The Seattle Storm can still be title contenders and why a pivotal stretch might define New York Liberty

Breanna Stewart and Seattle are 6-5. After an eight-game home stand, the Storm's next five games are on the road. Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Before the 2022 WNBA season tipped off, few would have believed that the four-time champion Seattle Storm would be sitting in seventh place in the standings and just one game over .500 about one-third of the way through the regular season. In ESPN's preseason predictions, two of our three WNBA writers picked the Storm to reach the Finals, with yours truly selecting them as her championship favorites.

Yet here we are, the Storm's season to date producing more of a whimper than a bang after a 1-3 start and recent two-game losing streak. On Sunday, Seattle -- fully healthy for the first time this season -- relinquished a 13-point first-half lead in a 93-86 loss to the Connecticut Sun.

But on Tuesday, Seattle surpassed the .500 mark with a 72-60 win over the Atlanta Dream, concluding an eight-game home stand.

As franchise linchpin Sue Bird, the epitome of calm, said after Sunday's loss: "It's not time to panic. We're going to be able to work things out, we're going to get better. It's a given."

There's reason to believe she's right.

More than most other teams in title contention, Seattle has dealt with significant lineup disruptions to start 2022. Starting center Mercedes Russell made her season debut just last week after dealing with a non-basketball-related injury and is still on a minutes restriction. The Storm have also lost five key players -- Breanna Stewart, Epiphanny Prince, Steph Talbot, Bird and Ezi Magbegor -- to COVID-19 protocols over the first month of the season, with multiple concurrently sidelined for multiple games. Seattle's 51-point scoring output in last week's loss to the Dallas Wings was their worst since Stewart was drafted, but it also came without Bird and Magbegor, who has been a revelation on both ends of the floor this season.

Seattle had less roster turnover than many teams this offseason, though it still brought in Gabby Williams, Briann January and Jantel Lavender, the first two of which have been more significant contributors. Storm players and members of the coaching staff have stressed that with the full roster now at their disposal, both in practice and in games, they can better establish chemistry and said that things have been and will continue to trend in the right direction.

"I've had my fair share of experiences in this league with losing players, injuries and this and that," Bird said. "[COVID-19 issues] are real reasons. They're not excuses. ... The word I continue to come back to is 'encouraged.' I'm not stressed. I'm not panicked about those things because I do feel like we can continue to build. We've just got a bit of a late start."

That said, while the Storm defense has been mostly solid -- it ranks second in the league in defensive rating at 93.7) -- there are legitimate issues on the offensive end that will lower the team's ceiling if they aren't addressed. Seattle is 10th in offensive rating (95.8) despite finishing in the top four in the league all but one season (2019, when Bird and Stewart were out) since winning the 2018 championship. The Storm are shooting 40.5% from the field (11th in the league) and just 32.9% from 3 (eighth), where they take more shots than any other team, and come in last in free throw attempts per game.

The Storm have yet to get their bench -- tied for the third-least points per game in the league -- going offensively, and that will need to change to reach their goals. But it also doesn't help that Bird is having what would be a career-worst season shooting-wise -- 31.8% from the field, though her 3-point clip of 37.5% is much more respectable -- and Jewell Loyd's efficiency has taken a slight hit.

Still, they turned over the ball 19 times Tuesday against the Dream despite typically not being turnover-prone, only later pulling away with the win, and have given up double-digit leads in multiple games (some of which occurred with their bench in). In response, there has been an internal focus for the players to maintain their aggressiveness.

It's not simply a matter of shots not going in, though. Second-year head coach Noelle Quinn spoke Tuesday about the team needing to put players in spaces to be more successful and help them score easier.

"Teams know our stuff. They're loading up, and we're not a team that is going to go downhill and blow by people and get into the paint and pound you," Quinn said in regards to the starters specifically. "It's a matter of continuing to grow and get better in our stuff, whether it is our spacing, not being stagnant on the backside, cutting, screening, movement, that helps loosen up defenses, ball movement helps that as well."

The Storm know this upcoming five-game road swing -- which includes matchups against the Dallas Wings and Connecticut Sun, both of whom recently beat Seattle -- is an important stretch. A win against the Sun, who are second in the standings, would particularly help the Storm re-establish themselves as the championship contender so many thought they'd be.

Regardless of what happens these next two weeks, though, last year showed that playoff success can be all about timing.

"The thing I always think about when going through adversity is Chicago was the blueprint," Quinn said. "They won a championship and they were [16-16]."

It helps, too, when you have the WNBA's all-time assists leader, a two-time Finals MVP, a three-time All-Star and a potential Most Improved Player candidate as your foundation.

Liberty back on track?

Things are looking up in Brooklyn. The Liberty have won three of their last four games and announced Wednesday they've signed Marine Johannes to a rest-of-season contract for her first appearance with the franchise since 2019.

Admittedly, New York's hot streak mostly came against teams currently slated to miss the playoffs, but they got a big dub over the Alysha Clark-less Mystics, too. Sabrina Ionescu has been on fire as of late, averaging 26 points per game on 57% shooting (47% from 3) and five assists. Han Xu, also in her first WNBA season since 2019, also has been a difference-maker.

New York has an increasingly promising chance of turning around its season if Ionescu, who has been playing more off the ball as of late, can become the star she's shown herself capable of being more consistently -- and with the talent the Liberty will surround her with as players return from injury (DiDi Richards could be back imminently) or as late arrivals (Rebecca Allen and now Johannes).

After taking on the Fever on Friday, the Liberty have a brutal stretch of games against the Chicago Sky, Washington Mystics, Storm, Sun and Dream (twice). How they close out June will indicate a lot about what this team is capable of doing, particularly against higher-caliber teams, as they seek not just to return to the postseason, but to build upon last year's run.

Game of the week: Chicago Sky-Connecticut Sun

Friday's 2021 WNBA semifinals rematch (7 p.m. ET, Twitter) features a clash of two teams that are also in the title race this season and two of three teams remaining which have three or fewer losses to start 2022. Connecticut will look to avenge last year's result, as the top-seeded Sun fell in four games to the eventual champion Sky.

Julie Allemand could make her season debut (and debut with the Sky after being traded from the Indiana Fever in the offseason) this week and is expected to further bolster Chicago's backcourt depth. Meanwhile, the Sun are coming off a successful road trip with four games in six days, beating the Aces, Phoenix Mercury and Storm in that span.

Jonquel Jones had a stellar week after an up-and-down start to the summer; how the Sun continue to involve her, while increasingly putting the ball in Alyssa Thomas' hands following Jasmine Thomas' season-ending ACL injury, will be something to monitor.

Fantasy women's basketball picks

Who to start: The emergence of Magbegor on both ends has been a bright spot for Seattle to start 2022, and she'll be key to a successful road swing coming up.

While she had some ups and downs early on in the season, Ionescu has been red-hot for the Liberty as of late, and is a must-start player heading into the weekend when New York will face Indiana.

Now is a good week as any to start any Vegas players, as the Aces face the struggling Sparks (who are particularly vulnerable defensively), although Jackie Young's status for Saturday remains unclear.

Of note: Allemand will return to the Sky imminently and could be a nice pickup for your fantasy league.

Who to sit: Sophie Cunningham is out for a few weeks with an elbow injury.

While it's unclear the severity of the issue, Elena Delle Donne left the Mystics' game Wednesday with back tightness. Given her injury issues, it might be wise to bench her for the time being.