What's up with the Seattle Storm?
The defending WNBA champions, who also won the title in 2018 before losing Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart to season-ending injuries in 2019, added another trophy to their case last month with the inaugural Commissioner's Cup. Back then, the Storm had the league's best record and looked like strong contenders to become the first WNBA repeat winners since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001 and 2002.
Yet since the Commissioner's Cup final, Seattle is just 2-5. Close losses in its first two games after the Cup, with Bird and Stewart sitting out to rest, were unsurprising, but a three-game losing streak over the past week has been more troubling. Seattle's 32-point loss on Sunday against the Chicago Sky was the worst regular-season home loss in franchise history.
What has caused the Storm's slump, and can they shake it off in time for the start of the playoffs?
Shooting ability was the biggest factor driving the Storm's 105.3 offensive rating before the Olympic break, second best in the WNBA behind the Las Vegas Aces. If we evaluate the quality of a team's shots based on its broad location types (in the restricted area, elsewhere in the paint, non-paint 2- and 3-point attempts from either the corner or above the break) based on the typical points those shots yield leaguewide, only the Aces were exceeding that expected effective field goal percentage (xeFG) by more than the Storm in terms of their actual eFG%.
Since the conclusion of the Olympics, the Storm's shot-making has been worse than expected based on the type of shots the team is taking. And even if we take out the two games Bird and Stewart missed, Seattle barely climbs above league average in terms of shot-making.
After Friday's 73-69 loss to Chicago, during which the Storm shot 3-of-17 on 3-pointers, coach Noelle Quinn said she was OK with the attempts the Storm took that didn't go down.
"Happy with the looks that we got," she said. "One of our keys was to move the ball from side to side and I think we took a couple of quick ones, but for the most part the ones that we got, we got some decent looks."
If anything, the issue seems to be that Seattle isn't getting enough 3-point attempts. A little more than a third of the Storm's shots came from long distance before the break, the league's third-highest rate behind the New York Liberty and Washington Mystics. Over the five games Bird and Stewart have played since the Olympics, that has dropped to 31%, right around the WNBA average.
Seattle needs to be effective from long distance because the team doesn't get many attempts in the restricted area around the basket -- a big difference from 2020, when only the Connecticut Sun shot more frequently in the restricted area. This year, the Storm rank 10th in that category.
Fatigue a likely factor
On Friday night, Quinn admitted her team is struggling with fatigue -- both mental and physical. The Storm's five Olympians, including Bird, Stewart and Jewell Loyd from the U.S. team that won gold on Aug. 7, had just a few days' break between wrapping up play in Tokyo and playing for the Commissioner's Cup in Phoenix on Aug. 12. Seattle then launched immediately into a five-game road trip to resume the regular season, much of it on the East Coast.
In particular, Stewart -- who also fit the Aug. 9 birth of daughter Ruby into the narrow window between the Olympics and the resumption -- hasn't been able to knock down shots in the manner we're accustomed to seeing from the two-time Finals MVP. She has shot 5-of-26 (19%) from 3-point range since the two-game break and 43% inside the arc, far off her marks before the break (36% and 50%, respectively).
Bird and Loyd have shot typical percentages on 3s since the Olympics, but both are down in terms of 2-point accuracy -- Bird from 52% to 32%, Loyd from 49% to 37%.
Still, Stewart didn't want to hear anything about the mental and physical toll at this stage of the season.
"I don't think it's fatigue, and also fatigue is not an option right now because we're in our final push," she said Friday. "So everybody needs to be doing what they have to do individually to make sure that they're ready, their bodies are ready to go and also the mind over matter thing."
The schedule now breaks in the Storm's favor. Thursday's game against the New York Liberty is Seattle's only one in an eight-day stretch, allowing more time for rest and practice the Storm didn't get during the Olympics with five players absent and Katie Lou Samuelson returning from a breakthrough case of COVID-19 that prevented her from joining the USA 3x3 team in Tokyo. There's also just one road trip remaining on the Storm's schedule, a relatively short one by West Coast standards to Los Angeles.
Lower margin for error
On the opposite side of the ball, we're seeing much the same effect in reverse. The Storm's other defensive attributes have stayed stable and the quality of opponent shots is more or less the same over the past seven games as it was before the break.
Yet led by the Sky's 15-of-22 shooting from 3-point range on Sunday -- the highest 3-point percentage in a game this season at 68% -- Seattle opponents have gone from making 31% of their 3s before the Olympic break to 42% since it. In relative terms, that's the difference between the second-lowest opponent 3-point percentage (behind Las Vegas) pre-Olympics and the highest post-Olympics.
The Seattle Storm lost at home to the Chicago Sky on Sunday, 107-75.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 30, 2021
The 32-pt margin of defeat was the worst regular season home loss in team history.
The only other time Seattle lost a home game by at least 30 pts was in their debut season of 2000 (a 30-pt loss to Houston). pic.twitter.com/c9tSpgp3hq
Add those up and the Storm have had about average luck in terms of opponent 3-point shooting overall. We shouldn't expect their opponents to shoot as poorly as they did before the break or as well as they have since it. And that speaks to the crux of Seattle's issue.
Last year's team, with defensive stalwarts Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard joining the three Olympians in the starting five, had as much margin for error as any team in recent WNBA history. The 2020 Storm could survive Bird missing half the regular season due to injuries and still finish tied for the league's best record, thanks in part to the WNBA's stingiest defense by a wide margin.
At best, the 2021 Storm can reach similar heights, as we saw during their Commissioner's Cup blowout of the league-leading Sun -- whom Seattle has beaten in all three head-to-head matchups this year, twice with Connecticut at full strength. But the Storm's depth took a severe hit with both Clark and Howard, along with key reserve Sami Whitcomb, departing in free agency. Now Seattle doesn't have the same luxury of overcoming adversity.
Even if they're due mostly to fatigue and fluky opponent shooting, the Storm's recent losses have made a top-two seed and a double bye to the semifinals a long shot. Seattle's path to defending the title now likely includes a single-elimination game at home (possibly a rematch with Chicago) and could go through both the Aces and the Sun without home-court advantage for either five-game series.
If Stewart and the other stars can get back on track in terms of shooting, we shouldn't count out the Storm, but the chances of a repeat are now looking much slimmer.