Last September, the Seattle Storm finished off a WNBA championship season with a sweep, and everyone asked, "Who can stop the Storm from repeating?"
Now as we start July 2019, the question is, "How have the Storm managed to be 8-6 and in fourth place?"
Because if any team had reason to crumble to pieces this season, it's Seattle. Three-fifths of the Storm's starting lineup from its 2018 title team -- Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd -- are sidelined by injury, coach Dan Hughes has recently returned after cancer surgery, and they've played home games in two different arenas (neither of which is their actual home, as KeyArena is undergoing renovations).
Through it all, the Storm have kept their composure and continued to battle. It's hard to say what realistic expectations are the rest of the way for the Storm, because they've been defying those. But Seattle doesn't plan to limp to the finish line.
"They are very adaptable," Hughes said in a nifty bit of understatement. "If you have practice time with them, they value it. And they just have big hearts."
It was bad enough to have lost 2018 MVP Stewart for the season due to an Achilles injury overseas in April. And then to be without Bird for an indeterminate time after knee surgery. The Storm then lost another point guard, second-year player Jordin Canada, for three games to a bone bruise in her left knee, although she has since returned. Even assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg has been seen on the sideline in a sling after suffering an elbow injury in a recent bike accident in downtown Seattle.
But then the Storm lost Loyd, a dynamic guard and the team's second-leading scorer (15.8 PPG), last Tuesday in Las Vegas (the same game Canada returned to the court) on what seemed like an innocuous play. Loyd was going in for a breakaway layup all alone in the first quarter, no defender even close to her. But then her right ankle rolled and she tumbled to the floor.
At that point, you had to wonder how much of a psychological toll it took on Seattle. But the Storm pushed the Aces to end of that game. And while Las Vegas won 60-56, coach Bill Laimbeer was irritated that his Aces didn't execute or show the same spirit that the Storm did despite losing Loyd.
Then Seattle got the news on Loyd -- a ligament sprain, bone bruise and associated soft tissue inflammation -- which means she'll be out at least two weeks. Again, the Storm answered the bell after a disappointment, winning their first test without Loyd 79-76 Friday over visiting Chicago.
The Storm nearly pulled it off again Sunday, but fell 69-67 to visiting Phoenix in a game that again showed Seattle's grit.
"I think we have been adjusting very well as a team, sticking together, holding each other accountable," Seattle center Mercedes Russell said. "Our starting lineup has been fluctuating several games, so we're just getting that flow together and just playing with one another."
Russell, in her second season out of Tennessee, is one of the players who has responded to having more opportunity. She was a second-round draft pick by New York in 2018, but then the Liberty released her and the Storm signed her. She averaged just 5.6 minutes of playing time for Seattle last season. This year, she has started 10 of 14 games and is averaging 25.5 minutes, 7.1 points and 6.1 rebounds.
Canada, also in her second season in the WNBA, has been productive when healthy. The former UCLA standout is averaging 9.8 points and leads the team in assists (4.7) and steals (2.6).
The loss of Loyd meant guard Sami Whitcomb went to a starting role the past two games. But before that, she was part of a reserve corps including Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Crystal Langhorne and Shavonte Zellous that gave the Storm important minutes off the bench and also started a combined 11 games.
Then there are the two "backbone" players: Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark. They started almost every game during the championship season, and Howard is the only Storm player to start all 14 games so far this season.
Clark was out three games early this season as she needed rest and a chance to get her bearings after missing training camp and preseason as she was winning a championship in the French league. Clark, the team's most versatile defender, is averaging 8.7 PPG and 5.7 RPG.
Howard has been one of the most fascinating stories in the WNBA these past two seasons. She was traded from Minnesota, where she was a reserve, and has become a mainstay for Seattle. Howard leads the Storm in scoring (17.9), rebounding (9.1) and blocked shots (1.6).
Storm fans have joked about wanting to put Howard in bubble wrap to protect her after all that has happened to other Seattle standouts. She is the one Seattle player left who is irreplaceable, even for a team as resilient as this one.
The Storm haven't had much good fortune in 2019, but the schedule is at least in their favor as they wait for Loyd's evaluation and return. Their next four games are also at home: two against New York, and against Atlanta and Dallas. Seattle doesn't go on the road again until July 17 at Minnesota, and Loyd might be back by then.
Even if she isn't, the Storm have shown that even though fate has thrown them some knock-down punches, they aren't staying down.
"No matter how hard we've been hit, we've responded," Hughes said. "As a coach, you want to bottle that and keep it forever."