As we long suspected, the start of the WNBA season has been postponed, but we still need to be prepared for when it does start. With the WNBA Draft still set for April 17, we continue our look at each team’s offseason ahead of said draft.
Before COVID-19 dominated the news, the WNBA experienced its most exciting offseason ever. Nine former All-Stars changed teams, and all of the contenders made significant moves in an arms race that rivaled the NBA’s 2019 offseason. Since we’re all socially distancing anyway, now seems like a perfect time to continue our look at what each team did this offseason and how they are looking for 2020.
- Acquired Morgan Tuck and the No. 11 pick in the 2020 draft for the No. 7 pick in the 2020 draft.
- Re-signed Breanna Stewart to a two-year max contract.
- Re-signed Sue Bird to a one-year max contract.
- Signed Epiphanny Prince
Seattle didn’t do much of anything this offseason, but I’m not sure they needed to. With Breanna Stewart’s return from a ruptured Achilles, Seattle has its entire team 2018 title team intact. Sure, Sue Bird is two years older, but so are Jordin Canada, Mercedes Russell and Natasha Howard. Seattle has a chance to be even better than when they won the title without making many moves.
The one move Seattle did make was trading down four spots in the first round of the draft for Morgan Tuck. Tuck’s four-year career has been largely disappointing to this point. She averaged 7.0 points and 2.8 rebounds in 16.7 minutes per game as a rookie, but her minutes have decreased every year and her production has followed.
Tuck could be a classic change of scenery candidate. She was drafted third overall in 2016, and she has shot at least 34.9 percent on threes in each of the last two seasons. If she continues to shoot it at that percentage, with her size, she could once again play meaningful minutes on a title contender.
I’m concerned that Tuck hasn’t been the same after knee injuries that limited her to 26 and 22 games in her first two seasons. Seattle has been thin at the three for some time, so Tuck fills a need at a minimal cost, but I would have rather just drafted Megan Walker, Bella Alarie or Kiah Gillespie with the seventh pick and given those backup minutes to one of them. If one of those players, or even Ruthy Hebard, falls to 11, then this trade will look a lot better.
I should also mention here that I think the Storm could be a trade destination for Tina Charles. I’m not sure Seattle can match what a team like Phoenix could offer in a trade, but the Liberty would have to at least think about an offer of Mercedes Russell, the 11th pick and Seattle’s 2021 first-round pick. It would be tough to part with Russell, but that trade would give Seattle the best five-player lineup in the league (if they don’t have it already) with Natasha Howard, Charles, Breanna Stewart, Jordin Canada and Jewell Loyd.
The Storm have the 11th pick in the draft. They don’t really have an obvious need, though it could be time to draft someone who can be the third guard behind Jewell Loyd and Jordin Canada when Sue Bird retires. They could also look to get more athletic on the wing. Alysha Clark and Morgan Tuck are fine, but someone like Bella Alarie or Kiah Gillespie could challenge them for minutes sooner than later.
Projected Starting 5:
PG Jewell Loyd
SG Sue Bird
SF Breanna Stewart
PF Alysha Clark
C Natasha Howard
We could quibble about which guard spot Sue Bird occupies or if Alysha Clark is the small forward or power forward, but these five players all started at least 30 games in 2018. My guess is that Seattle will go back to this starting lineup, at least to start the season.
Sue Bird is 39 years old, and you could certainly make an argument for starting Jordin Canada ahead of her, but I’m not sure there is any reason to do that. Even as Bird has gotten older, she has remained an elite three-point shooter and an outstanding passer. As such, she fits perfectly with the other starters. Canada is more than good enough to be a starter in this league, but she should excel at leading bench units and likely playing minutes in crunch time, especially if Seattle needs to get a stop.
The other possible starter for this team is Mercedes Russell, who had a breakout season in 2019 with Breanna Stewart out. Russell started 30 games last season, and while it’s hard to imagine Alysha Clark will lose her starting spot, Russell played well enough to at least make head coach Dan Hughes think about leaving her in the lineup.
As I mentioned off the top, I think Seattle has a good chance to be even better than they were in 2018. They will bring two starting-caliber players off the bench, and they might have the best seven-player rotation in the league. When push comes to shove in the playoffs, they could give all of their meaningful minutes to Jewell Loy, Jordin Canada, Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, Alysha Clark, Natasha Howard and Mercedes Russell. That should be scary for opposing teams.
There are three main obstacles to the Storm winning another WNBA title. The first is that while the Storm are likely better than they were in 2018, most of their competition is as well. Atlanta is no longer a contender, but Connecticut, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Washington and even Chicago are all much improved from the last time Seattle won. Phoenix may be better as well. Seattle could be in for a tough fight just to get a top-four seed, let alone a top-two seed and what could be an all-important double-bye.
Just where Seattle ranks among the contenders could hinge on how Breanna Stewart plays in her return from a ruptured Achilles. Stewart was able to return to the EuroLeague in February, which is encouraging. Unfortunately, she only played in two games before that season ended. I don’t think it’s fair to expect her to play at an MVP level in her first season back, but if she gets close to that, Seattle should probably be the favorites to win the title.
The last x-factor for this team is Sue Bird. Bird will turn 40 in October and she played a career-low 26.6 mpg in 2018. With the emergence of Jordin Canada last season, Seattle probably only needs about 20 minutes per game from Bird, perhaps even less. She shot a career-high 46.6 percent from the field and 44.8 percent on othrees in 2018, so there is no reason to think she will completely fall off the cliff even as she is the oldest player in the league. Even so, it’s hard to know what exactly to expect from a 39-year-old player who sat out the entire 2019 season with a knee injury.
Seattle is my favorite bet this season, with 7/1 title odds. This was the best team in the league two years ago, and while you could argue the Aces, Mystics, Sun, Sparks and Mercury are all better than they were two years ago, you could make that argument for Seattle as well. If I’m doing WNBA Power Rankings today, Seattle is probably no worse than third, so I will happily take them now that they have the best payout from among the true title contenders.
I love this team for real life, and betting, but it’s hard to know what to expect from them for fantasy. Adding Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird back into the mix will certainly impact fantasy production, but it’s hard to know exactly how.
Natasha Howard led all players with 40.0 fppg last season, up from 30.3 in 2018. How much of that leap in production was due to Breanna Stewart’s absence, and how much was Howard’s continued growth as a player? We won’t know for sure until we see them play together again. That being said, Howard averaged 1.19 fantasy points per minute in 2018 and 1.27 fantasy points per minute in 2019. My best guess is her fantasy points per minute falls back to around 1.20, but she continues to play 30 minutes per game, up from 25.6 mpg in 2018. If we give Howard 30 minutes and 1.20 fantasy points per minute, that works out to 36 fppg. That would be a step back from 2019 but still elite. Only three other players topped 36 fppg in 2019. That is probably close to Howard’s floor, while her ceiling would be a repeat of 2019.
Obviously, the other huge question mark for fantasy is Breanna Stewart. Stewart led all players with 42.2 fppg in 2018. Stewart’s 26.1 percent usage that season was ninth for players who averaged at least nine minutes per game. It’s hard to know for sure, but my best guess is Stewart’s usage will take a hit in 2020. I think Jordin Canada and Natasha Howard will both use significantly more possessions than they did in 2018, and that will hurt Stewart’s usage, at least a little bit. If Stewart’s usage is closer to the 24.2 percent mark we saw as a rookie, her production will likely take a hit as well.
While Stewart’s usage has increased since she was a rookie, her minutes have decreased every season. Stewart averaged a career-low 31.6 mpg in 2018, down from 32.9 in 2017 and 34.7 as a rookie. Between her Achilles injury, a potentially truncated season and the deepest roster she’s ever played on, Seattle has ample reason to limit Stewart’s minutes. I doubt they’ll go too crazy, but it feels right to project her, like Natasha Howard, for about 30 minutes per game.
Of course, the third piece of the puzzle for Stewart is how effective she will be returning from her injury. We only got to see Breanna Stewart play two games with UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia before their season was cut short, and it’s nearly impossible to read anything into those numbers. Besides the normal small sample size, you have to take into account that UMMC Ekaterinburg is absolutely stacked. In her second game with the team, they won 112-37 despite playing Allie Quigley, Courtney Vandersloot, Emma Meesseman, Jonquel Jones and Brittney Griner fewer than 17 minutes each.
In that same game, Breanna Stewart played 29:45 and scored 16 points on 7-11 shooting. In her first game, she scored four points on 1-6 shooting. It is encouraging to see Stewart play nearly 30 minutes, but it is probably fair to expect her to be inconsistent, at least initially. Stewart’s career-high 58.9 effective field goal percentage was seventh in the WNBA in 2018, and we probably shouldn’t expect her to be that efficient in her first season back from a major injury. That being said, Stewart has never averaged fewer than 1.20 fantasy points per minute in any WNBA season, and that’s probably about her floor for 2020. If we give her 1.25 fantasy points per minute and 30 minutes per game, we get 37.5 fppg. That seems reasonable. Even so, I’ll feel more comfortable playing her in GPPs early on, until we know for certain if she will be consistent enough for cash games.
Perhaps the biggest fantasy question for the Storm is what kind of production we’re going to get from Jewell Loyd. Loyd figured to pick up most of Seattle’s playmaking duties with Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird out last season, but instead, she averaged 20.9 fantasy points in 25.4 minutes. It was the first time since her rookie season she played fewer than 29.7 minutes per game and averaged fewer than 28.1 fantasy points. Fortunately for our purposes, I think we can blame most of Loyd’s struggles on the ligament sprain she suffered to her right ankle June 25. Loyd was averaging 29.8 mpg and 26.9 fppg prior to the injury. Her fantasy points were still down a bit from what she did in three seasons with Breanna Stewart, but at least she was closer to the fantasy player we had come to know and love. I worry a bit that Loyd could play fewer minutes and get fewer shots as a result of Jordin Canada’s emergence as a legit starting guard in this league, but I think the most likely outcome is we get similar production to what we saw last season before the injury. I will definitely look to play Loyd early on, expecting 27 fppg but likely only having to play for about 20 fppg.
As for Jordin Canada, I think it is best to take a wait-and-see approach. She averaged 28.8 minutes and 25.3 fantasy points last season, and that is probably about her ceiling with Stewart and Sue Bird back in the mix. She also had huge home/road splits, averaging 31.0 fantasy points at home and 19.6 fantasy points on the road. She actually scored slightly more fantasy points on the road as a rookie, so I don’t necessarily read a lot into her 2019 splits, but I want to at least keep an eye out for similar splits this season. The bottom line is, even at home, I don’t think you’ll get good value for Canada early on. If she is playing similar minutes and has a usage north of 20 percent once again, I will make an adjustment at that time.
The rest of this team is really only interesting to me if someone misses time. Alysha Clark is unlikely to get enough shots to be consistent, while Mercedes Russell has to contend with several of her teammates for minutes and rebounds. That being said, I would be awfully interested in Russell or any of the guards if they were forced into more minutes due to an injury.