Despite Breanna Stewart's best efforts, the Seattle Storm's season came to an end on Tuesday night with a Game 4 loss to the Las Vegas Aces in the semifinals.on 14-of-22 from the field, but it wasn't enough as Chelsea Gray once again came up clutch down the stretch to get the Aces over the line.
The loss marked the end of an era for the Storm, as legendary point guardafter two decades in the league. Replacing Bird will be high on the Storm's list of offseason priorities, but it won't be the only major item on the agenda. Jewell Loyd and Mercedes Russell are the only players under contract for 2023; everyone else will hit free agency, including Stewart.
Stewart, who has spent her entire career in Seattle since being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft, notably signed a one-year deal with the club when she was a free agent last offseason. There was also a highly publicized meeting with the New York Liberty, who will have max cap space this winter and represent Stewart's home state.
While Stewart has loyalty to the Storm, and noted how much she loves playing with Loyd, she also made it clear she's going to keep her options open.
"[Jewell is] someone that I really love playing with," Stewart said. "Just thinking about where we started when we were 14, 15 to where we are now, it definitely makes you think about how exciting we can continue to be as we are entering our primes, in our prime. It's a duo that's tough to stop."
"[Meeting with the Liberty] really reminded me of being recruited in college. Just being able to get insight, see how other franchises and organizations do things. Obviously, with Sue coming back, it was very sure that I was coming back to Seattle, but still able to test the waters and I will do that again."
If the Storm can convince Stewart to return, they will remain title contenders as long as she's on the roster; if not, their future becomes much more uncertain. But courting Stewart this winter won't be as simple as usual for the Storm nor anyone else.
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In an effort to get players to choose the WNBA over the teams they play for overseas during the winter, the league is implementing a new prioritization rule in 2023. Any player with over two years of experience will be required to report to their WNBA team by opening night or they will be declared ineligible for the entire 2023 season. Stewart is not sure how that will impact her plans.
"To be honest, I don't know," Stewart said. "That's really it. I just don't know. I know that sooner than later I'm going to go to Australia [to play for Team USA in the FIBA Women's World Cup]. I'm going to play for [Turkish club Fenerbahce] in January. We'll see what happens with the prioritization, which is a whole other ballgame."
The league's rule stems from a reasonable place; too often players return from overseas well into the WNBA season, which hurts their teams and the overall product. It could have unintended consequences, however, if some players now decide to forego the league entirely in favor of better paychecks overseas. In regards to Stewart specifically, the Turkish season typically ends after the WNBA season begins, though no specific dates for the 2023 WNBA season have been released yet.
While it may seem hard to imagine a player of Stewart's caliber walking away from the league, it has happened before. In 2015, Diana Taurasi sat out the season at the behest of her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg. It's too early to say what will happen with Stewart -- or other players, for that matter -- but it's clear this won't be a normal offseason.