The Timelessness of Sue Bird – WNBA.com
The 2022 season reaches its hottest stage as the playoffs draw to a close, with the final four teams battling it out for a shot at the WNBA Finals. There’s a bittersweetness to knowing that the summer of competition is coming to an end, but this year has added an extra dose of bitterness.
Three big names in W history are stepping away after the season.
Sylvia Fowles, one of the greatest to have walked the floor, has already played its last match. We may never see a player like the 2017 MVP and four-time Defensive Player of the Year again.
Briann January was a stalwart defender on the perimeter and a key cog on many deep playoff teams, though she’s still deep in the playoffs with Seattle.
Calling Sue Bird a sports icon and legend doesn’t fully capture the spirit of what she brought to the WNBA and women’s basketball.
I was in preschool the last time Bird wasn’t in the league. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man were in theaters. The Grizzlies were finishing their first season after moving to Memphis. Alicia Keys won five Grammys (RIGHTFULLY), including Best New Artist.
Four WNBA titles, five Olympic gold medals, five Euroleague titles, eight All-WNBA team selections and numerous other accolades highlight Bird’s success and contributions on the court.
Bird’s career spans nearly a quarter of a century in the W, a remarkable feat of longevity and endurance. It’s not easy to imagine basketball without her.
Even before my own association with the league, Bird has been a fixture in the backdrop of my life. I know who she is since I was able to really understand the sport when I was a child. Waking up and watching Sportscenter every morning, reading the daily headlines and staying fully invested in the sport has rarely gone a week without reinforcing who Sue Bird is and her greatness on the pitch.
The way Bird plays the game is so fascinating; she adapted her game over the years as her physical abilities changed, but she mostly embodied the same principles in her archetype as a player. Modern and innovative basketball has flowed through his veins since his time at UCONN.
While the W has long been ruled by the posts and inside play, she has etched her name in stone with her pitch vision, game feel and shooting. Every aspect of his game intertwines as one of the finest pick and roll operators the sport has seen.
Bird is often remembered for her acting, and rightly so, as we’ll get to, but I’m not sure there’s enough of how amazing she is as a shooter. The second-best player in W history in three-point attempts and catches, Bird threw nearly six threes per 40 minutes throughout her career at a 39.2% clip, according to Her Hoop Stats. Its efficiency and volume have only increased over the years.
His shot is compact, fluid and fast. Her footwork and angling, taking pristine paths to her spot, made her a deadly threat moving without the ball in her hands throughout her career. Sue Bird leaving the screens anyhow in a myriad of sets has been a fundamental part of Seattle’s offense no matter the coach.
His quick relocation and precise movements to get more open looks are key to overwhelming shooting gravity. So many of his shots have this boomerang nature; she rarely stops and holds the ball. While she doesn’t penetrate the paint and generate inside touches like she did in her prime, her ability to bend the margins with quick defensive processing stands out even more now.
Notice how Napheesa Collier crumbles to help Breanna Stewart into the post after initially thwarting the Stewart/Bird pick and roll, denying a pull-up three or a roller pass. Bird turns the ball over as soon as the action dies, then drifts left to force a longer, clumsier fence, taking advantage of Stewart’s gravity to bolster his own.
It sounds small, but that change in routine and movement away from play is a huge part of what makes Bird such a top offensive player. His fit has been seamless with many quality post players due to his ability to mix up his game and play with them.
Clutch shots are in his DNA, a key factor in Seattle’s longstanding regular-season and playoff success.
She always feels balanced even when it doesn’t seem possible.
In my eyes, his pull-up shot is what bends the game in his favor and unlocks and amplifies his game the most.
She is no longer quite the same threat as behind the screens, as the threat of stabbing her in the paint is no longer the same. Still, going under a screen for Bird still looks like a doomsday bet in 2022.
Quick throwing plays, immediate screens up to 30 feet and calling his own number in transition have been essential parts of his offense over the last half-decade of Storm basketball and stalwarts of the game. Bird/Stewart era. Although they’ve generally been a team that plays at an average or slightly lower pace of play in this time frame, their ability to rip, run and twist keeps defenses honest and guesswork.
Extending the defense as far as possible is what opens up the angles and the lanes for one of the greatest point guards in basketball history.
You’ve probably seen this one, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t show it again, because, come on.
She has an innate sense of where everyone, her own teammates and defenders, are on the pitch at all times. This mapping of the terrain and this awareness open the door to audacity in her passing game. I can count on both hands the number of players who so easily hit no gaze, true no gaze that actually manipulate the defense, so consistently.
Transitioning kickaheads are its wheelhouse. Catching defenders with a feint or hesitation, then mitigating a cutting teammate towards the basket; is also his bread and butter.
His ability to hit every pick and roll pass offered by the defense, flip through reads in an instant, and create the best looks possible never ceases to amaze.
It’s incredibly strange to think that I won’t see a Sue Bird pass that I’ve never seen until late September. There’s an uncomfortable feeling about every assist, every basket, every moment you count “well, how many are left?”
I don’t mean that in a dark or depressing sense, but it’s in the same vein of what it felt like watching Sylvia Fowles’ last game, “That’s probably the last time I’ll see her do a contest awesome assist at the rim. Is there another opportunity for her to expertly blast a pick and roll despite playing one-on-two?
Witnessing the waning moments of a career you could never imagine ending is strange. In some ways it’s special because it makes us go back and remember. It makes us appreciate the little things in the moment more. A Sue Bird behind the back means more to me next week and changes than it has in the last few years I’ve enjoyed the game.
At least for me, looking at greatness is something I need to remember. I have to bring myself back to reality and say to myself “hey, this stuff is not normal!” as I watch the greatest players achieve incredible feats with a regularity that shouldn’t exist, but that’s what makes them great.
It’s easy to take routine for granted, so I find it imperative to remember that routine is only such at the highest level. because of the same size. I find myself so rooted in Candace Parker’s otherworldly postseason play, even more than I would have been a few years ago. I could have noticed at the time that what she was doing was amazing regardless of her age. Still, every mention of her at 36 and the ambiguity of her future in the league keeps me focused on the present.
I don’t know how many assists, hat-tricks or iconic moments Bird has left in the W. I don’t know if she’ll make one final final as the Storm look to return for the third time in five seasons. I know I’ll be glued to my TV, soaking up every minute Bird sees on the court in his final playoff run.
Her place in history is forever cemented as one of basketball’s all-time greats, a trailblazer who helped pave the way for the league’s growth, and an icon of individual and collective.
WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on WNBA.com throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The opinions on this page do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the WNBA or its clubs.