2023 WNBA free agency preview: Seattle Storm

2023 WNBA free agency preview: Seattle Storm

The 2022 season was certainly one that Seattle Storm fans will remember. The brand new Climate Pledge Arena brought fans back to downtown Seattle after several seasons of traveling to Everett, Washington, for Storm home games. The return of guard Jewell Loyd, forward Breanna Stewart and center Mercedes Russell and the additions of guard Briann January and forwards Gabby Williams and Jantel Lavender to the Storm roster after a turbulent 2022 free agency period made for a fun and exciting season .

But the most notable memory from the Storm’s 2022 season was the farewell tour of Seattle basketball legend Sue Bird, arguably the best point guard in WNBA history. Now that Bird has retired, the Storm Crazies are forced to deal with the future of Seattle’s roster.

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Seattle had some big decisions to make in free agency last year. Both Loyd and Stewart, considered Seattle’s best players, were free agents, meaning the Storm had to choose which of them would provide the primary designation. They ended up with Loyd and she re-signed a two-year supermax deal with Storm.

Meanwhile, Stewart was exploring other options. She met with New York Liberty owners Joe and Clara Tsai and coach Sandy Brondello before deciding to re-sign with Seattle, but only for one year. That short-term deal signaled a possible opening for the Storm to leave, which caught many Seattleites by surprise.

As 2023 free agency approaches, the future of Seattle basketball is unclear. The retirements of Bird and January after the 2022 season left a huge hole on Seattle’s roster in terms of point guards. All signs seem to point to Kent, Washington native and 11-year WNBA veteran Courtney Vandersloot being the next floor general for the Storm. The move would take her away from the Chicago Sky, the only WNBA team she has known, and possibly her wife and longtime teammate, Allie Quigley. While Seattle has the cap space to sign Quigley as well, it would potentially have to give up a starting spot and play behind Loyd at shooting guard.

There’s also the possibility that former Storm backup guard Jordin Canada could return to Seattle, the team that drafted him in 2018 specifically as a replacement for Bird. Veteran guards Erica Wheeler and Kristi Toliver have also been in the conversation.

Currently, Loyd and Russell are the only Storm players under contract, so almost every other player on the roster is a question mark. Reserves Epiphanny Prince, Stephanie Talbot and Tina Charles are unrestricted free agents, allowing them to discuss terms and sign contracts with any team. Williams is a restricted free agent this season, but her overseas commitments could prevent her return to Seattle. The Storm front office has a lot of work to do, but ultimately, this offseason will be judged on whether Stewart stays or goes.

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When Loyd and Stewart were drafted as the no. 1 in 2015 and 2016, respectively, many fans assumed they would follow in Bird’s footsteps and stay for their entire careers. Bird’s unwavering commitment to the franchise was somewhat of a security blanket for fans and supporters throughout her 21-year career. In years past, it didn’t seem to matter who else was on the list; Fans knew their team was in good hands if the number 10 was in the lineup. With the loss of that security blanket so fresh in fans’ minds, the thought of Stewart, the current face of the franchise, leaving Seattle is bringing up a lot of emotion.

From talking to Storm fans, there are several factors that give them hope that Stewart will find her way back to the Emerald City in 2023. Fans and supporters believe that the Storm organization, ownership team and general manager Talisa Rhea understands the key role Stewart plays and will do everything they can to keep him in Seattle.

Storm fan Miles DeCaro said: “It’s not unthinkable [Stewart] leaves, but I don’t think that would really be for the organization, as they will and have done almost anything they can to show their commitment and quality. In the end, it is [Stewart’s] decision.”

Fans are also sure that Loyd’s decision will be a big factor in Stewart, but with her two-year contract after the 2023 season, Loyd’s stay in Seattle is also not guaranteed. Stewart and Loyd have been an unstoppable duo for the Storm for the past seven seasons, and it’s possible that if Loyd decides to stick around for a few more seasons, Stewart will do the same. But like Stewart, Loyd (a Chicago native) doesn’t seem averse to potentially returning to her hometown in the future.

Outside of the business aspects of free agency, Seattleites hope to acquire Stewart by sharing their hometown pride. While family ties are one of the factors that draw Stewart to her home state of New York, fans argue that Seattle is the perfect place for Stewart; her wife, Martha; and their daughter, Ruby. Storm fan Walli Weston pleaded with Stewart in a Facebook post on a Storm fan page, “Please stay in Seattle. It’s a great place to raise a family. This is your home now.”

Storm fans are also extremely proud of the support they have shown their home team since its inception in 2000 and hope this rubs off on Stewart. In 2009, then-head coach Brian Agler said, “We probably have the best fans in the league. I’ve been to all the arenas, I’ve trained in four or five different countries and there’s no comparison. No comparison.” That echoed Bird’s sentiments about Seattle’s support for her retirement. In its final season and the debut of the Climate Pledge Arena, Seattle was head and shoulders above every other WNBA team in attendance in 2022, averaging about 4,000 more fans per game than the next closest team, the Minnesota Lynx.

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While Storm fans have given plenty of reasons for Stewart to stay in the Rainy City, it’s not just the Big Apple they fear will steal their star player. One of the biggest concerns expressed by Storm fans was the WNBA’s new prioritization rules. In 2023, players who arrive late to training camp will be fined 1% of base salary for each day they miss. If they don’t make it by the start of the regular season, they will be suspended for the entire season. In 2024, a player must report to training camp on the first day or be suspended for the entire season.

Both Stewart and Williams have been outspoken in their opposition to prioritization. It’s no secret that players can make a lot of money overseas, and prioritization is forcing many players to choose between overseas and the WNBA. As mentioned earlier, Williams’ overseas commitments could prevent her return to the Storm in 2023.

While Storm fans would be sad to see Stewart go to New York or another WNBA team, the possibility of her not returning to the WNBA is what they fear the most. Amethyst Aitken, another active Storm fan in the Facebook group, wrote, “I kind of feel like it’s going to be a game of chicken between the overseas players and the commitment that [WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert] should be restricted to players who must report to training camp. I’m trying to be open that the league may not look anything like what I imagined it to be from years ago, including key players like Stewart maybe sitting out.”

Fellow fan Becky Resnick chimed in on the same post: “I think we’re at a much higher risk of losing [Stewart] in Europe than another WNBA team.

As we enter the 2023 free agency period, it’s clear that Storm fans will do everything they can to convince the 2022 WNBA MVP runner-up to continue her legacy in Seattle. But will she stay or go?

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