Boucek’s tenure runs out of time
By Bob Corwin
In American pro sports, patience is a lost virtue. In Seattle, five years of it may have just been too much to ask for especially if the perception becomes one of backsliding in year three.
This past Thursday, Seattle Storm head coach Jenny Boucek was fired as the team struggled in the midst of a four-game losing streak with a record of 10-16 (heading for worse than last year’s 16-18 result). She was in her third year at the helm, publicly projecting it might take as long as five years to restore Seattle to former greatness. Prior to that, Boucek served as an assistant to Brian Agler (now leading the Sparks) since 2010 (a Storm championship year). The team will complete the season with Gary Kloppenburg at the helm.
On a few occasions over the last decade, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Jenny Boucek. She is a highly intelligent and very decent person, who has dedicated much of her life to the game. I feel confident that she will land on her feet as she did following her dismissal from her tenure (2007-2009) as Sacramento Monarchs head coach. Please note that I have not been in touch with Coach Boucek in just over two years.
The above paragraph being said, coaches are hired to be fired. Today more than ever, it is about winning (perhaps too much so). While Boucek has to shoulder much of the blame, the team was not well stocked with talent when she took over from Brian Agler, who left for greener pastures in Los Angeles after the 2014 season.
Out with the old
Boucek’s message as she took command in January, 2015, was “we have to get younger.” With that in mind, veterans were jettisoned left and right. Temeka Johnson, who served as Sue Bird’s back-up was cut and was not picked up by another team. Starting shooting guard Tanisha Wright moved on as a free agent (to New York) without the Storm putting much effort into signing her. Forwards Camille Little and Shekinna Stricklen were sent to Connecticut in exchange for point guard Renee Montgomery and Connecticut’s first round pick that turned into Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.
The tanking of 2015, getting worse to get better?!
While many die-hard Storm fans deny this, it was well known around the league that Seattle wanted to be in the lottery associated with the 2016 draft. The goal was landing UConn’s Breanna Stewart. She (correctly) was perceived as a franchise changing, MVP-level talent, who could help the Storm reach the heights of the glory days of Australian superstar Lauren Jackson.
This was far more than losing a game or two at the end of the season. Renee Montgomery, who had helped the Storm win a few games early in the season in spite of otherwise erratic play, was traded in July to Minnesota for Monica Wright had just undergone season-ending knee surgery (from which she never fully recovered). She also had knee surgery on the other knee the prior year.
In explaining the trade, Storm general manager Alisha Valavanis was quoted as saying to local media “We’ve been committed to this acquisition, because Monica is the right fit for this roster.”
She further stated: “As much as we want to compete today and provide an incredible experience for our fans, I’m staying focused on bringing championship basketball back to Seattle. These decisions are in alignment with that.”
As it turned out, Monica Wright remained on the Storm roster in 2016 averaging 1.3 points per game over 16 games, thus leaving GM Valavanis’s expectations of her well short of the mark. Meanwhile, Renee Montgomery has turned into a significant contributor with the Lynx.
Another move over the last few weeks of the 2015 regular season was to put starting point guard Sue Bird “on rest” in several games which the Storm might otherwise be favored to win.
By latter July, it was becoming pretty obvious what was going on in Seattle when you spoke to others around the league. My personal position was that a strong WNBA President would have threatened to bar the Storm from getting the top pick as their actions were violating the competitive integrity of the league. However, in retrospect we know that WNBA President Laurel Richie was halfway out the door and took no action other than congratulating Boucek on the night the Storm won the lottery.
The most infamous act in this tank job took place in the last game (Bird again out) of the regular season where Seattle tried harder (and succeeded) to lose against San Antonio which got the second most lottery balls (instead of the most) by winning this contest. You had to watch the game, particularly the second half, to see how blatant this was. The Seattle Times reported the Storm bench celebrating after the final buzzer of the 59-58 loss as well as that their locker room was elated post-game.
As an aside, to me, this shows what is so wrong in our society. A few years back two Tennessee high school coaches got fired for attempting to blatantly tank a game to each other to improve post-season playoff position. The action generated a lot of negative national publicity. Here, a similar action by “role models” from the WNBA barely got a mention beyond local coverage.
In the 2015 draft, the Storm benefited from Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd (a no-brainer pick) leaving Notre Dame early grabbing her with the first pick and taking Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis third. Passed over were Kiah Stokes which was probably the correct answer short term and Elizabeth Williams who struggled in her first year but has since blossomed in Atlanta. Meanwhile, Mosqueda-Lewis has struggled more than not to help the Storm. In fairness to Boucek, there was no obvious “correct pick” at number three and taking the UConn sharpshooter was perceived by many in the media as the best of the “iffy” options at #3. Storm 2015 lower round picks were no factors.
In 2016, the Storm won the lottery for a second year in a row having had the best chance thanks to its capturing the highest odds by the poor (tanked) 2015 finish. To nobody’s surprise, Breanna Stewart was picked and she has more than lived up to the hype. The Storm had moved its second round pick in the Montgomery deal (mentioned above) and third round pick Lexi Rydalch did not make the roster. The franchise finished 2016 in sixth place. They were knocked out of the playoffs in round one by an undermanned (no Hayes and Lyttle) Atlanta Dream after holding a double-digit lead. Still one can argue progress in year two!
The 2017 draft was perceived as one of the worst in the last decade. Seattle opted out of round one via a three-way trade that sent pick #6 to the Mystics for Carolyn Swords, then with New York. To date, Swords has failed to deliver as hoped. Round two pick Syracuse’s Alexis Peterson and round three pick West Virginia’s Lanay Montgomery both made this year’s roster but neither has been a factor. To Seattle’s credit, at least they did not fall into the sentimental trap and chase local heroine Kelsey Plum (University of Washington grad) who has struggled in her first season in the league.
Let us not put all the blame on just Boucek and Valavanis. Other than the obvious top picks, the Storm has not exceeded expectations from a direct draft pick since taking long-time pro Tanisha Wright at #12 in 2005. Meanwhile, during this decade plus, other franchises have from time to time found value with similar level picks.
Trades and other player personnel decisions
From Australia and Japan…
Boucek opted for Australian-based talent with limited success on three occasions.
Jenna O’Hea (the best of the three) played for the Storm for three seasons (2014-2016) contributing three-point shooting. Abby Bishop returned to Seattle for 2015 and 2016 after a one-year stint in 2010. In 2015, she average 5.2 points per game playing 19.6 minutes per contest acting primarily as a three-point threat. In 2016, she was essentially no factor (0.9 ppg in 13 games). Both O’Hea and Bishop were slow-footed by WNBA standards with that negative ultimately knocking them out of the league in spite of perimeter shooting abilities
This year, Australian League star (and former University of Washington player) Sami Whitcomb came on board as a free agent. She has helped the Storm win a few games while coming off the bench. Unfortunately, she also struggles to guard. Let’s consider her a work in progress.
From Japan, Ramu Tokashiki fell into the Storm’s lap in 2015 as a free agent. In three seasons with Seattle what appeared to be a talented athlete with upside has not progressed beyond role player status.
On the domestic front…
Krystal Thomas, cut by the Storm and now with the Mystics, is doing for Washington what Carolyn Swords was supposed to do for Seattle: rebound and defend.
Granted New York native Kia Vaughn may not have wanted to stay in Seattle, but for this year the Storm could have had her and Bria Hartley, who were sent to the Liberty instead in the three-way deal. Both are individually contributing more to the Liberty than Swords to the Storm.
More responsible: Coach or GM?
While other teams have made moves to improve themselves during this season, the Storm has stood pat with its opening day roster. One could question whether this was because the front office thought they had the best players available or were not willing to spend more as a check of the math would show the Storm was six figures below the salary cap for the third year in a row.
What is not fully clear is how many of the decisions were primarily Boucek’s as opposed to edicts from the GM Valavanis, particularly when it came to spending money. While other teams were scrambling to make changes to upgrade their playoff possibilities this year, Seattle kept two low-wage, non-factor rookies on the roster rather than spending some to upgrade the bench. So, while it appears Boucek had significant input into all these decisions should not the GM have initiated some aggressive moves to bolster the bench if making the playoffs this year was a priority?
You can look around the league and see so many x-Storm players contributing elsewhere. You have to question those who evaluated their talent over the last half dozen years. Thus, this again does not fall on just Boucek and Valavanis.
The team is struggling and yet healthy
There has been a lot of debate on the internet as to the reasons for Seattle’s poor 2017 showing. The Storm has struggled in spite of having all-star level players in Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart and a near all-star in Jewell Loyd. Whether it was subpar coaching or just an insufficient roster, we can debate all day. The team has been essentially healthy and not suffered significant long term injuries, player absences for play in Europe or defections.
Here I will concentrate on the roster.
First, there is limited consistent production out of small forward Alysha Clark. On paper, she looks okay in shooting almost 50% from the field but struggles to rebound, defend on the perimeter and on too many nights score. There is a role for her in the league but not with starter minutes.
Second, collectively, the bench is not good enough (limited back-up for Bird and not enough help for Stewart inside). Here is where the failure to pick up more productive role players in trades and find contributors with a second or third round draft pick has really come to roost.
Third, Crystal Langhorne typifies the team in several ways. She is now past thirty, shoots the ball well (her field goal percentage is one of the best in the league), but is not a strong defender and an average rebounder as WNBA power forwards go.
From a stats viewpoint, the Storm is one of the league’s poorer rebounding and defensive teams and that has not been amply offset by above averaging shooting percentages. The margins for success versus failure in the WNBA are pretty small.
Getting younger and better?
If you look at who is productive on this team, only Loyd and Stewart are young. They may be the only players from the current roster with the Storm in five years. Three starters and the back-up point guard are now past thirty. Other than possibly Stewart, has any of the young (third-year or less) players on the current roster improved during the Boucek tenure?
As it now appears, the Storm is likely to harvest a quality player in the rich 2018 draft. Long term, the biggest issue is replacing star point guard Sue Bird who is near the end of her career with no suitable replacement on the roster. Yet if things break right for Boucek’s long term successor, she may be thanked for setting the stage for the Storm’s next title run. Remember basketball rosters are small compared to other pro sports.
Boucek had repeatedly said her plan would take five years to reach fruition so her defenders would say more time was needed. Remember, the league leading Lynx was bad for years before hitting it big over several years in college and dispersal drafts. Still critics will say more youthful, productive pieces should have been in place on the Storm roster by now.
Storm fans wanted tangible progress in Boucek year three. When those in Seattle repeatedly saw big leads dissolve into fourth quarter losses, they screamed for blood and ownership listened. When loss after loss to teams picked pre-season to finish below the Storm started to pile up, arguable perception became reality to those in power. Thus Jenny Boucek was told it was time to move on.