By this point in her career, Sue Bird is the epitome of a veteran. She’s about to become a three-time Olympian, is a two-time WNBA champion and is entering her 11th season playing for the Seattle Storm.
While all those descriptions are meaningful, the one that most defines Bird is the one she’s probably the most reluctant to accept: the player all other female American point guards will be compared to in the future.
“I think most point guards will always be compared to Sue because of the success she’s had at the collegiate level and the WNBA and with the Olympics,” Seattle coach Brian Agler said. “She has tremendous instincts and great feel for making her teammates better. She’s probably as good at that as I’ve seen. And I’ve never seen anybody who can just come down and hit clutch shots. She just has a knack of finding ways to do those things.”
Bird gets to take on a new role when the Storm tips off its season tonight (7 p.m., 6/16) against the visiting Los Angeles Sparks. Seattle has one of the most talented rosters in the WNBA with Bird, Camile Little, Katie Smith, Tanisha Wright and the addition of Tina Thompson, not to mention No. 2 overall draft pick Shekinna Stricklen.
But missing from that equation will be Bird’s running mate during her entire career in Seattle, three-time league MVP Lauren Jackson, who is staying in Australia to train with the national team for the London Olympics and will rejoin Seattle in August after the games.
It’s not new for Seattle to play without Jackson, who has missed games due to injuries in three of the past four seasons. But this is the first time the Storm heads into a season understanding that Jackson won’t be around, rather than being blindsided by a sudden ailment.
“It’s not me going into each game like I have to be different because Lauren is here or she isn’t. It just kind of happens,” Bird said. “It’s the nature of the game and how it unfolds.”
Even after a decade running the show in Seattle, playing for the U.S. national team or playing professionally overseas, Bird has yet to show any signs of decline. Although her assist numbers dipped in 2011, Bird averaged a career-best 14.7 points, while shooting nearly 43 percent from 3-point range. Seattle made the playoffs for the eighth straight year, but was dispatched in the first round for the sixth time in those eight seasons.
Playing without Jackson has become a regular occurrence for Seattle. Jackson has played just one nearly full season since 2007 and that came in 2010 when Seattle won its second league title and Jackson was MVP for a third time.
Four years ago, following the Beijing Olympics, Jackson needed surgery on her right ankle and was out for the season. In 2009, she missed the final six games of the regular season because of a stress fracture in her back.
Last season she played just 13 games after needing surgery to repair a torn labrum in her hip.
Jackson recovered enough to play for Ros Casares in Valencia, Spain, during the offseason and all expectations are that she will rejoin the Storm in the days after the London Olympics.
While Jackson is gone, the Storm hopes Smith and Thompson can continue to produce at the same level they have throughout their extraordinary careers. Smith averaged 7.5 points in a reserve role for Seattle a year ago, while Thompson started 33 games and averaged 9.9 points per game last season for Los Angeles.
Seattle also added size and depth to the backcourt by selecting Stricklen in the WNBA draft. Seattle traded veteran Swin Cash to Chicago for the rights to the pick that the team used on the 6-foot-2 Stricklen, who averaged 15.4 points and 6.6 rebounds playing on the wing for Tennessee last season.
“Every day I know I have to come in and work hard,” Stricklen said. “These veterans, they know what they’re doing and they’re just going to tell you straight up if you’re not playing good or doing good. They’re straight up with you and that’s a good thing.”
Seattle plays an extremely heavy road schedule early in the season. Seattle plays 12 road games before the Olympics, then the Storm has five road games after the July 13-Aug. 16 break for the Olympics.
“We look at the first half of this season as probably the most important part of our season” Agler said, “because we are going to not have our full roster and we play a lot of road games, and having success on the road is difficult in this league.”