Will coaching change inspire a playoff push from Seattle?
This was supposed to be a season of celebration and some big hopes being realized for the Seattle Storm. But while a great crowd showed up for an entertaining and well-executed All-Star Game experience at KeyArena in July, success on the court hasn't matched that standard.
The Storm, despite having two No. 1 picks in the past three seasons -- Jewell Loyd in 2015 and Breanna Stewart in 2016 -- are 10-16 and in danger of missing the playoffs. They have lost four games in a row, and haven't had consecutive victories since winning four straight in May.
It is always hard to see someone lose a job, and there is no question Jenny Boucek put a lot into her many years with the Storm, as assistant coach and then head coach since 2015. But with Seattle needing a big push in the last three-plus weeks of the season to try to get a playoff berth, Storm management decided the team had to have a change.
Boucek was fired Thursday, finishing her tenure with the Storm at 36-58, and assistant Gary Kloppenburg takes over in an interim role. Kloppenburg has been in the WNBA a long time, mostly as an assistant. He started with the Storm in 2000, and also has worked with Phoenix, Indiana, the former Tulsa Shock -- where he was head coach for two seasons, going 20-48 before being let go -- and Los Angeles in the WNBA, and also had a stretch with the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats.
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Whether Klopp can help the Storm salvage this season and plays a part in their future remains to be seen. But it was evident that the Storm needed a new voice at the helm.
Seattle came on strong after the Olympic break last season, going 7-3 to earn a playoff spot. The Storm lost in the single-elimination first round in Atlanta, but with Stewart following Loyd as WNBA Rookie of the Year, there was reason for optimism in 2017.
It hasn't panned out, though. The Storm have the third-worst defense rating in the league -- and the offense isn't reliable enough to offset that. They've had far too many games they couldn't close out, and some others where they dug a deep hole and rallied furiously but still fell short.
Things looked dire for Boucek last Saturday after an 87-80 loss at San Antonio. The Storm forced overtime on a late 3-pointer from Loyd, but then were outscored 15-8 in the extra period.
The last straw was Tuesday in Connecticut. Had the Storm held on to an 11-point lead and upset the Sun, perhaps Boucek might have held on to her job the rest of this season.
But when that game got away, too, with the Sun outscoring Seattle 33-9 in the fourth quarter, this move seemed almost inevitable. The Storm have underperformed, and when that happens, the head coach is usually the casualty.
This is Boucek's second stint as head coach; she also had that role with the now-defunct Sacramento Monarchs, going 40-41 in two-plus seasons.
Boucek has always gotten along well with Storm point guard Sue Bird; they've had a good working relationship that dates back to Boucek's time with the Storm for both the 2004 and 2010 WNBA championships.
Whether Boucek's departure impacts Bird's future is also something to ponder; Bird will be 37 in October. While she is in great shape and has said she isn't thinking about imminent retirement, she might not be keen on another coaching change with the Storm.
And ultimately, the Storm's disappointing season thus far can't all be put on Boucek's coaching. The Storm have made some personnel moves in recent seasons that haven't panned out, either.
The trade of guard Renee Montgomery to Minnesota for Monica Wright in July 2015 has been a steal for the Lynx. Montgomery has been an important part of the Lynx ever since. And Minnesota also got a 2016 second-round pick in that deal (Jazmon Gwathmey), whom they traded for veteran guard Jia Perkins, who has also been a valuable asset for the Lynx.
Meanwhile, the injury-plagued Wright played just 16 games for Seattle -- all in 2016, averaging 6.1 PPG -- and isn't in the WNBA this season.
The Storm's three-team deal in January to obtain center Carolyn Swords also hasn't worked well thus far. New York got Kia Vaughn and Bria Hartley from Washington in that trade, while the Mystics got the No. 6 pick in the 2016 draft, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough.
Swords has been ineffective, part of an overall anemic bench for the Storm. Seattle is a team with some big names and big talents, but not much productive depth. That will have to be addressed for 2018, no matter who the coach is.
Boucek is a former WNBA player, and she has spent a lot of time learning from both WNBA and NBA coaches. She has a good knowledge of the game, and cares a lot about the WNBA. We'll wait to see where she moves on from here.
The Storm have eight games left, five of them on the road, starting Saturday in Phoenix. They also have two games left against Chicago, one of the teams Seattle is fighting for a playoff berth, and both of those are in Rosemont, Illinois.
In short, it will be a difficult final stretch. Sometimes in-season coaching changes light a fire under players, and sometimes they don't. How the Storm respond to this could have reverberations well beyond 2017.