In the 2018 WNBA season, the Seattle Storm romped to a championship thanks to a stacked roster. But at the center of the team’s dominance was a pair of future Hall of Famers: the veteran point guard, Sue Bird, and the do-everything forward, Breanna Stewart.
The Storm were, by net rating, 15.7 points better than their opponents that regular season with Bird and Stewart together on the floor. In the 2018 playoffs, against improved competition? Still 11.1 points better.
So it is more than a little shocking that the 2018 Bird-Stewart duo has been completely overshadowed by … the 2020 performance of Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart.
In the 2020 regular season, Bird and Stewart were 27.2 points better than their opponents, the best mark among any duo with at least 200 minutes played. And in the playoffs, they’ve posted a net rating of 20.7, best among any pair with at least 100 minutes in the postseason.
“I think our games complement each other,” Bird said Monday, a day ahead of Game 3 of the WNBA Finals. Seattle has a chance to sweep the Las Vegas Aces tonight and win its second WNBA title in three years. “And usually, the more you play with somebody, the more comfortable you get. I do think a big part of it is just the level that Stewie is playing at. I kind of am who I am — don’t get me wrong, I do what I do — but Stewie, right now, is playing at a very high level.”
Perhaps it’s natural for Bird to pass credit to Stewart — after all, Bird set a single-game WNBA Finals assist record in Game 1 against the Aces, while eclipsing her own all-time mark for a single game in the process, with 16 dimes. Nine of those 16 assists went to Stewart. And Stewart has elevated her game in this series, including a 37-point, 15-rebound output in Game 1, becoming the first player in WNBA Finals history to post a 35-and-15 game.
Even so, this ability to find each other isn’t a one-way street. In Game 3 of Seattle’s semifinal win over the Minnesota Lynx, Stewart delivered seven assists of her own. Five of them came on Sue Bird baskets.
Stewart, who matter-of-factly declared that she wanted to win four championships in college, then did so, never shies away from acknowledging her own level of play.
“To be honest, I don’t think the numbers are shocking,” Stewart said of the net ratings she and Bird have posted. “Between Sue and I, what we do together on the court is something that we work for. [Since] I came into the league, [we’ve been] continuing to learn how to read defenses, from both my position and her position.”
The touchless artistry is something to be seen in the highlights just as clearly as the dominating numbers. Take this moment from Game 1 in the Finals. Vegas defends as well as anyone other than Seattle, so Bird’s delivery needs to be precise to keep the Aces from blowing up the play. This is how it looks when Gary Kloppenburg draws it up:
Or take this delivery from Bird to Stewart, when the pair are on the break. Are 39-year-old point guards supposed to be doing this?
Well, Sue Bird does.
“It’s really remarkable they have that chemistry that they have,” Kloppenburg said. “Sue just knows where [Stewart’s] gonna be on the screen and rolls and all the different things that we do. It just seems like they have such a synergy.”
All this comes despite both players needing to cast off the rust from a 2019 season spent away from the game, after Stewart tore her Achilles and Bird injured her knee. But to hear Stewart tell it, that actually served as added motivation — and contributed to the pair’s success.
“When I got injured in 2019, one of the things that I was most devastated about was not being able to have an opportunity to play with Sue that year,” Stewart said. “Because I didn’t know how many more years she was going to be playing, and that was just a year that was gone. So to be able to have the opportunity to continue to be on the floor with her, we’re just taking advantage and enjoying playing with each other.”
The way they each frame the partnership is far beyond this year alone. The two have played alongside each other since 2016, after Seattle made Stewart their No. 1 overall pick in that year’s draft. They both played in the same collegiate system at Connecticut, though more than a decade apart. Still, when Stewart found out she was going to Seattle — in 2015, really, the day the Storm won the draft lottery, since no one doubted the top pick in 2016 would be Stewart — her first reaction was about her future teammate.
“That’s what I thought about,” Stewart said. “I’m going to go play with the best point guard in the world.”
That partnership helped convince Bird to stay in Seattle, and it keeps her wanting to play. Even their teammates have noticed that this comes not amid diminishing returns but with reaching new ceilings together.
“Breanna is doing even more on the defensive end of the floor,” Storm forward Natasha Howard said of what’s different in 2020. The numbers bear that out, too — Stewart posted more defensive win shares per game this season than she did during the 2018 campaign. “And she’s not settling on the offensive end. She’s being mad aggressive.”
There’s at least one more game to go in Seattle’s season, but if the Storm win the title, the duo will have posted the best net rating in the playoffs, minimum 100 minutes, of any championship team since Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner destroyed opponents through the 2014 WNBA playoffs.
Kloppenburg, who has coached so many and observed many more of the best players in his long career, described the Bird-Stewart pair as “single-minded in their rehab,” and he struggled to come up with two teammates who have been better.
“I think they are a remarkable tandem,” Kloppenburg said. “I really can’t think of too many like that, men or women throughout the years, that have that kind of synergy and ability to dominate.”