Commentary

A perfect storm

The Seattle Storm is gaming the system with one legend after another

Updated: June 14, 2012, 7:49 AM ET
By Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine

Seattle StormIllustration by DOGOMost WNBA teams haven't caught on to the Seattle Storm's insight.

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IN MOST SPORTS, packing your lineup full of future Hall of Famers isn't a viable business model: Great young players are too expensive to sign in bunches, and great old ones are at risk of rapid decline. But a unique team in a unique league has mastered the legends approach: The Seattle Storm field a team of all-time greats every time they take the court and are perennial contenders because of it. This says as much about the WNBA as it does about the team's front office, the smartest in the league.

It's crazy how accomplished the Storm are. At point guard, Sue Bird, college player of the year for the undefeated UConn Huskies in 2002 and seven-time WNBA All-Star. At shooting guard, Katie Smith, member of two title teams in the WNBA and the all-time leading scorer in professional women's hoops. At center, Ann Wauters, five-time European player of the year. Coming off the bench, Tina Thompson, four-time WNBA champ and the leading scorer in league history. And returning after the Olympics, Lauren Jackson, winner of MVP awards on three continents, including three times in the WNBA. Four of these five players (Bird, Jackson, Thompson and Wauters) were the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft. An overlapping group of four (Bird, Jackson, Smith and Thompson) was named among the top 15 players in league history last year. It's hard to think of any team in any league, ever, whose members collectively rank so high in the history of its sport. Maybe the closest: the 1977 New York Cosmos, who brought together Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia.

Seattle has been adding different superstars to its Jackson-Bird core for years. The Storm tried Yolanda Griffith and Sheryl Swoopes in 2008; when Griffith left for Indiana the next year, the team relied more on Swin Cash in 2010 to win a championship. Coach and GM Brian Agler goes with older stars because he likes how they tend to break down less than NBA vets. The 34-game WNBA season puts less mileage per year on players. Even those who moonlight for international teams generally still play a fraction of the games that their male counterparts do. (Bird, who heads to Russia most winters, will appear on her third Olympic team this summer, while Yao Ming, also drafted No. 1 overall in 2002, last played regularly three years ago.) Agler's approach also makes sense because WNBA teams have 11-player rosters, compared with 15 in the NBA, so winning clubs have little room to carry young players just because of their potential.

The biggest reason Agler's strategy is so smart is financial. The WNBA has the most compressed salary structure of any league: Maximum pay for vets is just $105,500 this season, about three times the minimum. In contrast, the max salary for NBA players with seven years' experience is around $15.5 million, 13.5 times the minimum. Moreover, WNBA teams have a hard cap of $878,000, only 4 percent more than minimum payroll. Again, NBA teams have vastly more flexibility: After teams exceed their minimum payroll of $46.4 million, they can keep spending all the way up to $70.3 million, a 51 percent spread, before luxury taxes kick in. So in the WNBA, it's virtually impossible for teams to overpay the best players, because they can't overpay anybody. "There's a lot of talk that superstars are undervalued in the NBA, but it's much more so in the WNBA," says Kevin Pelton, a statistical analyst who blogs for the Storm. "It's like paying LeBron James $1.5 million a year." No wonder the Storm stock up on as many LeBrons as they can afford.

Most WNBA teams haven't caught on to this insight. Instead, because one premier player can make such a difference, clubs tend to bank their success on a great draft pick. The LA Sparks improved from 10-24 to 20-14 after drafting Candace Parker in 2008. Last year, the Minnesota Lynx zoomed from 13-21 to 27-7 and a title after landing Maya Moore. It's a model with payoffs, but also downsides. The Storm have never had to get bad to become good during Agler's reign: Seattle is the only WNBA team to win 20 or more games in each of the past four seasons.

The Storm's success promises to perpetuate itself too. Seattle's management understands that if the pay is relatively equal no matter where you go, most vets would rather play for a winning team among winning teammates.

It's a legendary idea, really.

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Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

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