2020 Reflections and 2021 Forecasts: Seattle Storm
What is the Seattle Storm’s salary cap situation and what might the team look like next year?
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While so many teams were scrambling and trying to stay together amidst the complexities of 2020, Seattle swept their way to the franchise's fourth WNBA championship. Now the question is whether the Storm can become the first team to retain their title in nearly 20 years. We continue our team-by-team assessments with a look at the Seattle Storm.
By the Numbers
Record: 18-4 (.818), won WNBA title
Points Scored: 87.5 (2nd), Points Allowed: 76.0 (1st), Margin Per Game: 11.5 (1st)
Offensive Rating: 106.1 (2nd), Defensive Rating: 91.8 (1st), Net Rating: 14.2 (1st)
Pace: 82.7 (6th)
While 2020 has obviously been a very difficult and complicated year for everyone, once the season began nearly everything went remarkably smoothly for the Storm. They had Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird back in the fold after missing the 2019 season and they slid back in seamlessly, deepening the bench by allowing Jordin Canada and Mercedes Russell to drop back to reserve roles. Unlike several other teams that lost key players due to opt-out decisions, the Storm's only subtraction was head coach Dan Hughes, who was replaced by assistant Gary Kloppenburg with seemingly very little disruption. Even during the season Seattle only really had one meaningful injury or absence to handle, with Bird missing half their games. However, it always felt like they were nursing Bird through the regular season, confident they could keep winning without her and saving her for the postseason.
Despite giving up the No. 1 seed on the final day of the regular season, Seattle was the best team in the league all year long - both according to the statistics and the eye-test. Even with Bird going in and out of the lineup and Natasha Howard starting the year off shockingly slowly on the offensive end, their team defense dominated and the offense flowed, allowing the Storm to keep the minutes of key players like Stewart, Bird and Jewell Loyd under control. They stretched defenses out by shooting nearly 40% from three-point range, with virtually everyone in the rotation besides Canada and Russell a threat to fire, while Stewart was a top-two MVP candidate throughout the year. Stewart, Howard and Alysha Clark were all Defensive Player of the Year candidates, while there were even bright spots off the bench from Sami Whitcomb's gunning and rookie post Ezi Magbegor showing flashes of what might be to come from her in future years.
The Storm won their six playoff games by a combined 92 points. Their biggest scare came when the opening game of their semi-final series against Minnesota was postponed due to multiple inconclusive COVID-19 tests, but everyone was eventually cleared to play. Their narrow win in that delayed opener was the only Storm playoff game that finished closer than a 10-point margin, hammering home how good Seattle had been in 2020. Now it becomes a question of trying to keep this squad together for another run next year.
Salary Cap Situation
Unrestricted free agents
Free to sign with any team
Restricted free agents
Current team can match contract signed with another team
Reserved and “Suspended-Contract Expired” players
Can only negotiate with the Storm
2021 Draft Picks
11th Pick (11th pick 1st round), $64,375
18th Pick (6th pick 2nd round, via Connecticut)
23rd Pick (11th pick 2nd round)
35th Pick (11th pick 3rd round)
2021 Roster and Cap Situation Summary
Seattle is one of the few teams that can make cuts of non-guaranteed deals that will materially affect their cap situation. With several key pieces of their championship-winning squad to re-sign, the Storm can waive both Crystal Langhorne and Morgan Tuck - both of whom barely played in 2020 - and create $220,000 in additional space. It seems likely that both will be released.
Assuming Langhorne and Tuck are gone, the Storm would have $574,591 going to six players, leaving $764,409 for five or six more. If Sue Bird sticks around for at least one more year (which seems likely with the Tokyo Olympics still scheduled for 2021), that's likely a supermax deal. It might well take the same to retain Natasha Howard, who they could choose to use their core designation on. That would leave $321,509. Alysha Clark, despite her many attributes, probably isn't a max player at 33 years old with a 12.5% usage rate, but she won't be far off. Let's say around 170k for her, assuming she wants to stick around. That would leave about $150,000 for at least two players. With the league minimum at $58,710, that's only about 90k at most for someone like Sami Whitcomb. While Bird retiring or Howard/Clark leaving would change the equations, Whitcomb may be squeezed out and find significantly more money on offer elsewhere.
Of course, Bird could take a discount to help out the franchise, with the distinct possibility of a front office or coaching role with the Storm as soon as she retires - and a wage that no longer falls under the salary cap. But of course, no sporting organization would ever try something slightly underhanded like that to help navigate their way around a salary cap...
Looking to 2021
When you win a championship, the instinctive move is to try to bring back everyone involved and repeat the trick. The WNBA's new salary cap structure makes this a little more difficult than it used to be, but the forethought from the Seattle front office to sign Langhorne and Tuck to deals that aren't protected for 2021 gives them a chance to retain virtually every important piece of their title-winning squad. Of course, that assumes that everyone wants to return. The recently-engaged Bird, who also just turned 40, could decide that 2020 was the perfect cap to her career and walk off into the sunset. After tasting life as a centerpiece player in 2019, Natasha Howard might want to leave for more of a featured role than she's ever likely to have alongside Stewart in Seattle (and that possibility is precisely why Seattle should probably core Howard, to at least make sure they gain value for her in a trade). Even Alysha Clark, such an important piece to Seattle's puzzle, might be tempted by more money or more touches of the ball in other cities.
The Storm will hope to bring them all back. They're in a strong enough situation that 2021 can be another run with this group, while also trying to answer important questions such as how good Magbegor can be, and whether Canada can actually be Bird's long-term successor (after her lack of shooting range became an even more glaring issue in 2020). If they're still largely intact and remain mostly healthy, there's no reason why Seattle shouldn't threaten to repeat as champions. History tells us that it's very difficult to win two in a row, but maybe that's what could be the final crowning moment to Bird's career.
Want to read about another team? Here are our previously published breakdowns: