Checking In with Coach Brian Agler
The Coach of the defending champion Seattle Storm takes the time to chat with SLAMOnline.
By Stephen Litel / @stephenlitel
The Seattle Storm are the defending champions in the WNBA and their coach, Brian Agler, is in the midst of a busy off-season. Always looking for ways to improve his consistently title-contending team, Agler took the time to check in with SLAM last week…
SLAM: What was priority number one for the Seattle Storm this off-season?
Brian Agler: “Obviously, we started talking about next year even during the championship season because we had two of our key players, starters that were going to be free agents, one restricted in Swin (Cash) and one unrestricted in Camille (Little). As we progressed through the playoffs and into the fall, top priority was to re-sign Swin and re-sign Camille. We also had a strong indication that Svetlana (Abrosimova) and Jana (Vesela) would not be returning because of National Team obligations they have for the summer of 2011.”
“We felt that we wanted to bring as much as we could of this team back together, but knew that to completely do that was going to be impossible. We started thinking of what we need to do to get better as a team, hopefully and fill the holes that Jana and Svetlana would leave by not returning in 2011.”
“A couple days after the championship, I was over in Europe watching the World Championships and getting a chance to watch our National Team play. We had six players playing in that on various teams, so I watched them play and scout some of the various international players.”
BA: “Well, I wish I could officially answer that. We did not core Swin because there was a bigger picture there that you have to be concerned about. That’s not to disvalue her importance to our team because she’s probably as important of a player as there is on the Storm roster. We felt real positive heading into free agency that we would get her re-signed. Coring is a real particular situation because if you core a player into a multi-year contract, that locks that player and that core up for the length of the contract. We didn’t want to go that direction for ourselves or for Swin, but we feel optimistic that she’s going to sign with Seattle and I’ll just leave it at that. To give you a date when that’s going to happen, I don’t have that right now.”
SLAM: The team recently signed Erin Phillips and Belinda Snell. What will those two bring to the Storm in 2011?
BA: “That sort of goes in correlation with losing Svetlana and Jana, not that those two are identical players because they’re not. What those two bring to our team is the ability to stretch the defense and they’re both real competitive players. We feel like Erin is a real good pick-and-roll type player and we wanted to add one more pick-and-roll player with the basketball to our team. Sue (Bird) and Tanisha (Wright) are real good, but we wanted to get a third one for that. Belinda and Erin have a wealth of experience playing both internationally and in the WNBA, they both have been former starters in our league, they know the league and they understand the teams and the players.”
“I think that, if anything else, when a new player comes into the WNBA, the most difficult thing for them to get a grasp on or get a feel for is just the quality of play and the athleticism in our league and understanding what players do what, understanding their strengths and weaknesses. Understanding the teams and players in our league, it takes time to really get a good grasp on that. Those players have played in our league, so they will understand and really come in hitting the ground running in terms of their understanding of scouting reports and who does what.”
SLAM: So, are you trying to make the Storm the Aussie National team?
BA: “I didn’t really look at Belinda and Erin as Aussie players. I looked at them as being good players in our league in the past and their ability to come in and adapt to what we do offensively and defensively. I didn’t really anticipate the questions about bringing more Aussie players in because I really didn’t think about it. I looked at them as foreign players in our league, WNBA players who have had success.”
SLAM: With a veteran team, do you expect them to be healthy coming in to the season?
BA: “Yes, we do. If you think of our top six players that we have returning—our starters plus Le’Coe Willingham—three of the players are playing in Israel, where they have somewhat of an abbreviated season. It doesn’t stretch all the way into the late spring. Lauren (Jackson) played the first half of the season in Russia, but she’s now back home doing a little bit of rehab on an injury. We expect her to be full go by the beginning of the season. Swin went to China at the mid-year point, as did Sue go to Russia at the mid-year point. Although our players are playing overseas, they aren’t playing twelve months out of the year. They’ve sort of cut back on some of their court time and that makes a difference.”
“It’s hard on the players in our league to go play twelve months out of the year and stay fresh for the WNBA season. I think one thing that’s hard for our fans and some of the people associated with teams in our league to understand is that our players are professional players and the really good ones have multiple obligations, not just with our WNBA team, but they usually have a winter season to play overseas. Most players don’t stay on the same team throughout the year, but they do have an obligation to earn an income and the really good players also have National Team obligations. We really have to do a good job of juggling our thoughts and they have to do a good job of juggling their schedules to really adapt themselves and for us to help them adapt to our teams during the season. Whether or not we have to make adjustments or compromises, sometimes you have to do that to make it work.”
SLAM: Do your players in Seattle, as a veteran group, do a good job of juggling their responsibilities without the team helping?
BA: “Our players really do. I think the one thing that we try to do is to stay in communication with them on what they’re doing, what their schedules are going to be and those things. I never try to force the issue on our players about the Storm being the most important thing in their career because, even though when they hit training camp they are totally focused on Seattle, they are professionals. They’re obligation is to make an income, so they have a lot of things they have to juggle and a lot of things they have to think about.”
“What I’ve found is that when we were kind of taking that direction, they understand that we’re looking at them in the big picture, we’re not trying to force the issue or make them make choices, and then they feel good about what we’re doing. It’s worked out real well for us.”
SLAM: Do you anticipate any new player signings or were Belinda and Erin all you see?
BA: “Well, I look at our roster and we signed two new players, we have Camille re-signed, hopefully we’re going to get Swin re-signed and I anticipate us having Ashley Robinson, Abby Bishop and Allison Lacey back in training camp. Then it will be up to them to earn their spots, so we’ll have a competitive situation in most cases and we will sign a few more people to come in and compete for those positions. I think, as we move forward, if you look at the eleven roster spots from a year ago, we’ll have more than half of last year’s team coming back. I would anticipate a great chance that we’d have more than just the six that were on our team last year.”
BA: “We don’t really look at it that way, but we sort of think the same thing. We want to get off to a good start because one of our goals will be to secure home court advantage. You want to have the opportunity to play at home as much as possible if you get to the playoffs, so that will be a focus of ours. That was a goal last year and it kept us pretty focused. You want to win your home games, you want to try to win as many as you can on the road and take each day one at a time. We didn’t look too far ahead and tried to stay focused on what we’re doing day-to-day.”
SLAM: With the talent in the league, as well as a very talented draft class, where does your team stack up?
BA: “There’s a lot of talent in our league and, Stephen, you probably know that as well as anybody. There’s great talent. There are a lot of talented teams and we feel like we are as talented as any of them. I don’t know if we are the most talented because that depends on people’s perspectives and what they value in terms of talent. I do like our combination of talent, maturity, experience and playing together. We’ve had three years now with this core group playing together, this will be the fourth year. The combination of all those things can really play out for us. It did last year.”
“Now, there are so many factors that play into having success or putting yourselves into position to have success—which is really what you want to do—that you really can’t take anything for granted. Our goal—and it will be my goal as a coach—will be to keep our team hungry, focused and able to play on an even keel as much as possible. Again, just go one day at a time and see how this whole thing plays out.”
SLAM: You’ve been around a lot of championships in your life. How do they rank?
BA: “We won a couple championships in the ABL and I was fortunate enough to play on a championship team in college, so I’ve had a chance to experience that multiple times. They’re all a little bit different and they’re all very special in their own way. I think the thing that was so special about this past year—and a lot of it had to do with hearing Sue, Swin and Lauren talk about it—was the fact that Sue, since 2004 had to answer why the team wasn’t advancing in the playoffs. Lauren, with the injuries she’s had to battle through. 14 months ago, she had a broken back and wasn’t even playing and for her to go through that, then win the MVP and a championship is just incredible. Swin, winning a couple in Detroit, but yet, it didn’t end well in Detroit for whatever reason, relocating teams and going through back surgery herself.”
“The one thing that I think is so special about Swin is the fact that in front of our eyes you’ve seen her change her game. She was a post player, more of a back-to-the-basket player in college. In Detroit, she was more of a back-to-the-basket and slasher. Now, she’s got all of that and she’s developed that three-point shot. To see her go through those changes in her career, whether it’s changing locations, the surgery or the advancement of her game, it’s amazing. If you ask them, they’d probably say they’d put a little star next to this last one just because of the adversity they had to go through to get to it.”
“I just remember the championship team I played on in college. I was on it in my freshman year and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, this is easy. We’re going to do this two or three more times’ and I’m sure they thought the same thing when they won their first one. Well, it’s not like that. Everybody is chasing that goal and there are so many factors that play into reaching that pinnacle. You have to just really cherish it, appreciate it, respect it and then know that it was a process. It wasn’t just winning that last game that did it. It was everything you went through to get to that point, to put yourself in that position. That’s what you work for, the daily grind to put yourself in position to achieve success.”
“Like I said, there are just so many factors that play into having a successful team. When you’re a part of something like that, it’s just a very special situation and we can’t think that 2011 is going to be like 2010. It’s a different team, it’s a different schedule and we’re starting at a different time. Does that mean we can’t have success? No, it doesn’t mean anything other than it’s going to be a little different. The roster is going to be a bit different, but different doesn’t mean worse. Different means different.”
BA: “There are a lot of factors that play into a team being successful, health being one of those. Health is one of those things that you can’t control. I don’t think you have to have tremendous team chemistry to win, but I don’t think you can have bad chemistry and win. Then, how complete of a team can you have? Are you going to have depth that can contribute and people who can play their roles? That’s very important, but I think the reason that there aren’t many teams that repeat nowadays, although you’ve seen the Lakers do it, is just the ability to keep your focus and the team to stay hungry. That’s really critical and it’s very difficult. We’re talking about human nature to somewhat relax when you’ve accomplished something.”
“I do like the fact with our team that we do have really good maturity. I sensed that last year. We would win somewhat of a big game and in the locker room it would be business as usual. We’d play a game and get beat, we’d go in the locker room and it was business as usual, so we really didn’t live on that roller coaster during the season. We were business-like, the team really practiced well, they took pride in bringing the best out of each other and over the long haul, and it paid big dividends.”
“We had great leadership from Sue, Lauren and Swin and we had timely play from those three, along with other people. It was really something special to be a part of and I anticipate that they’ll come back and want to win, but there are eleven other teams that want to do the same thing. It’ll be a really competitive season.”
SLAM: As the defending champs, is there something to the cliché statement of ‘everyone is gunning for you’ now?
BA: “I think that’s natural, but I think that sort of happened about a third of the way in last year. We got off to a good start and I think everybody looked at us as the team to beat. We were taking people’s best shots. People would come into Seattle and really try to play well and on their home courts, they’d really try to gear up for us. We knew it, we expected it, we took it in stride and we respected the situation. We didn’t let it inflate our egos. I’m hoping that will be our same approach this coming year.”