Just watch Sue Bird’s right leg meet her left leg, and a half-second later, her face meet the floor. The broadcast team calling Sunday night’s Storm-Sparks game paid Bird the most perfunctory of respects before shuffling their focus to the executioner, Erica Wheeler. Charges of boastful elder abuse hardly bothered the Sparks guard. “Move on!” Wheeler tweeted, after her team’s 81-53 win. “Lol like nobody gets spared! Just say nice move!”
Nobody gets spared, indeed. In the second half of their regular season, insult and injury have humbled the once-formidable Seattle Storm. Via late-game heartbreakers, and one worst-ever 32-point regular-season home loss to Chicago, the team has quite creatively tumbled from the top of the standings. At the moment, the defending champions sit in fourth place. Should they lose their regular-season finale against the very competitive Phoenix Mercury on Friday, Seattle will find itself in a situation that might have been unthinkable at the beginning of the summer, or even just three weeks ago: fifth-seed, thrown into the two unforgiving single-elimination rounds that inaugurate the playoffs next week.
If a certain idiot blogger declared the Storm immune to exhaustion a month ago, when the team’s stars, Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird, returned from playing in the Olympics to beat the top-seeded Connecticut Sun in the mid-season Commissioner’s Cup tournament, it was because she misunderstood the patterns of fatigue. For the Storm, its onset has been real, just a little belated. The crash seems to have hit about three or four games into the second half of the season, a slump you can trace in the team’s offensive efficiency. Heading into the Olympic break, the Storm scored 105.3 points per 100 possessions; since returning, that number is now a middle-of-the-pack 98.3. The Storm can devastate opponents with three-pointers, and their offense has come to depend on that weapon much more this year than last year, when they had Natasha Howard in the post. But since the break, the outside attempts have been fewer and the misses have often been short, usually a good sign of players who are a little tired. The team’s three-point percentage was 39.2 in their pre-Olympic games but 33.8 percent in the 10 games they’ve played in August and September.
Fatigue is part of the story but not all of it. The Storm’s opponents in that misleading Commissioner’s Cup game, the Sun, channeled their sorrow into an ongoing 12-game win streak. A Mercury win streak just ended at nine games. The Lynx, after a shaky start to the season, seem to have righted themselves by picking up veteran point guard Layshia Clarendon. The Sky have shaken off some bad injury luck in the first half of the season to look like an actual—dare I say?—title contender for the last two weeks. It’s not that the Storm are hopelessly bad or totally out of the championship picture; it’s just getting much more crowded than expected at the top.
And now, the buried lede: Everything above has happened with Breanna Stewart on the Storm. Last Tuesday, Stewart exited a game against the Mystics with a left foot injury that seemed pretty benign in-game, but could do some more damage. The Storm announced Friday that she’d miss the final two regular-season games and be re-evaluated before the postseason. Was it pure precaution? Head coach Noelle Quinn wouldn’t reveal (or maybe didn’t know) the extent of the injury. Whether it’s team secrecy or medical uncertainty at play, the lack of reassurance that Stewart will be ready to go in the playoffs is a bit worrisome.
The analysis here can only be so sophisticated: The Storm are worse when they are without the best player in the league. They are not really a title contender when they are without the best player in the league. Outside of Seattle’s Big Three, the roster is pretty much devoid of players who can create their own shots. (Third-string veteran point guard Epiphanny Prince might be the next woman up in that respect?) And in a league still run by bigs, the Storm just aren’t equipped to do or defend much of anything inside without Stewart, who in addition to her offensive gifts, brings her team elite defensive skill every night. Against the Sparks on Sunday, the Stewart-less Storm were outrebounded by a crummy team that had, to that point, not outrebounded any team in any game all season.
“We can talk X’s and O’s and we can talk 20 and 10, but when you have Stewie on the floor, there’s just a level of confidence that our team plays with and other teams respect that,” Quinn said after the game.
Evaluating the Storm feels impossible and sort of silly without knowing Stewart’s fate. But if there is something worth evaluating now, it’s just how much her sheer talent could mask what was really a disappointing, net-loss offseason for her team. General managers seldom build their rosters with this kind of disaster in mind, but who can really blame them? Breanna Stewart is the surest bet in basketball; what are the chances you’d need a backup plan?