A little less than a month ago, when explanations were being thrown around for why the Storm was under .500 (5-6 on June 22), I thought one reason was conspicuous in its absence from the discussion: defense.
When the Storm fell to the Minnesota Lynx on the 22nd, its Defensive Rating stood at 102.3 points allowed per 100 possessions, ranking the Storm near the bottom of the league on D. 10 games later, the Storm has gone 6-4 despite playing without All-Star Sue Bird for half of those games and the team's Defensive Rating now stands at 96.8, good for sixth in the WNBA.
This improvement may make more sense graphically. The following chart shows the Storm's season-to-date Defensive Rating for each game this year (the black bar is 98.2, which is league average).
Starting with the Storm's June 24 win at L.A., the team's Defensive Rating has been falling at a pretty consistent rate.
The difference between the Storm's defense over the first 11 games and the last 10 becomes even more dramatic when you compare the two periods as a whole.
I looked at Defensive Rating as well as Dean Oliver's "Four Factors of Basketball Success," which break defense (or offense) down to its base components: shooting (measured by effective field-goal percentage, which values a three as 1.5 field goals), rebounding (measured by defensive rebound percentage), turnover (measured by percentage of possessions that end in turnovers) and free-throw (measured by free-throw attempts per field-goal attempts).
Period DRtg eFG% DR% TO% FT/FG
First 11 102.3 .529 .723 .160 .228
Last 10 90.8 .483 .752 .180 .207
Over the last ten games, Seattle's defense has played as well as anyone in the WNBA (Indiana, at 90.0, leads the WNBA in Defensive Rating; 90.8 would rank second in the league). The improvement has come across the board - the Storm has cut down its shooting percentage allowed, is grabbing more rebounds, forcing more turnovers and allowing less free throws. Wow.
(Aside: I didn't realize until looking at these numbers that the Storm is the best team in the league at keeping opponents off the free-throw line.)
Now you might immediately raise an objection: Hasn't the Storm's schedule been relatively easy over the last 10 games? Indeed so, and it would be hard to argue that three games against the Holdsclaw-less Sparks haven't helped. Still, the Storm's opponents have had an average Offensive Rating of 96.3 - not a big drop from the 98.0 the Storm's schedule averaged over the first 11 games, and still well above what these teams have done against the Storm.
What's really surprising is that there isn't an obvious explanation for the change. Shyra Ely entered the rotation right about the start of the 10-game stretch, and Ely's length has been an asset on defense. However, Ely is only playing 17.8 minutes per game over the last 10 games. The improvement is way bigger than her.
Throughout training camp and the early part of the season, Anne Donovan kept hammering home the importance of continual defensive improvement. It took a while for that to have an impact on the court, but the Storm seems to have gotten locked in defensively - and moved up the standings in the process.