What Sue Bird’s WNBA retirement means for the future of the Seattle Storm

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Sue Bird announcing her retirement at the end of the 2022 WNBA season puts the Seattle Storm in a position the franchise hasn’t been in its second year of existence: planning a future without Bird, who led the team to four championships since its inception. drafted No. 1 overall outside of UConn in 2002.

Not only did the Storm never find an heir apparent in Bird, but Seattle went in the opposite direction last winter by allowing Jordin Canada to leave for the Los Angeles Sparks in free agency. Bird’s current replacement, Briann January, also announced that this would be his final WNBA season, leaving the Storm without a point guard beyond this year.

Adding to the uncertainty for one of the WNBA’s flagship franchises, former MVP Breanna Stewart only signed a one-year contract when she re-signed with Seattle in February after meeting the New York Liberty, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent again. out of season.

What does a post-Bird future look like for the Storm? And – gurgling – could there be a future without Bird and Stewart? We’ll take a look.

Seattle’s next playmaker isn’t on their current roster

Given that Bird and January have announced their retirements, the idea that someone not currently on Storm’s roster will start at point guard next May is the safest bet imaginable. The only other traditional point guard to see action for Seattle was Kiana Williams, who signed a tough contract while Bird missed three games due to league health and safety protocols. Other than that, any minutes without Bird or January on the pitch were handled by a committee.

No one can quite replace Bird, the WNBA’s all-time assists leader and the winningest player in Seattle sports history. However, the Storm managed to make the playoffs twice without her when she missed entire seasons with knee injuries. In 2013, veteran Temeka Johnson was signed as a free agent to replace Bird as Seattle went 17-17, then backed her up the following season.

Because Bird’s knee surgery in 2019 happened on the eve of the season, the Storm couldn’t plan ahead the same way. Canada, then in their second season, stepped in and provided a solid defense as Seattle went 18-16 without Bird and Stewart (rehabilitating their broken Achilles) and lost in the second round of the playoffs. At that time, Canada seemed like the natural successor to Bird. However, her failure to improve as a jump thrower was surely a factor in the Storm’s move at the end of Canada’s rookie contract.

It would be unfair to ask a rookie, especially a rookie drafted late in the first round (Seattle would pick ninth if the season ended today), to supplant Bird. That leaves the Storm looking to free agency, where a pair of the league’s top point guards with Seattle ties will hit the market next year.

Courtney Vandersloot, a 12-year veteran who is second in assists behind Bird among active players, has re-signed with Chicago Sky on a one-year contract. With his wife and teammate Allie Quigley considering his own retirement after the season, the Storm will likely cast the suburban Seattle native upon his return home to replace Bird.

Although not from Seattle, Las Vegas Aces point guard Kelsey Plum played at the University of Washington before being drafted No. 1 overall 15 years after Bird. Plum, too, will be an unrestricted free agent and secure a max raise after starting this season playing at an All-WNBA level as a full-time starter.

If Plum and Vandersloot stay put or head elsewhere, there’s a steep drop to the next level of independent playmakers. Dallas Wings guard Marina Mabrey will be a restricted free agent, as will the Connecticut Sun’s Natisha Hiedeman, allowing their teams to match them with any offer sheets. The second-best unrestricted point guard is probably Erica Wheeler of the Atlanta Dream.

What’s next for Stewart?

When Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes announced that Stewart was having a meeting with Liberty’s ownership group of Joe and Clara Tsai, Storm fans grew concerned about his possible departure. Because Seattle had used their base designation on fellow All-Star Jewell Loyd, Stewart was completely unrestricted.

Leaving before Bird’s final season didn’t make sense to Stewart, but this reunion could lay the groundwork for the upcoming offseason. There is WNBA precedent for this with Chelsea Gray, who met the Aces in 2020 as a restricted free agent before returning to the Sparks. A year later, Gray signed in Las Vegas.

Because Loyd has re-signed for two years, she will continue to carry Seattle’s primary designation next offseason, meaning Stewart could leave in free agency without any compensation in return. (That would force Stewart to take less than his maximum possible salary, only possible when changing teams by sign-and-trade.)

The bigger question, from Stewart’s perspective, might be whether she plays in the WNBA. The league’s much-discussed prioritization clause will come into effect next year, barring players who are not back from the international club for the start of the regular season from playing, and Stewart cited it as a reason to sign a one-year contract.

Being a free agent will not allow Stewart to circumvent the prioritization clause. The league anticipated this possibility and drafted the rule to also exclude unsigned free agents who are still playing away at the start of the season. Still, Stewart has the option of not signing with any team if she plans to take a year off from the WNBA.

Stewart isn’t the only Storm starter affected by prioritization. Striker Gabby Williams, in her first year as a starting small forward for Seattle, announced on Wednesday that she was signing with French club Asvel after helping Sopron Basket win the EuroLeague title last year. last as Final Four MVP. The French league concluded long after other European domestic leagues this season, raising the possibility that Williams – a restricted free agent after this season – could also miss 2023.

Other WNBA teams won’t cry for the Storm. As well as having Loyd under contract until 2023, Seattle has a budding star in center in 22-year-old Australian Ezi Magbegor starting full-time for the first time this season thanks to a non-basketball-related injury. ball that dismissed Mercedes Russell. for all but five matches. Magbegor is averaging 11.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and a record 3.0 blocks per game, showing the potential to become one of the league’s top centers.

Still, Bird’s retirement ushers in a new era of uncertainty for a team that has won two of the last four WNBA championships as well as last year’s first Commissioner’s Cup.

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