Storm look stronger for 2011

For years now, Seattle point guard Sue Bird had pretty much the same thing to say to management when the WNBA season ended.

"You have these exit interviews, and the question comes up: 'What do you think we need?'" Bird said. "And I'd always say, 'Katie Smith. Please just get Katie Smith here, and everything would be great.'

"From playing with her on the national team, I knew what kind of player she was, what kind of person she was. I always felt she would be a perfect fit for our franchise."

Bird certainly didn't have to convince Seattle's Brian Agler, who'd coached Smith in the short-lived ABL and in the WNBA with Minnesota. The deal to bring Smith to Seattle was finalized April 29.

"I was very excited," Bird said. "Adding her to this team, coming off a championship year, you're getting an experienced, veteran, smart player. And she's tough as hell. Everything the Storm has stood for, Katie stands for the same things."

Indeed, what the Storm have been -- thanks mostly to the enduring star duo of Bird and center Lauren Jackson -- is a team that displays the best of professionalism with some of the charm of what's great about college basketball. Even if Jackson didn't play in college, her "do it for your mates" Aussie mindset is a near-identical mentality that has been fostered at Bird's and Storm teammate Swin Cash's alma mater, UConn.

Of course, the WNBA is a business -- players get cut, there are trades, free agents move. You have to produce. The bonds that exist among players who are still kids in college are harder to cultivate and maintain among the adults in a pro environment where jobs are at a premium.

To a degree, though, it can be done. Not because everybody is buddy-buddy and hangs out constantly -- although with the Storm, there is tangible comradeship. But what's most important on a professional team is a shared sense of responsibility and accountability. Bird and Jackson have been the Storm's bedrock in that way for nearly a decade.

"Sue and Lauren are probably the most low-maintenance people I've ever been around," Agler said. "They come to practice every day, they're extremely focused and hold themselves to a high standard of play.

"And I would categorize Swin and Katie in that same mode. They are very prideful people, and they understand that it's not just on game night that you turn it on. It's in practice; it's every day you come to work. And, at any level, when your best players are working the hardest, then you have a chance to really put things together. It's not a guarantee things will work out, but usually you have some success."

The Storm had a lot of that last year, going 28-6 in the regular season and sweeping all three playoff series for the franchise's second WNBA championship.

Jackson, who averaged 20.5 points and 8.3 rebounds in the regular season, was the league and finals MVP. Cash was second on the team in scoring (13.8) and rebounding (6.0) and had moments in certain games when her intense energy was the difference for Seattle.

Bird had as masterful a season running the point as any in her career and hit clutch shots at the biggest times, including the Game 1 winner in the WNBA finals against Atlanta.

All three, along with Agler, also would stress the nut-and-bolts, gritty contributions of starters Tanisha Wright and Camille Little, along with reserve Le'coe Willingham.

"I look at Tanisha, Le'coe and Camille as really the culture of our team," Agler said. "They're vitally important to us. We have our stars out there, but we also have a group of people who really thrive on doing the dirty work, the little things it takes to win."

Then Agler laughs and adds, "But I do have to say our stars are really like that, too."

Which is exactly why Smith will fit in so well. During her career she has been an elite-level scorer but also is known as one of the more versatile, physical defenders in league history.

Smith will turn 37 Saturday, as the Storm open the season against visiting Phoenix (ABC, 3 p.m. ET). She was Minnesota's best player in the six-plus seasons she spent with the Lynx. But the trade in the 2005 season that sent her to Detroit was the best thing for her pro career.

Willingly adapting into more of a role player as she has gotten older, Smith has proved as adept at the so-called "little things" as she was at being a team's focal point. She won two WNBA titles with Detroit, then moved to Washington when the Shock left for Tulsa. Agler thought it was certainly not a coincidence that when Smith went to D.C., the Mystics finished first in the Eastern Conference for the first time.

With Jackson, Bird, Cash, Wright, Little and Willingham back, there wasn't much tinkering that needed to be done with the Storm for 2011. Adding Smith, though, might be a case of perfect chemistry becoming even "more" perfect.

Yet as Agler said, that doesn't guarantee anything. Every team in the Western Conference appears to have improved, and they all want to bring down the Storm. None more so than Phoenix, which went 0-7 against Seattle last season.

And the whole chemistry issue is not something you can just decide exists because all the right elements are there.

"It's actually not so easy to verbalize," Bird said. "Sometimes, it's just a feeling you have amongst each other. One thing I've always experienced on the teams I've been on that have been successful is that it's been a great group of people. I'm not even talking about basketball. Just as people.

"I've also been on teams where we got along great, but didn't have the success. Chemistry has to do with personality, the actual people. But another thing is toughness. Every team I've been on that won championships, there was a toughness there. No matter what the situation, good game or bad game, those teams find a way to win. When you do that -- and that was the case a lot last year -- that's when you know you have a special team."

That said, these players and Agler also know that it's best not to compare whatever goes on this season too much to last year. Simply because there will be different challenges at different times, as is always the case season to season. Seattle 2011 could have a record that is not as good as 2010, but just as solid a shot at winning the title.

"We understand we set the bar pretty high last year," Agler said. "Now this team is going to have its own personality and own identity. It's not that we won't refer to what worked for us last year; at times, we will. But this season is going to take its own course."

Bird recalls that at the start of last season, Agler had a meeting in which he asked everyone what they expected and wanted.

"And I said that our group had so much fun together off the court, and everyone was such good friends," Bird said, "that I wanted these people to experience the fun of a championship.

"Brian's been really good in that he trusts each player's routine. He will help in any way he can to get you ready -- if you need a rebounder after practice, if you need someone to talk to, he takes care of it. But he trusts that we're going to be ready to go. Everyone did what they needed to do individually, and then when we got on the court together, we did it as a team."

Now, Seattle will try to do it again. During the winter months, before she went to Russia to play, Bird enjoyed a little down time and occasionally would remind herself of what the Storm had done.

"When you take into account the amount of time it took to get back there, after we'd won the first one, it was a great thing for us," Bird said. "The grind of the WNBA season, the amount of talent -- it means things just have to happen in your favor. Every year, whatever team wins, some things have to go your way.

"After every championship, the best feeling is that you have no regrets. None. Nothing bothers you. All you know is that you won, you're the champion."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.