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Why coach Dan Hughes might be exactly what the Seattle Storm need

Dan Hughes has coached more WNBA games (524) than anyone, with a 237-287 all-time record in the league Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

When Dan Hughes left the WNBA after the San Antonio Stars' 2016 season, it seemed like the word "retired" needed an asterisk next to it.

He was stepping away with no guarantee he would coach again, but he didn't rule it out. However, he said if he did return, it likely would not be in the WNBA, where he had worked since 1998.

Over the past year, he did television commentary, gave basketball clinics and went to practices, never straying far from the sport but also getting enough distance to gain some new perspective. So he was right there, in a receptive frame of mind, when the WNBA came back to him.

"It wasn't like I was looking for an opportunity," said Hughes, who was named the Seattle Storm's new coach earlier this month. "But I thought if somebody called and it sounded good, I'd do it."

The Storm job sounded just right. He didn't want a front-office position again, and he doesn't have to do that with Alisha Valavanis as Seattle's general manager. What he really missed was the teaching part of coaching basketball. With two young superstars in Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart still figuring out their own games and how best to play together, Hughes has the potential to teach a lot.

He's also a big admirer of point guard Sue Bird, who just turned 37. She wants to play for a while longer and get the Storm back to some kind of peak. The franchise's third WNBA championship would be the ultimate dream, but even a winning record would be progress. The last of those for the Storm was in 2011. They haven't won a playoff game since 2012.

"He made it clear he believes we have the core pieces to have a winning team."

Storm GM Alisha Valavanis on coach Dan Hughes

Hughes has coached more WNBA games than anyone -- 524, with a 237-287 overall record -- in stints with Charlotte, Cleveland and San Antonio. But he hasn't won a championship. The closest he came was in 2008, when the Stars fell to Detroit 3-0 in the WNBA Finals.

In the nine years since, the Stars have had a winning record just twice and haven't won a playoff series. Sandy Brondello was the Stars' head coach in 2010 while Hughes was the GM, and Vickie Johnson was the team's coach this past season after his departure.

During the rest of that time, though, Hughes was head coach for a team that wasn't able to stay competitive (and is now moving to Las Vegas). So it's reasonable to ask why the Storm believe he can turn the tide in Seattle.

Hughes and Valavanis said they have that optimism in part because both are on the same page about their evaluation of what Seattle possesses and what it needs.

"I really do believe we have the critical pieces, and we're looking to shore up the rest of the roster," said Valavanis, who will have the No. 5 draft pick in 2018. "And Dan's perspective is in alignment with that; he made it clear he believes we have the core pieces to have a winning team."

Hughes knows the WNBA and its personnel as well as anyone, and he kept up with it during his brief time away.

"I wondered how I would be about watching WNBA games," Hughes said. "I became a major fan. And I really enjoyed that. I bought the league pass, and I was watching games every night."

Now he's rewatching all the Storm's games, and "reliving" what was a mixed season for the organization in 2017. There was the high of hosting the All-Star Game, and doing it so well. There was Bird eclipsing the WNBA assist record, and both Loyd and Stewart showing their skills at times in dazzling ways. But ...

"On the court, we did not get the success we were hoping for," Valavanis said. "From that end, we underachieved."

That cost coach Jenny Boucek her job on Aug. 10, when the Storm were 10-16 and had lost four games in a row. Assistant Gary Kloppenburg, who had past head-coaching experience, took over the rest of the way, going 5-3 in the regular season and falling at Phoenix in the single-elimination first round of the playoffs. Some thought Kloppenburg would be a good choice to stay. But the Storm went in a different direction.

"He's got the knowledge. He's got the experience," Bird said of Hughes. "Paired up with where our team is right now, with our youth and the season we're coming off of, I think it's a really good fit."

Hughes will be the fifth head coach for Bird at Seattle, following Anne Donovan, Brian Agler, Boucek and Kloppenburg.

"For the most part, you just have to buy in and trust," Bird said of adjusting to a new coach. "Some of that is earned. But in order to make that work as quickly as possible, you kind of have to blindly trust. Because Dan has proven himself, the blind trust isn't that hard to give."

The biggest question Hughes has to confront is this: If the Storm truly haven't lived up to their potential, why has that been the case?

Seattle got Loyd as the No. 1 pick in 2015 and Stewart at No. 1 in 2016. Those two alone make people think the Storm should be a championship contender, but in truth, the league is too tough for even two players as good as them to march in and take over. Not unless everything around them on the Storm is working well, too, and they are getting the most out of playing in tandem.

"They're still learning how magical it can be as they learn to do things together," Hughes said. "That's where I step in."

Valavanis sounds hopeful of bringing back free-agent forward Crystal Langhorne. Forward Alysha Clark was the team's other starter. But there was little production from the bench. And defensively, the Storm lag considerably behind the league's top franchises, Minnesota and Los Angeles, which have met in the WNBA Finals the past two years.

"You've got to have an eye toward the best," Hughes said. "You better have a way to compete and ultimately try to overtake those teams. I'm not coming in with a long-term plan; I'm looking at the present. How can we take this team and get them to that level?"

Maybe that's one of the best reasons why Hughes is right for this job: He's looking for positive results immediately. He has a sense of urgency and a fresh, energized outlook that taking a step back can provide.

"I've had coaches tell me that is really good for a career," Hughes said of what now, instead of a retirement, is probably best referred to as a kind of sabbatical. "In that time, I was open to studying other things and thinking about things in different ways. I want to be open-minded about what we can do best in Seattle.

"I know what I've done in the past. But I want to be a 2018 coach with the team I've got."