After a chance encounter with Seattle Storm coach Brian Agler in a Starbucks line in Indianapolis during Final Four weekend this past April, he invited me to go with his staff to see a WNBA free agent camp.
Only days before the 2011 WNBA Draft, the camp was an opportunity to get a closer look at eventual first round draft picks Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips, UCLA senior Darxia Morris who ended up in the Tulsa Shock's training camp as a free agent, and Seattle University guard Breanna Salley who the Storm signed as a free agent before waiving her not long after training camp. Half of the league's 12 teams were represented at the camp that day, but none had quite the contingent that the Storm had.
And with six of us packed tightly into a boxy urban utility vehicle, the best conversations of the day probably happened during the ride to the high school gym about 15-20 minutes from downtown where the camp was being held. Since winning the 2010 WNBA championship, each member of the staff had apparently gone their separate ways for the most part so some of the car conversation was just catching up on things. With Agler driving and assistant Nancy Darsch in the passenger seat, I had a window seat next to assistant Jenny Boucek, who probably would have been the most ebullient in the car even without the earlier Starbucks fix.
Each of the coaches had been traveling around the country for scouting duties during the NCAA tournament, with Boucek having just scouted the Spokane regional and well aware that the Storm would have no shot of drafting Kent native Courtney Vandersloot as Sue Bird's eventual predecessor. After discussing the decisiveness with which Agler identifies and signs talent and laughing off the absurdity of the rumors that she was considered for the University of Virginia job, Boucek shared that she had spent time with the Dallas Mavericks staff during the off-season.
Of course, the decision to hang out with the Mavericks staff looks brilliant now in light of their 4-1 series victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Western Conference Finals. However, her choice to visit the Mavericks had little to do with their chances to return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2006, as Kevin Pelton of StormBasketball.com summarized last week.
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Mavericks Head Coach Rick Carlisle is, like Boucek, a graduate of the University of Virginia. That connection helped Boucek and Carlisle strike up a professional friendship. Boucek is also close to Assistant Coach Dwane Casey, who served in the same role with the Seattle SuperSonics during Boucek's first stint with the Storm. During the winter, Boucek paid a visit to Dallas - staying with women's basketball legend Nancy Lieberman, who is coaching the Mavericks' D-League affiliate in Fort Worth - to learn more from Carlisle, Casey and the rest of the coaching staff.
Yet in addition to all of her interpersonal connections to the Mavs, Boucek's primary reason for the visit had more to do with basketball. Every year Boucek tries to spend the WNBA off-season learning something new and this year she chose the Mavs for a reason that will make a lot of sense for long-time NBA fans who understand the WNBA through a lens of player comparisons: Storm star Lauren Jackson is strikingly similar to Dirk Nowitzki.
As described previously on SBN's women's basketball site Swish Appeal, there are a number of significant differences between the two players when taking a closer look at this comparison - particularly on the defensive end - that make it less than perfect (in reality, Lauren Jackson is probably some frightening combination of Nowiztki and Tim Duncan in his prime). But we've seen the key similarity between Jackson and Nowitzki that made studying the Mavs intriguing to Boucek during the 2011 NBA Playoffs : they're both center-sized players with small forward range. And Carlisle has done an amazing job of implementing an offense that creates scoring opportunities for Nowitzki by moving him around the court in very simple offensive sets that include deception and beautiful spacing.
With Jackson missing the Storm's first preseason game due to injury and having only one more preseason game against the Tulsa Shock - who Storm fans last saw witnessed getting blown out 111-65 at KeyArena last August - implementing anything significant from what Boucek learned is probably unlikely simply due to a matter of lacking time in a 34-game season. Nevertheless, Boucek's effort to spend time with an eventual NBA finalist was not only a sign of good judgment, but also an embodiment of the championship mentality that this staff brings to the court every single day in practice, games, and during the off-season. It's almost as if they just continued doing what Agler continued to preach throughout their 28-6 season, which included a 17-0 home record and undefeated playoff run en route to the franchise's second WNBA title: trying to get better.
That intense focus on improvement extends to players as well.
It's been widely acknowledged that All-Star point guard Sue Bird took more responsibility for calling plays last year. Boucek mentioned shortly after our discussion of the Mavs - and just before a discussion of the value of Synergy Sports software and whether Agler would embrace it - that Bird spent more time studying film and learning opponents' tendencies than she ever had in her career previously. That work ethic is a large reason for why Bird was indisputably the best point guard in the league last season. And in their own ways, it's something that all five of their returning starters embody in some way as well.
Yet as the season approaches and I wonder whether this team can win back-to-back WNBA titles for the first time since the Los Angeles Sparks did it in 2001 and 2002, I keep coming back to Agler's exceptionally narrow "tunnel vision" focus on getting better every day that seemed to be contagious last season and was apparently uncured by the WNBA's eight month off-season. That's exactly what it takes to become a great team in any sport: for all the Storm's success last year, greatness is established in the ability to win consistently. As Sparks forward Tina Thompson said just before playing the Storm in their regular season finale last year, winning one title doesn't really even put a team in the conversation about greatness.
"We didn't become a great team until we won," said Thompson, who also played for the Houston Comets teams that won the first four WNBA championships in league history. "Like the first year we won we weren't a great team. Even the second time we won we weren't a great team. We weren't considered a great team until we won the three and four."
Although Thompson's words might seem extreme, what bodes well for the Storm is that they have a number of players on the roster this year that understand what it takes to achieve greatness. Bird and Jackson now have two rings apiece with the Storm, Swin Cash has two with the Shock in addition to last year's with the Storm, Le'Coe Willingham brought one from the Mercury to Seattle last year, and off-season acquisition Katie Smith brings two with the Shock in addition to two with Agler's Columbus Quest in the ABL.
But players said multiple times last season that their mindset was drawn from that of Agler. And from Boucek's time in Dallas to the entire staff attending a free agent camp in Indianapolis that ultimately didn't yield a player they would keep, they've maintained the type of hunger you might expect of a team like the Mavs that had never experienced the thrill of winning it all.
The Storm's 2010 promotional campaign opens with the words desire, belief and drive, words reminiscent of what Boston Celtics legend and former Seattle Sonics coach Bill Russell told Celtics forward Kevin Garnett in a poignant 2008 interview.
"You've played long enough and you're talented enough to know how to win," said Russell, who also shared the wisdom of 11 championships with the Storm in a private meeting during their historic run last season. "And so the only mental part left is you decide to do it: am I willing to take this ability I have and win games with it? There's no magic."
Russell expanded on that in a 2001 interview with Charlie Rose about his book Russell Rules: 11 Lessons on Leadership From the Twentieth Century's Greatest Winner when they discussed his first lesson of leadership: Commitment Begins with Curiosity.
If nothing else, Boucek's time spent working with the NBA's Western Conference champions demonstrates that she and the Storm's staff knows what it takes to take this team from dominant season to great team.