The Seattle Storm's hopes of making the playoffs, let alone defending the title they won last season against Connecticut, might live and die with an international inside-outside tandem: An Australian battling in the post and an American getting it done on the wing, seeking to collectively energize a team stuck for most of this season in a post-championship funk.
So are rookies Suzy Batkovic and Tanisha Wright up to the challenge?
Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird, along with a healthy dose of Betty Lennox, are the backbone of the Storm. And any serious injury to Jackson, who left Tuesday's game after what appeared to be an ankle injury, would spell doom.
But for the same reasons they don't deserve the blame for the team's failures this season, the team's holy trinity might not have the solutions, either. Sure, Bird needs to stay on the court, and it wouldn't hurt if Jackson rediscovered her touch from behind the arc. But both players are performing at levels comparable to last season. At the very least, they're performing well enough to make it tough to place the burden of a .500 record squarely on their shoulders.
Seattle isn't missing the big numbers. Instead, it's little numbers that are missing, the ones that so consistently served as frames for the masterpieces painted by Jackson, Bird and Lennox during the run to a title. Those numbers were provided by Sheri Sam, Kamila Vodichkova and Tully Bevilaqua, three key contributors who are wearing different uniforms this season.
Sam, Vodichkova and Bevilaqua combined to average a modest 19.4 points and 9.8 rebounds last season -- close to what Jackson is averaging by herself this season. But more importantly, the trio averaged slightly more than 66 minutes per game, a number which climbed above 70 in the playoffs. In other words, two of the three were on the court at almost all times, setting picks, grabbing rebounds, making passes and generally annoying opponents.
But when all three players left via free agency, in a league where key contributors have rarely changed teams of their own accord, the Storm had to reload like no champion before them. The result was a star-studded starting lineup disguising a bench loaded with star-struck newcomers. Of the nine players averaging double-digit minutes for the Storm so far this season, four are either rookies or experiencing their first real dose of WNBA basketball. That's not the kind of on-the-job training you expect out of a defending champ. Just ask Darko Milicic.
And the story could blandly end there, with the defending champs languishing under lofty expectations, meandering through a disappointing season and ultimately failing to overcome all that inexperience.
Or it could become a rousing success story, with early adversity producing new championship-caliber role players just in time for the Storm to seek postseason revenge on the teams that left them for dead.
Not that Batkovic and Wright should feel any pressure.
Only 24, Batkovic is already an experienced international player, having been a key contributor on Australia's team at the 2002 World Championships and 2004 Summer Olympics. A late arrival in Seattle after her Euroleague season, she's averaging close to 20 minutes in Seattle's last 11 games, scoring in the double digits in six of them. Even in her first WNBA game, at Connecticut June 7, Batkovic showed few nerves, firing off eight shots in 15 minutes with a variety of finesse and power moves rarely seen out of rookies.
And while few people seemed to know much about Batkovic before this season, too many people seemed to forget Wright when the draft rolled around. Despite a stellar college career at Penn State, Wright slipped to the Storm near the end of the first round. A three-time winner of the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year honors, who averaged nearly 20 points as a senior, Wright is exactly the kind of versatile role player capable of earning immediate playing time on a contender. Only with the Storm, she might have a chance to do much more than play defense before the season is over.
There are other players involved in this story, to be sure. Veteran Janell Burse is blossoming as a starter, charged with rebounding, playing defense and taking up space. And Iziane Castro Marques has played the most minutes of any of the new parts this season, although it's tough to get excited about a guard who shoots 36 percent from the field, 31 percent from behind the arc and backs that up with more turnovers than assists.
But if Batkovic and Wright shave off the rough edges, this odd couple could end up completing the picture in Seattle's jigsaw puzzle that has been short on pieces all summer.
Against New York Tuesday, with a chance to climb above .500 for the first time this month, the Storm put together one of their best first-half performances of the season, taking a 45-26 halftime lead and cruising to an 87-78 win. Everyone played well early -- even Castro Marques scored a career-best 20 points -- leaving little time for Wright and Batkovic to make an impression with subtle contributions. But there was Batkovic, quelling a late Liberty surge with a 3-pointer, a pair of free throws and a perfectly executed post move on three consecutive possessions after Jackson left the game. And despite playing limited minutes in the second half, Wright was on the court at the end when Seattle needed stops above all else.
So was Tuesday's win a sign of things to come? Will Jackson, Bird and Lennox start getting the support to which they grew accustomed last season? If so, it's going to depend in part on two players who occasionally faded into the background as the bench emptied against the Liberty.
Coach Anne Donovan has gone on the record touting Baktovic's credentials for rookie awards and promising more playing time down the stretch. Wright's role remains more undefined, but in one sequence against the Liberty -- she notched a steal and converted a spin move into an open-court layup -- it was clear she brings things to the table not found from other reserves.
With the likes of Batkovic and Wright in place behind the young stars, not to mention the presence of the front office which brought them all aboard, the future remains as bright as those summer days when Mt. Rainier towers above the Seattle skyline. But after a taste of success last season, it's short-term improvement that interests everyone from players to fans at KeyArena.
Will it come together in the next five-plus weeks?
The answer might lie with an Australian and an American -- just not the two you're thinking of.