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

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 since its second year of existence: planning for a future without Bird, who has led the team to four championships since being drafted No. 1 overall out of UConn in 2002.

Not only have the Storm never found an heir apparent to Bird, Seattle went the opposite direction this past winter in allowing Jordin Canada to leave for the Los Angeles Sparks in free agency. Bird’s current backup, Briann January, has also announced this will be her final WNBA season, leaving the Storm with no point guards beyond this year.

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

What does a post-Bird future look like for the Storm? And — gulp — might it be a future without Bird and Stewart? Let’s take a look.

Seattle’s next point guard isn’t on its current roster

Given that Bird and January have announced their retirements, the idea that someone not currently on the Storm’s roster will be starting at point guard next May is the safest bet imaginable. The only other traditional point guard to see action for Seattle has been Kiana Williams, who signed a hardship contract while Bird missed three games because of the league’s health and safety protocols. Aside from that, any minutes with neither Bird nor January on the court have been handled by committee.

Nobody can really 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 thanks to 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 next season.

Because Bird’s 2019 knee surgery happened on the eve of the season, the Storm couldn’t plan ahead the same way. Canada, then in her second season, stepped in and provided strong defense as Seattle went 18-16 without both Bird and Stewart (rehabbing her Achilles rupture) and lost in the second round of the playoffs. At that point, Canada seemed like Bird’s natural successor. However, her inability to improve as a jump shooter was surely a factor in the Storm moving on at the end of Canada’s rookie contract.

It would be unfair to ask a rookie, particularly one 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 happen to be hitting the market next year.

Courtney Vandersloot, a 12-year veteran who’s second in assists behind Bird among active players, re-signed with the Chicago Sky on a one-year deal. With wife and teammate Allie Quigley contemplating her own retirement after the season, the Storm will presumably pitch the native of the Seattle suburbs on returning home to replace Bird.

Although she’s not from Seattle, Las Vegas Aces point guard Kelsey Plum starred at the University of Washington before being drafted No. 1 overall 15 years after Bird. Plum, too, will be an unrestricted free agent and sure to command a max raise after beginning 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 decline to the next tier of free-agent point guards. Dallas Wings guard Marina Mabrey will be a restricted free agent, as will Natisha Hiedeman of the Connecticut Sun, allowing their teams to match any offer sheets to them. The next-best unrestricted-free-agent point guard is probably Erica Wheeler of the Atlanta Dream.

What’s next for Stewart?

When Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported Stewart was taking a meeting with the Liberty’s ownership group of Joe and Clara Tsai, Storm fans fretted about her possible departure. Because Seattle had used its core designation on fellow All-Star Jewell Loyd, Stewart was completely unrestricted.

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

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

The bigger question, from Stewart’s perspective, might be whether she plays in the WNBA at all. The league’s much-discussed prioritization clause kicks in next year, barring players who aren’t back from international club play for the start of the regular season from playing at all, and Stewart cited it as a reason to sign a one-year deal.

Being a free agent won’t allow Stewart to work around the prioritization clause. The league anticipated that possibility and wrote the rule to also exclude unsigned free agents who are still playing abroad when the season begins. Still, Stewart has the option not to sign with any team if she plans to take a year off from the WNBA.

Stewart isn’t the only Storm starter affected by prioritization. Forward Gabby Williams, in her first year as Seattle’s starting small forward, announced Wednesday that she’s signing with French club Asvel after helping Sopron Basket to last year’s EuroLeague title 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 weep for the Storm. In addition to having Loyd under contract through 2023, Seattle has a budding star at center in 22-year-old Australian Ezi Magbegor, a full-time starter for the first time this season thanks to a non-basketball injury that has sidelined Mercedes Russell for all but five games. Magbegor is averaging 11.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and a league-high 3.0 blocks per game, showing 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 captured two of the past four WNBA championships along with last year’s inaugural Commissioner’s Cup.

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