After injury deprived Sue Bird of the chance to defend the 2018 championship she won with the Seattle Storm last season, the WNBA superstar is treating the 2020 campaign as a title defence, writes Huw Hopkins.
Sue Bird pulled off her protective mask and pulled on the 2018 WNBA Champions black cap after sweeping the Washington Mystics in the Finals. She was also wearing a joyful smile, and a sense of relief. It had been eight years since her Seattle Storm previously reached the plateau and the surrounding roster was entirely different to those earlier glory years when she played alongside greats like Lauren Jackson, Camille Lyttle and Tanisha Wright.
But it almost seemed a shame that fans were denied a more competitive series than the 3-0 routing the Mystics suffered in 2018. Washington had Elena Delle Donne hobbling on one good leg, they were without Emma Meesseman and suffered other injuries, but they were still talented and well coached enough to get to the Finals. This made you wonder if we might see a repeat contest in 2019 when everyone was back fully healthy.
However, injuries to Bird while she was preparing for the season, and a knockout blow to league MVP Breanna Stewart while playing overseas, meant any hopes of a repeat for the Storm and another Finals face-off against the Mystics were out.
Bird told Sky Sports NBA: "One thing I've learned from playing in the WNBA all these years, is that so much changes year to year. Every team changes, every player changes, so two years in real life is not that much, but in WNBA years it is a lot."
Hopes of a rematch with the Mystics also seem out of the question this year, as Washington have their own cavalcade of injuries and missing players. It is not dissimilar to what the Storm faced in 2019, which is why Bird is keen to approach this season like they are defending the title they won more than two years ago.
Bird continued: "I'm torn. In some ways I do feel that way, because we didn't get the chance to defend the title with a full team, and obviously not having your MVP is a huge piece, and from myself that veteran presence wasn't there. So, yeah, in some ways it does feel like we, jokingly, got the band back together, so now it's our time to go on tour again."
Going on tour is obviously a metaphor, as games are very much taking place in the static 'Wubble' in Bradenton, Florida, but the Storm are passing through teams from different cities and leaving carnage in their wake.
They have lost just one game so far this season, against the aforementioned Mystics, who began the season looking like they finished last. But Seattle might not lose again in this year's shortened regular season.
According to Basketball Reference, Seattle's offensive rating - the estimated number of points they score per 100 possessions - is nearly three points better than the Las Vegas Aces to lead the WNBA. This is good. But compared to their defensive rating - the number of points they allow per 100 possessions - it is pedestrian. A group of very good defensive teams are clustered in the range of 97, but the Storm allow a ridiculous 91.3 - more than six points better than their nearest rival.
According to @WBBTimeline the @seattlestorm currently hold the highest single game regular season winning percentage in #WNBA history. Which begs the question, where do they stand compared to the best ever single season teams of all time? Especially in a shortened season...— Huw Hopkins (@coach_huw) August 17, 2020
A big reason for this team's success is their depth. Stewart and Bird being out last season gave others the opportunity to step up and the main beneficiaries were Natasha Howard and Jordin Canada, respectively. The first developed to the point where she might have been an MVP candidate had the Storm got much further than the middle of the pack, standings-wise, while the latter learned how to run a team.
But it is not like the rest of the team stopped playing hard last year, even if their record was never going to reflect the previous season's success. Sami Whitcomb said: "Last year, we still had the same approach. We still wanted to win and compete. It just meant that we had different things that different people had to do. We had different starting roles and people had to carry more of a starting role. But in terms of our approach and mentality, we had the same sort of grit and desire to win."
Follow Sky Sports NBA on Twitter
See the best NBA and WNBA plays and stay up to date with the latest news
They might have had that same desire, but even if Howard and Canada had stepped up their scoring to make up for the loss of Bird and Stewart, it was difficult for head coach Dan Hughes to back fill their offerings off the bench. In 2019, the Storm scored 74.8 points per game, down from the previous year's championship-calibre 87.2, and lower than this year's 87.9.
Even Whitcomb recognised the opportunity this season presents: "I'm sure getting 'Stewie' and 'Birdie' back there's a bit of comfort and confidence with having the two best players out there. Sue gives us that calm out there and gets us doing what we need to do. So I think it definitely feels more like this is the opportunity to defend the title rather than last year, but we were certainly doing everything we could to win our games last year as well."
Things probably needed to change, and the year out of contention has done wonders for this team. It means that there is less pressure on Stewart and Bird now that they are back. There are even a few new additions, including Australian center Ezi Magbegor, and there is more new talent that will be ready to compete when Katja Liksa joins the team next year, which is needed.
Bird is still productive. She is still giving Seattle 10 points per game. Her assists are down on 2018, but she is effectively on equal footing in terms of responsibility at the point position, alongside Canada, Epiphanny Prince (when she is available) and even Stewart. She is averaging the fewest minutes since joining the WNBA, which was 18 years ago, and she will turn 40 if the Storm make it back to the Finals.
She said: "As a leader and a veteran player, I think that's where I can come in and help in any way that I can. Year to year, my role doesn't really change. Even in my rookie year, it's just not that different. There's some years where I'm asked to score more, there's some where I'm asked to not score as much, but for the most part, the way I play the game, just getting everybody involved, making sure we're running the right thing, trying to take advantage of what the defense is giving, and just be that calming presence."
Maybe it is that everyone is back in their natural position, or even that the team has become better in her and Stewart's absence last year. But the Seattle Storm are 11-1, have the best winning percentage in WNBA history, and have looked pretty relaxed in some of their most recent outings.
They are running point by committee, defending at an all-time standard, and eviscerating opponents with the surgical confidence of a defending champion.
Bird said: "It's not exactly the same as coming back the next year after winning the title, but there are vibes about it, there are feelings about it that do make us feel that way. But simultaneously, the one thing I'll say is, you don't want to get caught up in that.
Get NBA and WNBA news on your phone
Want the latest NBA and WNBA news, features and highlights on your phone? Find out more
"When teams try to defend a championship, they think 'we did this last year' or 'we were able to do that last year' and it's never a recipe for winning. The good news is that seeing as we are two removed, we're only focused on this year."
Good news for Seattle - not for anyone else.