- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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How is a team with two players judged to be among the best of the WNBA's first decade, both of whom are currently in the prime of their careers and already own championship rings, struggling to stay on the right side of .500 this season?
That was the question a co-worker, who lives in Seattle but would freely admit to generally ignoring the city's WNBA team, asked a few days ago.
The standard answer involves something about the overall depth of the Western Conference, as well as injuries to key Storm players, but I didn't have an entirely satisfactory explanation. Truth be told, after picking Seattle to finish with the best record in the West, I'm just as confounded by the Storm's middle-of-the-pack status as he is.
The Storm managed to close the first half on as much of a roll as this team has managed all season, winning four of six in a stretch that included three consecutive victories against conference rivals Houston, Los Angeles and Minnesota. But as if to remind fans in the Emerald City what they were dealing with, the Storm lost at home against Indiana in the final game before the break.
The opening weekend of the second half was more of the same, with the Storm easily dispatching the Liberty at home before losing 92-83 to the Sun on Sunday night in KeyArena.
Catch the Storm on the right night and they still look much like the 2004 championship team, spare parts perfectly accentuating the big two of Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson (which is really the big three with Betty Lennox). But holding this group to the standards of the 2004 title team is an exercise in futility. This might be the franchise that won the championship two seasons ago, but it's not the same team that won it all.
Jackson, Bird and Lennox remain the center of things, but the supporting cast has changed significantly, not only from the title team but even from last season's 20-14 squad that lost to Houston in the first round of the playoffs.
Janell Burse and Iziane Castro Marques -- who together started 66 of a possible 68 games last season -- returned this summer as starters alongside Bird, Jackson and Lennox. But rookie Barbara Turner has recently taken Castro Marques' starting spot. And aside from Tanisha Wright, in just her second season, the other key players in the rotation -- Tiffani Johnson, Shaunzinski Gortman, Edwige Lawson and Wendy Palmer -- are all newcomers.
Injuries have also plagued the Storm, adding to the difficulty of developing consistency and chemistry. Unable to practice and rarely able to play more than 30 minutes in games because of a stress fracture in her left leg and pain in her right leg, Jackson is the most obvious case. But it's not just the resilient Australian star, who is putting up MVP numbers despite her health problems, who has suffered.
"Just like every other team, you have to deal with injuries," Bird said. "And I think for us, we got off to a good start and had a good rotation going, only to see Janell Burse get injured. Then we got Janell back, and Wendy Palmer got hurt."
Palmer, who has played just five games so far this season and remains sidelined by a partially torn Achilles, was supposed be a key ingredient for the Storm. Revitalized two years ago as a starter on the Connecticut team that lost to Seattle in the WNBA Finals, Palmer moved to average nearly 10 points and six rebounds per game last season in San Antonio. Her post presence would have made life easier for both Jackson and coach Anne Donovan, providing the flexibility to rest Jackson more often.
"If we could have a healthy Wendy back, I think you'll see some really good things from our team," Bird said wistfully. "She's just such a tough player; she's a veteran and all she wants to do is win a championship. She'll literally sacrifice her leg, basically, to win that championship.
"To have a player like that, the veteran leadership that she brings, and obviously the rebounding, scoring and all those intangibles, I think it would help us tremendously."
Palmer, who was honored at the All-Star Game in New York as one of the league's original players, recently had a cast removed from her ankle, but it remains unclear when, or even if, she'll return.
But even if Palmer is unable to return, there are reasons to think the Storm are significantly more dangerous than their record suggests.
To begin with, only two of the team's losses have come against teams that would not make the playoffs based on the current standings. And entering play Sunday, only Connecticut had a better scoring margin than Seattle, which was outscoring opponents by four points a game (despite 25- and 21-point defeats against Houston and Sacramento, respectively, in May).
An abundance of close losses against good teams might suggest poor luck is as much to blame as anything for Seattle being 11-10 instead of 13-8 or 14-7.
It's a hypothesis reinforced by the team's field-goal differential. The difference between what a team shoots from the field and what it allows its opponent to shoot, field-goal differential is an easy check of a team's overall effectiveness. The Shock are tied with the Sparks for the league lead in field-goal defense, but Detroit's own abysmal field-goal percentage limits the impact of that defensive effort. On the other hand, the Sparks have been almost as effective on offense as defense, ranking fourth in field-goal percentage and first in field-goal differential.
In fact, the Storm rank well ahead of both Sacramento and San Antonio, two of their main challengers for postseason positioning, on both ends of the court.
Seattle's effectiveness starts at the top of the rotation. For all the inherent difficulties in breaking in new role players off the bench, the Storm's top four players have remained remarkably efficient. Jackson, Bird, Lennox and Burse are all averaging double-digit points while shooting a combined 49.5 percent from the floor. Compare that against the double-digit scorers from their main Western Conference competition.
*Thompson and Canty are currently injured.
Burse's development over the last two seasons has been especially important, giving the Storm the kind of secondary post threat they lost when Kamila Vodichkova left after the 2004 season.
"I love playing with her; she rebounds the ball, she does those little things," Jackson said of Burse. Indeed, about the only thing slowing Burse at this point is her tendency to pick up fouls at a prodigious rate (4.1 per game).
Clearly, it wasn't an easy first half for the Storm. But as Bird and Jackson sat by their lockers at the All-Star Game and fielded question after question about the team's "disappointing" performance, you could sense weariness in their voices. Not a weariness born of frustration with the team's outlook, but instead of the inability of outsiders to grasp what was really going on behind the record.
"I think slowly but surely, we definitely started to get that chemistry and go on a bit of a winning streak," Bird said. "And even though we lost the last one before the All-Star break, I still feel really good about where our team is."
It's the kind of optimism you'd expect from a point guard, but beyond the unimpressive record, the new faces and the injuries, it's an optimism backed up by the numbers.
No matter what the won-lost column shows now, it's likely to eventually bear out the fact that the Storm are much better than a .500 team.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Despite being just two years removed from a title and having two of the league's best players, the Storm are barely.500 this season. But don't let the sub-par record fool you.