The WNBA began on Jan. 22, 1997 with an Initial Player Allocation draft. Players like Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, and Ruthie Bolton-Holifield, many from the 1996 Olympic national team, were randomly assigned to the eight WNBA teams. The following month, each team drafted two players from the “elite draft,” comprised of women from professional leagues around the world. Finally, on April 28, the league had its college draft. The Houston Comets selected Tina Thompson first overall out of USC. Thompson, along with Swoopes and the inaugural back-to-back MVP Cynthia Cooper, led the Comets to four straight WNBA championships. The Comets have since folded, and after a brief stint with Los Angeles, Thompson and her trademark Mac “Diva” lipstick are in Seattle for their final season, looking to sneak into the playoffs.
The Seattle Storm have won two championships behind one of the all-time point guards in Sue Bird and power forward/center Lauren Jackson, who has a legitimate argument for best ever. Knee surgery and hamstring surgery, respectively, have held out both players from the 2013 season. It was a harbinger of things to come, as just about every team in the WNBA has seen their roster decimated by injuries this year. It’s a big reason there’s so few teams with winning records. It has also allowed teams looking to write the season off to overachieve, like the Storm. The Seattle TV broadcasts feature both playoff anticipation and commercials for the 2014 season featuring a silhouetted Jackson rising from the tunnel like Willis Reed or Godzilla. Storm fans know any playoff game will be a huge success, mostly as something to build on as Bird and Jackson return for the 2014 season.
Seattle fields a veteran team (Second-year forward Shekinna Stricklen is the only rotation player with less than six years experience) behind head coach Brian Agler, who’s been with the Storm since 2008. The team had a predictably rocky start to the season without their two most ubiquitous players, but were able to stay within hollering distance of San Antonio and the Phoenix in the standings. They’ve since passed the Silver Stars and are only a game behind Phoenix[ref]The Storm actually swept the Mercury this season and hold the tiebreaker for the playoffs.[/ref]. Seattle found its stride in August, ever since Thompson was selected as an All-Star reserve for the injured Brittney Griner. The Storm is 8-5 in that span, and Thompson is scoring over 16 points a game and shooting over 42 percent from 3 with almost five attempts a game.
Agler and these vets play a slow style of basketball. They use their length on defense, with only 5-foot-3 Temeka Johnson standing under 6-feet, and run calculated sets on offense. The Storm often run something close to the triangle offense, with three players on one side of the floor – one in the post, one in the corner and one above the three point break. It takes a familiarity with the system and shooters to make it work, things Seattle has in bulk. This creates natural spacing and passing angles, giving players a lot of opportunity to improvise. Most players have found that the best improvisation is giving the ball to Thompson. Thompson is often lurking on the weak side, either set and waiting for a skip pass a few feet behind the arc or clearing out space to go one-on-one. It’s hardly ever a bad gamble to give the ball to the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer.
With Chicago and Minnesota (and Los Angeles) running away with the regular season, it’s easy to forget how competitive a three-game playoff series can be. Once teams are better able to focus on a single opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, gaps can be considerably shortened. If the Storm finish the season off high, they could slip past Phoenix and avoid the Lynx juggernaut in the first round. Unfortunately, they got hit by the Mack truck that is the Minnesota Lynx on Saturday and have two more dates with them this upcoming week. If they can split those, mainly by holding their near league-leading turnovers down for once, then beat Tulsa twice, they most definitely have a shot to make up the two games in the loss column they trail Phoenix by. It’s up to everyone, including her, to see that Tina Thompson goes out of the WNBA with as much dignity as she had when she came in. Or maybe to convince her to stay another year, for 2014.