WNBA free agency 2022 - How the return of Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd impacts the Seattle Storm now and beyond

Breanna Stewart, from left, Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd, will all return to the Storm for the 2022 season. Joshua Huston/NBAE via Getty Images

The Seattle Storm will bring back the three stars who anchored WNBA championship teams in 2018 and 2020 and won last year's inaugural Commissioner's Cup for what could be their final run together.

That's most obviously the case with legendary point guard Sue Bird, who announced last month she plans to return for a 19th WNBA season at age 41. Bird has yet to re-sign with the Storm. That's a formality that will be delayed because of the possibility of her taking less than her maximum salary to facilitate other moves, as ESPN's Holly Rowe reported on ESPN's WNBA free agency special Tuesday, the first official day WNBA free agents could sign with teams.

In addition to Bird, who hasn't indicated this is her final season after considering retiring this offseason, the Storm suddenly have reason for concern about the long-term future of two-time Finals MVP Breanna Stewart after she agreed to re-sign for only a single year as an unrestricted free agent.

For now, Bird, Stewart and the team's other All-WNBA pick -- first-team guard Jewell Loyd, designated the Storm's core player -- are all back. And that could mean extra urgency to make the most of the 2022 season -- the team's first playing back in the city of Seattle after the completion of Climate Pledge Arena -- before bigger changes to the roster.

Stewart returns -- for now

The Storm's decision on whether to make Loyd or Stewart a core player was a fascinating one. If given a choice between the two players, the Storm would clearly opt for Stewart, the league's MVP in 2018 and a perennial All-WNBA first-team pick when healthy. (Both players were in the top eight of ESPN's free agent rankings in January.) Seattle hasn't lost a playoff matchup with a healthy Stewart since 2017, as she missed the 2019 and 2021 postseasons due to injury.

If the Storm were certain Stewart would re-sign, making Loyd the core qualifying offer would ensure Seattle could retain both stars -- or at least get value in return if Loyd wanted a sign-and-trade sending her to another team. That's the direction the Storm chose after waiting out the entire two-week period to make such offers.

When Yahoo! Sports subsequently reported early in free agency that Stewart had taken a meeting with the New York Liberty, hearts in Seattle skipped a beat. Could Stewart really leave the team with Bird returning? The answer, it turned out, was no. But Stewart's decision to take a one-year deal preserves her options for next offseason -- when the Storm won't have the core designation available because Loyd signed a two-year contract and will continue to occupy the spot.

From a salary standpoint, there's no benefit to Stewart signing a one-year deal as compared to a longer one. Stewart would make the same amount in 2023 no matter what contract she signed. However, Rowe pointed out that a one-year deal gives Stewart more flexibility in 2023 with regard to the WNBA's coming "prioritization" clause as it relates to on-time arrival from playing overseas.

The other possibility is Stewart's meeting with the Liberty could be a way of laying the groundwork for a move after the upcoming season. We saw something similar with Chelsea Gray, who cited her experience visiting with the Las Vegas Aces as a restricted free agent during the 2020 offseason when she ultimately signed with Las Vegas after becoming unrestricted last year.

Seattle precedent

There's a team that stared down this situation more than a decade ago, back when superstars changing teams in free agency was a rarity because the core designation was far more restrictive: the Storm, who had Bird and Lauren Jackson as stars in their prime, drafted No. 1 in back-to-back years like Loyd and Stewart.

In 2008, Seattle made Bird a core player. Like Loyd, she re-signed for two years, leaving the core unavailable the next offseason when Jackson hit unrestricted free agency. After seriously considering a move to the Phoenix Mercury to team up with Diana Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter and Penny Taylor -- who would go on to win their second championship that season -- Jackson made the decision to return to the Storm, re-signing on a one-year contract before agreeing to a multiyear deal the following offseason.

Bird went through her own process of deciding to stay in Seattle, albeit later in her career. When Jackson's WNBA career ended prematurely due to a series of injuries and the Storm faced a rebuilding period, Bird considered leaving for her hometown Liberty before ultimately making the choice to finish her career in Seattle. That decision was rewarded when the Storm won back-to-back lotteries a second time in franchise history, adding Loyd and Stewart, and becoming contenders while Bird was still one of the league's top point guards.

Because of that experience, Seattle has a playbook for selling Stewart on signing up long-term. It undoubtedly starts with a successful 2022.

Tweaks in store for Storm

In addition to the three stars, Seattle also entered the offseason with three key restricted free agents in starting center Mercedes Russell and rotation reserves Jordin Canada and Stephanie Talbot. That uncertainty presented both question marks and an opportunity for the Storm to remake a roster in 2021 with the departures of Alysha Clark, Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb in free agency.

At this point, it appears Seattle's roster changes will be modest. The team courted Chicago Sky center Stefanie Dolson before she decided to sign with New York, as reported by The Athletic and confirmed by Rowe. With Dolson off the table, the Storm on Tuesday re-signed Russell, who emerged as a strong fit with Seattle's high-scoring starters thanks to her defense and ability to play without the ball. Per HerHoopStats.com, Russell signed for $160,000 annually for three years, a salary that likely takes big-name additions out of the mix.

Multiple reports have indicated the Storm agreed to a deal with former Connecticut Sun guard Briann January, a native of Eastern Washington who could fill multiple roles in the Seattle backcourt. If Canada departs, January could back up Bird. Alternatively, January's lockdown defense -- she earned All-Defensive first team honors for the fifth time in her career last season -- might earn her a spot in smaller lineups to close games with Loyd sliding to small forward.

Ultimately, a healthy Stewart will undoubtedly be the biggest difference for the Storm come the postseason. She was injured on Sept. 7 and missed Seattle's final two games of the regular season, including a win over the Mercury to secure a first-round bye. The same two teams met in the second round of the playoffs, when Phoenix handed the Storm an 85-80 loss in overtime.

With all three stars healthy, Seattle is competitive with any team in the league. The Commissioner's Cup was evidence of that. Playing against a rested Connecticut Sun team that had no players involved in the Olympics, the Storm pulled off an upset in dominant fashion (79-57) behind 17 points in 27 minutes from Stewart -- just days removed from winning MVP as the U.S. women's national team won gold in Tokyo, with Bird and Loyd also part of the American team.

What remains to be seen is how much longer that group will stay together.