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Breanna Stewart Is Coming For The Record Books

By the end of the third quarter in Tuesday night’s championship-clinching win for Breanna Stewart and the Seattle Storm, their opponents had the glassy-eyed look that’s become a familiar staple of Stewart’s foes at every level.

Acceptance came in waves for the Las Vegas Aces as Stewart put up another double-digit point total in the quarter, surpassing the 20-point mark for the game as she has in all of her WNBA Finals performances. The Aces were 18-4 this season, but Stewart’s Storm dominated them so thoroughly that the outcome was decided long before the confetti fell on Seattle’s second WNBA title in three years.

The accomplishments line up neatly on Stewart’s virtual shelf: six WNBA Finals games over two seasons — 2018 and 2020 — six wins, no losses, two championships, two Finals MVP trophies. Stewart maxes out on laurels, just as she had in college, with four championships in four seasons at UConn, along with four awards for Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four.

The only interruption wasn’t another player, or another team, but just an Achilles injury that took away her 2019 season. Only an act of God can slow down Breanna Stewart.

“The past few days, knowing we were going into Game 3, having the opportunity to be back, win another Finals, I didn’t know what was going to happen after rupturing my Achilles,” Stewart recalled, her celebration-moistened eyes hidden by an oversized pair of goggles as she spoke to reporters after Seattle’s 92-59 win. “You see all the worst, and then I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be back to where I was. But to be here and see myself playing like this and having so much potential going forward, it’s exciting.”

Stewart is right: The torn Achilles tendon that sidelined her for all of 2019 threw her career projections into a previously unknown state of flux. It’s equally obvious that now — after showing that she is capable of playing every bit as well, if not better, than she did before the injury — she is once again on track to create a body of work that all other players who came before or follow her will struggle to match.

“Stewie is just one of those players, a generational player that comes through once in a while that can face adversity and even get stronger because of it,” her head coach, Gary Kloppenburg, said after the game. “I think that’s what we saw with her. She really missed that whole year and she came back as a better player in pretty much every category, on both sides of the ball. Pretty incredible testament to her work ethic and her desire to be such a great player and such a great teammate.”

In terms of career win shares, Stewart already ranks 64th in the history of the WNBA — a remarkable standing considering that she has played just four seasons, and one of them, 2020, was truncated to 22 games thanks to, well, you know. Expand her 3.9 win shares in 2020 into a 34-game campaign, and that would have equaled a 6-win share season. Use the 36-game season the league planned to expand to in 2020 before the global pandemic, and it would have been a 6.4-win share season.

Stewart’s win shares in 2018 were actually a bit higher, at 7.7. Accordingly, let’s project her conservatively and build in a bit of decline over the next decade: an average of 6 win shares per year, for the next 10 years, would put her at 82.6. The only player in WNBA history to top that is Tamika Catchings, at 93.6. And Stewart has already collected more championship trophies than Catchings.

Stewart’s early success puts her on track to finish her WNBA career with the most titles of anyone, too. Maya Moore and several other top players collected four — it took slowpoke Sue Bird until 2020 to capture her fourth championship. Only Rebekah Brunson has five among players in WNBA history, and while Brunson was a vital part of every one of those teams, it’s fair to note, as Bird did, that Stewart occupies a more central role with Seattle than Brunson did in Minnesota or Sacramento.

“I don’t know of any players of Stewie’s caliber — so we are talking MVP-caliber player, not just All-Star, but MVP, and there is a difference — who have won two times in their first four years,” Bird said. “So I don’t know of many players that have a start like that, and when it comes to records, whether it’s individually statistic-wise or winning championships, even with the Olympic team, if you can get there early, then you have a chance of them adding up as you go.”

A chance, yes, but nothing is guaranteed. Bird’s former UConn teammate, Diana Taurasi, won in 2007 and 2009, making it two championships in Taurasi’s first five seasons, the latter at age 27. But her running mate, Cappie Pondexter, then requested a trade, and Taurasi didn’t get her third until 2014, once Brittney Griner joined her in Phoenix, and none since.

Maya Moore, at age 26, captured her third title with Minnesota in 2015. But after winning her fourth in 2017, she hasn’t won one since — losing in the 2018 playoffs, the year Stewart won her first, and sitting out the 2019 and 2020 seasons to win a different kind of championship altogether.

Bird said she expects to return in 2021, though, and with Jewell Loyd just getting better by the year, the Storm should be among the favorites next season. But it is hardly a cleared path for Stewart going forward. The 2020 MVP, A’ja Wilson, will have plenty to say about the future of the league, as will the 2019 MVP, Elena Delle Donne, just 31 and expected to return in 2021 after sitting out 2020 because of the risk of COVID-19. Moore could even return, now that the prisoner whose conviction she helped challenge is free. By the time Stewart is 30, she’ll likely have to stay ahead of an in-prime Sabrina Ionescu in New York, not to mention the next crop of players who will have made their way to the WNBA, likely including South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston and UConn’s Paige Bueckers. The league’s talent infusion is relentless.

And yet, there is something about Stewart’s inevitability that seems to quiet the realization of just how great she is. Make a game-winner, and it gets played on highlight films for decades to come. But beat everyone by 30 — a much harder, higher standard — and it doesn’t stick in memories quite so readily. Stewart’s teammate has something to say about that, however.

“If people are under-appreciating Stewie based on no close games in Finals, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” Bird said. “I’m like, I can’t even compute it. What does it even mean?”

It means that Stewart hasn’t just won this often, she’s done it in a way that puts every record within reach. And so, the figure atop women’s basketball once more, who calmly said she intended to win four national championships at UConn and then did just that, seems pretty willing to keep on imposing her will on the WNBA for a while. Asked if six championships were in reach, another standard that no one has yet met, she smiled and said: “Yeah, I want to win.”

Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of The Next, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.