The worst fears of the WNBA and its fans were officially confirmed Wednesday: Reigning league and finals MVP Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm tore her right Achilles tendon — an injury that will sideline her for the season and at least temporarily shift the WNBA’s balance of power.
She sustained the rupture over the weekend when she rose for a jump shot and landed on the foot of fellow WNBA star Brittney Griner during the EuroLeague championship game. Stewart and scores of other American players use their offseasons to play in leagues overseas while the WNBA is off, as those opportunities often pay far more than their salaries here in the states. This injury is likely to intensify the debate over WNBA pay.
But for the Storm, the loss of the 24-year-old is devastating, and it figures to totally alter the WNBA’s landscape for the time being.1 At 26-8 last season, the Storm finished with the league’s best record and went on to sweep the Washington Mystics in three games for the championship — with Stewart a catalyst of both efforts.
The former UConn star made her presence felt on offense (she led the league in total points and offensive win shares and ranked as the most-efficient offensive player in the league on a per-possession basis, per Synergy Sports) and on defense (second in defensive win shares). Her game had expanded considerably in her third year, in which she streamlined her shot profile and became a more prolific 3-point shooter while also developing into one of the WNBA’s three most-efficient offensive players in the post. (Star scorer Liz Cambage and Griner are the others, according to data from Synergy Sports.)2
There’s almost certainly no way the Storm can replace Stewart’s all-around impact — something that few players in the world, if any, can make on a night-to-night basis. She was averaging almost 22 points (shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc) and eight rebounds while collecting more than two assists, one block and one steal per game. But the Storm does still have a talented roster without Stewart.
Even at 38, as the WNBA’s oldest player, point guard Sue Bird has shown that she may have plenty left in the tank. In 2018, she logged career-best marks in virtually all her shooting metrics, while also assisting at the best rate she ever has. Fellow guard Jewell Loyd, a former No. 1 overall pick, is more aggressive and finished second on the team in scoring, with almost 16 points per game. She attacks the basket regularly and gets frequent trips to the line as a result. Natasha Howard was far and away the team’s best offensive rebounder — a skill that, without Stewart’s stellar shooting, will become even more important.
Yet the team’s best bet offensively without Stewart may be to use more of an up-tempo style. The Storm were the WNBA’s most efficient team in transition last season, with players like Loyd and Jordin Canada in particular excelling when they played with improved pace. Playing faster might be a bit tough at times on the aging Bird. But the alternative — playing more slowly and being more deliberate about finding shot attempts — may not work all that well. Seattle was solid when the shot clock ticked under the four-second mark last year (ranking second in efficiency when that was the case, per Synergy). But Stewart was a primary reason for that, scoring on 43 percent of her plays that went late into the clock.3
Assuming that the Storm take a considerable step back, the door figures to open for the semifinalist Phoenix Mercury — led by Diana Taurasi, DeWanna Bonner and Griner — to win their first title since 2014, when they set a record for wins in a season.
Last season, Phoenix pushed Seattle to a fifth and deciding game for the right to play in the WNBA Finals, even entering the fourth quarter with the lead, despite being on the road in front of a raucous Storm crowd. It took arguably the best showing of Bird’s life in that last period to eliminate the Mercury.
But now, without a superstar like Stewart, several Herculean efforts from a number of her teammates may be necessary to get Seattle anywhere close to the promised land again this year.