who is fourth on the WNBA's all-time scoring list (5,757 points). "Last year was the first that I felt that the way we were playing she still had trust with us on the floor. For people to take shots at critical times or make plays. She knew we had her back."
Part of Jackson's shift is maturity. She turned 30 on May 11 and is becoming confident with her natural 6-foot-6 stature. Before, Jackson told people she was 6-5, thinking it sounded better.
Bird, also 30, has become more vocal on the court. She averaged 5.8 assists and 11.1 points on 43.4 percent shooting last year.
They are buoyed by Cash, guard Tanisha Wright and Little in the starting lineup.
But make no mistake, plenty will still ride on the reserves, especially forward Le'coe Willingham, Smith and Snell. They'll play multiple positions to help the Storm make in-game adjustments and be relied upon for three-point shooting and lockdown defense.
"You can't go into it thinking it's going to happen the same way," Smith said of how to repeat a championship. "It's a clean slate, you've got to come in and prove it. It's basically what have you done for me lately?"
It's a mindset the Storm lacked in 2005, players and staff trying too hard to mimic 2004. Then-coach Anne Donovan also lost key veterans in Tully Bevilaqua, Kamila Vodichkova and Sheri Sam.
"In '05, only three of the starters were back, so it's different this year," Bird said. "And every team in the West has gotten better. It's going to be tough. You could pick a favorite on paper, but you've got to wait and see what's going to happen."
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or email@example.com
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