What’s Next for the Storm?

The Seattle Storm announced today that star post Lauren Jackson will sit out the 2013 season to rehabilitate after undergoing hamstring surgery last month in her native Australia.

We’ve been here before — all too frequently, in fact, and it’s tough to see Jackson deal with another intensive rehabilitation process. The upside of that is the Storm has plenty of experience playing without Jackson. She was limited to just 21 of the 68 games the team played the last two seasons because of injuries and training for the 2012 Olympics.

A consistent pattern has emerged under Brian Agler. Whether Jackson plays or not, the Storm has one of the league’s top defenses. When the three-time MVP is in the lineup, an above-average offense helps the Storm win about three-quarters of its games (even more in 2010, when Jackson played 32 games during a 28-6 season that culminated in a championship). Without Jackson, the Storm ranks near the bottom of the league in Offensive Rating. An elite defense and a weak offense translates into a record near .500.

As with last year, the Storm has the advantage of being able to plan for Jackson’s absence ahead of time. In fact, the situation is slightly better because Jackson’s salary won’t count against the cap because she is on the suspended list. That will allow the Storm to fill her roster spot with another highly paid veteran.

Who might be available?

Unfortunately, looking at the WNBA’s list of unrestricted free agents, quality posts are conspicuously lacking. The best of the group is probably New York’s Kara Braxton, who is limited in terms of her conditioning and has worn out her welcome quickly in other spots. (Besides, Bill Laimbeer may be looking forward to a Braxton reunion with the Liberty.)

After that, you’re looking at a number of veterans who are in various stages of decline. Taj McWilliams-Franklin can still start and would anchor the Storm’s defense, but it’s tough to see her leaving Minnesota if she returns at age 42.

I could see the Storm considering long-time Jackson nemesis DeLisha Milton-Jones, and it’s possible Ashley Robinson could return given that a tight salary-cap squeeze was one reason she was traded to Washington last offseason. But the Storm isn’t going to find a full-time center in free agency, which is why Ann Wauters‘ decision not to return — while hardly a surprise — will hurt the team. The Storm won’t be able to sign a post as good as Wauters.

So maybe the Storm will put the money to use elsewhere. There are a handful of quality veteran guards available, including Tulsa’s Temeka Johnson and San Antonio’s Jia Perkins. I could see the Storm spending its newfound cap space on the perimeter to offer more reinforcement to starting guards Sue Bird and Tanisha Wright, taking some of the pressure off two players who dealt with injuries last season.

That might make sense because the Storm has more low-cost options in the frontcourt. Forward Alysha Clark and center Ewelina Kobryn, who are reserved players and can negotiate only with the Storm, will probably be in camp on their minimum-salary qualifying offers. While Agler told Jayda Evans that guard Silvia Dominguez and forward Jana Vesela aren’t options because they will represent their countries in this summer’s EuroBasket competition, this is a quiet summer for the Australian National Team. That means Abby Bishop, who has been out of the WNBA since playing for the Storm as a rookie in 2010 at age 21, could be an option as well.

Today’s announcement gives the Storm clarity about what lies ahead. Jackson isn’t replaceable, but now it’s up to Agler to put the cap space her absence provides to good use.

Blog note: The Storm appearing in this space is probably a one-time thing as I figure out a new home for my Storm commentary.

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