For a defending champion, the Seattle Storm look different. Which is not the same as looking worse.
“Being different isn’t always a bad thing,” said Breanna Stewart, the key holdover and Finals MVP, as the Storm open their season at Saturday (noon, ABC) against the Las Vegas Aces at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett. “I think we’re going to continue to use our roster and our new people to our advantage . . . they are all coming out and performing at a very high level.”
But they are coming together late, some after just completing commitments to teams in Europe. In fact, two key reserves from last season, guard Epiphanny Prince and center Mercedes Russell, won’t make it for the opener. Both were teammates for a Turkish team that made the EuroLeague finals. They were put on a suspended list, a temporary salary cap maneuver to allow the Storm to carry two extra players.
Gone for sure are three stalwarts from the title team: Alysha Clark, Natasha Howard and former University of Washington star Sami Whitcomb. Clark signed a multi-year free agent deal with the Washington Mystics, but was lost for the WNBA season after a Lisfranc foot injury during European play. In separate off-season trades, Howard and Whitcomb now play for the New York Liberty. Retiring from the Storm were reserves Crystal Langhorne and Morgan Tuck.
But the trades brought newcomer WNBA veterans Kennedy Burke, Stephanie Talbot, Katie Lou Samuelson and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, the latter two practicing for the first time Thursday. In free agency, the Storm made its biggest move by signing seven-time All-Star Candice Dupree, 36, playing for her fourth WNBA team after Chicago, Phoenix and Indiana.
“I know what my role is, what my job is,’’ said Dupree, who scored 12 points in the lone pre-season game against Phoenix a week ago. “I know trying replace Clark will be difficult. She does so many great things on the floor. I think the coaches are evaluating and finding somebody who can fill in that spot.’’
Dupree already has a big fan.
“I’m looking forward to sharing the court with Candice Dupree,” Stewart said. “To have her in Seattle is awesome.’’
Burke played college ball at UCLA with Canada, then spent two seasons with the Indiana Fever.
“Knowing Jordin and how she plays, that has been automatic for me,’’ Burke said. “When you get length, speed and size, it’s going to be hard to get by us. We have so much good size and strength and speed, it’s going to be fun.
“We’re going to be a really special group. I’m very excited.’’
Returning to the Storm sideline is coach Dan Hughes, who sat out the 202o’s 22-game “wubble” season in Orlando as a COVID-19 precaution following successful cancer surgery. His toughest day back was Thursday, the league’s mandatory cut-down day to 12 players. He had to cut after practice draftees Kitija Laksa, N’dea Jones and Haley Gorecki.
“Those were hard cuts,” Hughes said. “In a better world, I would have liked to have seen a way we could have kept them . . . It was real hard. I don’t feel very good right now.”
The Storm did keep one draftee so far — guard Kiana Williams of the NCAA champion Stanford Cardinal, taken with the 18th pick in the draft April 15. She scored 12 points in the practice game.
“I am extremely thankful to be in this position,’’ she said, knowing that her spot is vulnerable upon the returns of Prince and Russell.
What makes Hughes feel great is that Stewart still gets to team with fellow All-Stars Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd, as well as key point guard reserve Jordin Canada.
“We’ve had a camp where we have multiple players making a case for themselves,’’ Hughes said. “And so I’m very pleased about that and I think they can help us. But obviously there are some hard decisions as our team puts together.”
The best news is that there no longer is a continent between the Storm and its fans, even though Everett remains a temporary home.
Displaced by the transformation of their Seattle Center home into the $1 billion Climate Pledge Arena, the Storm hoped that the building would be ready in June. But delays have pushed the opening to October, beyond the end of the WNBA’s 25th season.
It’s long been said in sports that defending a title is harder than winning the first time. The Storm, and numerous players who weren’t here for the title, will attempt to prove that old sayings aren’t necessarily true sayings.