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Larry Stone

Larry Stone: Storm enter season amid mystery and skepticism without Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart

The changes are seismic. Sue and Stewie have gone their separate ways, one to a well-deserved yet still jarring retirement, the other electing to leave her only WNBA home as a free agent to move closer to her childhood home, signing with the New York Liberty.

And so it's impossible to frame this Storm season, which begins Saturday, any other way than the team's effort to carve its identity without those two icons, Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart. They are fortunate to have a third superstar in Jewell Loyd to build — or more accurately, rebuild — around; yet the Storm face a year of mystery, skepticism and lowered expectations, an unfamiliar (though not entirely unprecedented) state of affairs for one of the WNBA's cornerstone franchises.

Which is not such a bad place to be, says coach Noelle Quinn, beginning her second full season after replacing Dan Hughes early in the 2021 season.

"I love that. I love being the underdog," Quinn said during training camp. "I love not being talked about. We are daily putting our work in, grinding. And I love where we're at. We have a good group. They are really working well together. They're enjoying each other. Still, for us, the level of expectation is to compete. We're all professionals. Every night in and every night out, we're going to work our butts off, and that level of expectation will never change."

As a general rule, when a coach focuses on effort and attitude over talent heading into a season, it's a warning sign. The Storm return just three players and will have nine newcomers as they endeavor to replace the most accomplished point guard and one of the most dominant bigs the league has ever seen. Another blow is the possible loss of forward Gabby Williams because of the league rules regarding overseas play.

But the organization can take some solace in the fact they powered through the loss of superstar Lauren Jackson a decade ago and produced two of their four championships after she retired — albeit with a still-productive Bird to facilitate the transition (and with a few rough years before Stewart came along).

They can take more relevant solace in the circumstances of 2019, when Stewart and Bird both missed the season because of injuries. With Loyd taking a leading role, the Storm managed an unexpected 18-16 record and made it to the second round of the playoffs.

That 2019 team received a huge boost from Natasha Howard, a trade acquisition the year before who broke out to become the WNBA's Defensive Player of the Year. For the Storm to soar above meager expectations this year, they will need someone to similarly emerge as a force to supplement Loyd — perhaps Ezi Magbegor, whose vast potential has yet to be fully tapped.

"She doesn't even know the magnitude of her game, honestly," Loyd said.

It's a new offense, a mostly new cast, and a new situation for the Storm. Guard Sami Whitcomb, who played on Seattle's last championship team in 2020, has returned after two years with the Liberty. Though many of the faces have changed — as has the home arena — Whitcomb believes the winning culture is still in place.

"The organization is the same, what they care about, how they run things — that's all the same," she said.

The presence of Loyd is an undeniable link to the past, but Whitcomb believes she is fully ready to assume the role of face of the franchise with the departure of its two most prominent faces.

"I think Jewell has been working to that for some time, honestly," Whitcomb said. "And I think that she is ready. We've seen it already. It's just natural for her to step into embracing that role, that leadership role as well. There's no question, it's her team."

There's an assumption by some (many?) that the Storm might be eyeing next year's draft lottery for a shot at the likes of Caitlin Clark or Angel Reese, if they decide to turn pro. The Seattle franchise has benefitted greatly from No. 1 overall picks like Jackson, Bird, Loyd and Stewart. But aside from the fact that lottery odds for the four non-playoff teams are determined by their records over the previous two seasons (and Seattle was 22-14 last year), the Storm are not ready to punt on this season.

"Coach Quinn's mindset is that it's not a rebuilding period," said guard Kaila Charles, a free-agent addition. "We still have a main goal. We still have great players. She wants us to still have that mindset that we can compete and play with these other teams.

"Obviously, I feel like [Bird and Stewart] are greatly missed. They've built a dynasty out here. They've made Seattle, what it's known for, along with the other players from the past. But it happens. It is basketball. There are other opportunities, or basketball eventually stops. And so it's just how you're going to respond when you face adversity or face a change. And I think coach Quinn has had a great mindset of instilling with us that we don't want to have the mindset that we can't compete. We have the underdog mindset, where we're going to work hard every single day, but we know that we can compete with any team in the league."

When Bird and Stewart were here, that was a given. But now it's a mystery, one that will begin to reveal itself Saturday.

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