WNBA: Stewart’s decision, Bird’s replacement major factors for Storm

The Seattle Storm had a mostly successful 2022 regular season, finishing 22-14 and earning the WNBA‘s No. 4 overall playoff seed, but their postseason run didn’t go as hoped. Seattle lost in the semifinals in four games to the eventual champion Las Vegas Aces, and burning questions have been surrounding the future of the franchise ever since.

A major part of that, of course, is the end of the Sue Bird era. The face of the franchise for two decades, Bird’s recent retired is something the Storm have known was coming, but that won’t make replacing her any easier.

Even more concerning for Seattle, though, is the free agency of 2018 WNBA MVP and two-time Finals MVP Breanna Stewart. An unrestricted free agent, Stewart may sign wherever she chooses, and you can bet several other teams will be moving heaven and earth in an effort to land her.

What makes this particularly noteworthy is that, for the most part, the Storm have been able to avoid this exact situation for a remarkably long time. Bird, Stewart and All-WNBA shooting guard Jewell Loyd have made up the team’s core since 2016, winning championships in 2018 and 2020 while making individual concessions here and there to give Seattle management a better opportunity at building consistently competitive rosters.

Those days are now behind us, though. If the Storm are to remain one of the WNBA’s top teams, they must not only convince Stewart to stay, but also complement her and Loyd with other high-profile acquisitions.


by the numbers*

Free agents (type) (2022 salary)

  • Breanna Stewart (unrestricted) ($228,094)
  • Gabby Williams (restricted) ($144,000)
  • Epiphany Prince (unrestricted) ($115,000)
  • Jantel Lavender (unrestricted) ($72,141)
  • Stephanie Talbot (unrestricted) ($72,141)
  • Ezi Magbegor (reserved) ($60,471)
  • Tina Charles (unrestricted) ($34,285)

Total average salary of free agents: $938,273

Total team salary: $394,936

Cap space: $1,025,564


Analysis

Chicago Sky v Seattle Storm

Center Ezi Magbegor is due for a significant pay raise after playing at a Defensive Player of the Year level for much of 2022.
Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Seattle’s primary issue is, first and foremost, its sheer number of free agents. The Storm currently have just two players (Loyd and Mercedes Russell) under contract for the 2023 season, which is the fewest of any WNBA team.

This could be looked at with either a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty perspective. With so much salary coming off their books, the Storm enter free agency with an abundance of cap space, and they’ll be able make several big offers to the market’s top free agents to play alongside Loyd, who was re-signed to a hefty “super max” Deal last offseason after garnering the team’s core designation.

However, the Storm are also at risk of taking quite a fall if things don’t go their way in free agency. They’ll need to prioritize which free agents they’re going to court and do so quickly; should they miss out on their top two or three targets, they’ll struggle to reach the lofty levels of competitiveness they’ve enjoyed since 2018 and may have to alter their overall course as a franchise.

As Stewart goes, so will the Storm’s franchise trajectory

In recent seasons, Seattle has been in “win now” mode, fielding one of the most talented rosters in the WNBA while also trying to win one more championship with Bird before her retirement. The majority of their transactions in 2022 reflected this: Prior to the season, Seattle included its only 2022 first-round draft pick in a trade for Gabby Williams (the Storm made several selections in the second and third rounds of the 2022 WNBA Draftbut none of them made the team’s final roster) and signed legendary center Tina Charles midway through the season in hopes that the nine-time All-Star’s hunger for a championship would match the franchise’s own short-term ambitions.

The Storm fell short of that goal, however, and are now left in the delicate situation of trying to retain their superstar while having few assets to fall back on if they can’t. Should Stewart choose to re-sign with Seattle — even if it’s for only one season — the Storm should, by default, remain in the hunt for a WNBA championship in 2023, regardless of how they choose to fill out the rest of their roster. They’ll have no choice but to surround her with as much talent as they can afford, which wouldn’t be a particularly hard sell to any player wanting to win a championship.

If Stewart signs elsewhere, though, Seattle’s trajectory as a franchise will change dramatically. The Storm would have to make a decision: Either take a big swing at several of the next-best free agents on the market, re-tool around Loyd and try to remain competitive, or enter more of a developmental phase with younger players, which is something that, due to the year-by-year continuity of the top end of their roster, they haven’t had to do in quite some time. In this respect, Stewart is the offseason’s biggest domino, and which way she falls will determine the Storm’s course of action — for better or for worse.

Which point guard will be Bird’s heir?

Regardless of what happens with Stewart, one thing is for sure: The Storm needs a point guard.

That’s not something WNBA fans are used to. Bird’s name became synonymous with the position during her 19 seasons in Seattle, her 580 regular-season games played the most by any player in league history.

Still, the Storm enter the post-Bird era with no immediate in-house replacement. Briann January also retired after 2022, having played 14 seasons in the WNBA, while 13-year veteran Prince’s future with the team is unknown; if she’s brought back, it seems unlikely that it would be in a role much larger than the one she’s been playing off the Storm’s bench.

It’s been speculated that longtime Chicago Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot would be open to joining the Storm in 2023, and on the surface, it would make sense. The WNBA’s current record-holder for most assists in a season, Vandersloot was born in Kent, Washington and played collegiate basketball at Gonzaga University in Spokane; if she wants to play closer to home, Seattle would be the obvious choice, and the Storm will have the cap space to make Vandersloot an enticing offer.

Seattle could also choose to bolster its point guard position through the draft. Currently, the earliest the Storm will pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft is No. 8 overall, and if they’re looking to take a guard with that pick, players like Charisma Osborne (UCLA), Jacy Sheldon (Ohio State), Ashley Owusu (Virginia Tech) and Celeste Taylor (Duke) would be possibilities. The Storm also own the rights to Australian guard Jade Melbourne, who they selected in the third round of the 2022 WNBA Draft; Melbourne is still very young at just 20 years old, but this season could be the perfect opportunity for her to make her WNBA debut on a team in desperate need of her skills.

Magbegor will be a key building block for Seattle

It isn’t all doom and gloom for Seattle. The Storm figure to have one of the game’s up-and-coming international stars in Magbegor, and they’ll have her exclusive negotiating rights after extending a qualifying offer to her last week.

Magbegor made visible strides in 2022, averaging 11.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots per game as the Storm’s starting center and anchoring what was the league’s best defense during that period. Magbegor’s role on the team diminished after the team signed Charles — putting a damper on what was shaping up to be a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber season — but the Storm are in no danger of losing her to another team, and they’ll surely reward her development with a new contract for 2023 and beyond.

Will Williams be able to play?

Another Storm player due for a raise is Williams, whose status as a restricted free agent will give Seattle a chance to match any offer made by a rival team and keep her on for 2023.

Williams may not even get a chance to play, however. In accordance with the WNBA prioritization clause that takes effect this year, any player who is not with their respective WNBA team by the start of the regular season will automatically be suspended by the league for the entirety of the season.

That’s a problem for Williams, who is currently playing overseas for French basketball club LDLC ASVEL Féminin. The end of the Ligue Feminine de Basketball season will overlap with the beginning of the 2023 WNBA season, meaning that Williams could be forced to take the summer off. If that’s the case, the Storm will be down one of their most athletic players and their best defensive playmaker on the perimeter.


* All salary numbers come from Her Hoop Stats.

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