In his 2021 book “Unguarded,” Scottie Pippen criticizes Michael Jordan for taking too much credit for the six championships the duo won together with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s.
Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd of the Seattle Storm share a similar dynamic to what Jordan and Pippen had, but they lack the animosity.
Stewart is the best player in the world, like Jordan was, and while it’s unfair to compare her to Jordan this early in her career when she is still four championship shy of six, she has, so far, won the title and Finals MVP award every season in which she has been healthy for the playoffs from age 23 on. Jordan won the title and the Finals MVP award every full season he played in from age 27 to age 34, so Stewart is already trending in the right direction.
The fact that Stewart has been able to have this stretch of so far two seasons and Jordan had it for six seasons creates a mystique surrounding them and we tend to sensationalize the individual superstar. But Pippen was ranked as the 32nd best player in NBA history by The Athletic in February. Had he been the 32nd best player of his generation that still would have been good enough to more or less be the best player on the worst team in the league — still a No. 1 guy even if for a poor squad. But he is the 32nd best player of all-time, meaning he could have easily been the No. 1 guy for a far better team. He probably does deserve more credit for all those championships! And with Loyd, many wonder if she could be a No. 1 player on another team.
The reason I think of Jordan and Pippen when I think of Stewart of Loyd isn’t because Stewart and Loyd are as great (yet) — and there have certainly have been greater WNBA duos; it’s because I thought of them in 2021 and for the first half of 2022 as clearly above the third-best player on their team. Not necessarily saying that Dennis Rodman (the 62nd best player in NBA history according to The Athletic) wasn’t close to Pippen in terms of greatness, because based on rebounding and defense he arguably was. But the Jordan/Pippen dynamic is ingrained in my brain and in our culture. They are referred to together and without Rodman ad nauseam, truly the basketball embodiment of Batman and Robin.
And with Sue Bird still being great but starting to inevitably decline with age and with Tina Charles in a Storm uniform not yet a reality, Stewart and Loyd could have been seen as the WNBA’s Batman and Robin for that stretch. And Loyd is one heck of a Robin. Comparing her numbers and talent level to other second-best players aside, the way she plays the game, the excitement she brings with her Gold Mamba mentality adds to her own mystique. And she delivered clutch performance after clutch performance in 2021 to back that up.
Stewart, meanwhile, is a worthy Batman. Elena Delle Donne is considered by some to be a better offensive player than Stewart and she made quite a few tough shots on Wednesday night to support that belief. But I just think that with the free-flowing way Stewart plays the game and her agility, she is the most dangerous offensive weapon in the league. She remains the No. 1 offensive option for the Storm even with Loyd on the team with her, which is saying something, and her consistency en route the scoring title this year was worth marveling at. Then you add her candidacy for Defensive Player of the Year into the mix and it’s hard to wrap your mind around how good she is.
With Loyd, the word that comes to mind is “filthy.” Her moves and acrobatic finishes at the basket wowed us at Notre Dame and have only gotten better in the W. And, though she has not found success in the 3-point contest, she is a phenomenal 3-point shooter and has that killer instinct from beyond the arc and on long twos that she can create for herself. Stewart is a great ball-handler for a big and you can certainly run a last-second play for her. But when you’re looking for an isolation and self-created shot, you want the ball in Loyd’s hands if you’re the Storm.
In my Storm/Mystics series preview, I suggested that Loyd might one day win a Finals MVP while on the same team as Stewart. But I realize she’d never be the favorite to win that award going into a series with Stewart. At the risk of falling back into the sensationalism, I admit that, like with Jordan and the Bulls, it seems like if the Storm win another championship or more championships it will be primarily Stewart’s doing. But Loyd is a lethal closer — one of the best in the WNBA — and she showed that on Wednesday night, scoring essentially Seattle’s final 12 points in a nail-biter (Stewart actually made the final two free throws but that’s just because she was the one who was fouled when the Mystics were in desperation-mode).
The Storm needed Stewart to step up in the third and she scored 12 points in the frame. Loyd followed with her 12 in the fourth. With just one of them, Seattle is not a championship front-runner. Together, they can tag team their way to greatness.
The difference between them and the Bulls’ legendary duo is that, by all indications, one of them won’t be writing a book calling the other one out 20 years from now.
Instead, on Wednesday night, Loyd spoke of it as a “privilege” to play with Stewart.
“We’ve been playing together, we’ve known each other for a long time. To me it’s an honor to be on the court with her,” she said. “She has the ball late-game, I have all the confidence in the world in her … and same with vice versa. … She gives me confidence to take shots and I instill confidence in her. I appreciate our friendship and us being teammates.”
Em Adler, a reporter at The Next, asked Stewart about “stepping back” when Loyd has it going.
“I think Jewell touched on it a little bit before. Just the trust that we have in one another,” Stewart said. “We both know that when we get in a good rhythm, it feels like everything is gonna go in. And having that confidence in the shots that we shoot. And just knowing that whether I was the one making the shots or Jewell was the one making the shots or Gabby (Williams) was the one making the shots, we’re continuing to make plays for one another to make these things happen.”
With a big smile, Stewart added, “And Jewell was clutch big-time down the stretch.”
It was hard for her to hide her appreciation for what Loyd brings to the table.