SEATTLE — Sue Bird’s first words at the news conference Tuesday to discuss her knee surgery said it all.
“I mean, I’m bummed.”
She’s not alone. To be a Seattle Storm fan these days is to wonder if this is some sort of karmic payback for the franchise’s third WNBA title last September. As if the hoop gods said, “That’s enough frivolity for one franchise for awhile.”
Even before training camp began, it has been a non-stop barrage of bad news. It started with Breanna Stewart’s Achilles tear, followed by coach Dan Hughes’ revelation of a cancer diagnosis, and now a newly disclosed injury that could sideline Bird, the team’s point guard and spiritual leader, for the entire season.
Not surprisingly, there was a lot of internal talk Tuesday about how the Storm can still thrive through all this adversity. Gary Kloppenburg, the acting coach during Hughes’ recovery, said gamely that he’s still optimistic that the Storm, who open the season Saturday, can have a strong season.
“Now it’s going to be us against the world,” Kloppenburg said. “Everybody wants us to fail. We can pull together and do something with what we have.”
That’s a nice sentiment, and the absolute proper one for the team to rally behind. But the reality is that this is likely to be simply too much loss of elite talent for any team to overcome. And — silver lining department — that predicament might ultimately provide the Storm with a different sort of payoff, if you’re willing to suffer and wait.
Happily, Hughes is recovering well from his cancer surgery, according to Kloppenburg, and already is talking about returning to practice this week. But Stewart, the reigning league MVP, and Bird, the best point guard in league history and still hugely productive at age 38, aren’t going to be walking through those doors.
Well, technically they are, but only to stand on the sideline and serve a sort of coaching and motivating role. And in a league that Bird correctly characterized as hyper-competitive because of all the talent compressed into 12 teams, coaching tips and back-pats will take you only so far.
Even Bird acknowledged as much. She said the team’s little-picture goals have to remain the same — improving every day. But the big picture?
“There can still be ways we finish the season on a positive note that don’t necessarily come in the form of a championship,” she said.
But that doesn’t mean the Storm’s championship run has to be over. Stewart is a mere 24 years old and there is no reason she can’t be the same dominating player next year, and well beyond. Age is always a factor for Bird, of course, but she had a brilliant season last year and talked Tuesday of her desire to play again.
“I’m getting this to make me better,” she said of the impending arthroscopic surgery to remove a loose body in her left knee. “I’m getting this to extend my career. … It’s to get better and to move forward and continue to play. Some people might call me crazy for doing that, but here I am.”
Players like Jordin Canada — Bird’s replacement at point guard — talked about stepping up as a team in the absence of its superstars.
“We’re all prepared for it,” she said.
“I’m very optimistic we can be an outstanding team, still, even with all the setbacks we’ve had,” Kloppenburg added.
But a more tangible hope for the Storm — which no one obviously wants to articulate — is that it might now find itself in the sweepstakes for a high draft choice. They acquired Stewart and Jewell Loyd, two players who helped fuel the resurgence, by virtue of the No. 1 overall draft choice.
This year, there is another difference-making player who will be available — Oregon’s star guard, Sabrina Ionescu, the consensus top collegiate player. While there might be some position overlap with Bird and Canada, Ionescu is the sort of uber-talented player who can help carry a team.
Because of new rules designed to curtail tanking, which use two-year cumulative records to determine the odds of the WNBA’s four non-playoff teams, the Storm is unlikely to get the No. 1 choice. They would have about a 10% chance if they had the fourth-best record among the lottery qualifiers. But even at No. 4, a high-quality player is likely to be available, one who can make a strong impact in 2020.
This scenario doesn’t fall into the realm of tanking by the Storm, mind you. Rather, it’s having so much talent depleted via injury that even a team’s best effort might well not be enough.
It was already going to be a steep uphill road without Stewie. Without Bird, it will be near impossible for the Storm to defend the title. So, Storm fans, maybe the new model should involve the San Antonio Spurs. Beset by injuries in 1996-97, including a key one to David Robinson, the Spurs tumbled from 59-23, 62-20 and 55-27 the previous three years to go 20-62 that season.
Their prize? The No. 1 draft choice, which happened to be Wake Forest star Tim Duncan, an instant NBA superstar. The Spurs recovered from that temporary one-season hiccup to win five titles in Duncan’s reign.
Bird said Tuesday that the key for the Storm is to “not worry about the ones who aren’t there. They have to write their own story.”
Maybe there’s still a way for a happy ending. Just a different one than expected.
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