Gary Kloppenburg set to lead revamped Storm in unique season

The veteran assistant will work his first full season as a head coach since 2013

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Seattle Storm Assistant Coach Gary Kloppenburg during the WNBA game between the Seattle Storm and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on June 16, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Gary Kloppenburg — known around the league as “Coach Klop” — hasn’t been a head coach since his two-year tenure with the Tulsa Shock ended in 2013. But when the Storm announced on June 29 that Dan Hughes would be missing the 2020 season out of an abundance of caution against COVID-19, the franchise called on Coach Klop to fill the void.

“It’s exciting…” Kloppenburg said on a media call. “Coach Dan was so much fun to work with, so it was difficult kinda going through that. You gotta move on, we’re not in a normal situation, none of us are, so you just adjust and move on.”

In Tulsa, Kloppenburg never quite found his footing. His first year was promising — he had inherited a 3-31 mess and managed to win nine games with a similar roster. However, he amounted to just 11 wins in a 2013 season that began with high expectations after the franchise drafted Skylar Diggins-Smith third overall and returned Liz Cambage for her second year in the WNBA. He was dismissed by ownership in a decision with which Kloppenburg was “very disappointed.”

Diggins-Smith declined through a team spokesperson to comment on Kloppenburg’s time with the Shock.

Kloppenburg will be tasked with replicating the franchise’s success from 2018 when the Storm went 26-8 and captured their third championship in team history. While the team’s roster was decimated by injuries in 2019, Seattle returns former MVP Breanna Stewart and 11-time All-Star Sue Bird to this year’s group that traveled to and will compete in Bradenton, Florida this summer.

“I’m excited for the opportunity to be able to have such a great group of players,” said Kloppenburg. “This team is a veteran team that’s very savvy, it’s a gifted offensive team, a lot more so than last year. We want to take those good qualities from last year, keep blending them in with this team to put together kind of a combination of the last two years. This’ll be a really fun challenge to do that.”

Though it’s been seven years since Kloppenburg head coached for an entire season, he’s done so on an interim basis twice during his time in Seattle. He replaced the fired Jenny Boucek for eight games in 2017 and filled in while Hughes dealt with carcinoid cancer for the first nine games of 2019. This year, he must have his team fully acclimated to the new normal of the WNBA “bubble” and ready to play before the Storm’s season opener on Saturday.

“I think the thing is, Klop’s been in this position before… Huge opportunity for him, just to continue to step up as the head coach for the whole season,” said Stewart. “Beginning [on July 25], we want to make sure we know where everybody’s supposed to be, where other players that we’re going to play in the league, those locations.”

Kloppenburg must establish a balance in playing time between his star returnees and his improved young players that saw dramatically increased minutes and production a season ago. Center Mercedes Russell, for example, saw her minutes skyrocket to 25.6 in 2019 from 5.6 in 2018. Point Guard Jordin Canada made 29 starts last year in place of Bird, compared to just two in 2018.

“We’ve talked to [Russell and Canada], and they understand obviously that their role is gonna change this year,” Kloppenburg said. “However, those two starters that are now coming off the bench really established that they’re very good players in this league so it really enhances our team, we have a lot of firepower coming off that bench.”

Kloppenburg says he always strives to be a players’ coach. Though he admitted that the majority of his team is composed of veterans and that sometimes it’s best to “just get out of their way,” his rapport with Hughes allows for him to communicate with the players in a way that other assistants may not.

“Throughout the process of Dan being the head coach we’ve always heard Kloppy’s voice,” said Jewell Loyd. “He’s goofy and allows us to be our own coach, but also understands that he needs to step in and say certain things, so it’s a pretty smooth transition.”

Players also praise Kloppenburg for his emphasis on defense and affinity for forcing turnovers. Alysha Clark, who’s spent her entire eight-year career with the Storm, was named to the 2019 WNBA All-Defensive Second Team and specifically credits Kloppenburg for refining her skillset on that end of the floor.

“Before I was very calculated, and kind of like ‘Ok, I don’t want to take too many risks,’” Clark said. “He pushed me out of that zone as a defensive player, and was like ‘No listen, I want you to get up in the passing lane, I want you to be overly aggressive.’ He’s seen what we can do on the defensive end, he does that for everyone. He pushes us out of our comfort zone and wants us to be extra aggressive.”

Kloppenburg’s father, Bob, was widely regarded as the originator of the “SOS Defensive System,” which emphasizes proactivity on the defensive end and forcing offensive players into uncomfortable positions. Gary attributes his passion and intensity on defense to his father’s “philosophy,” and how he applied it to over 40 years of coaching overseas, in college, and in the NBA.

The younger Kloppenburg also credits his system to NBA coaches such as Gregg Popovich and Mike D’Antoni, known for their up-tempo style of offense.

“I think you take a look at those coaches who have done that and take what you can from it,” he said. “I think you have to be, at this level, at the pro level, adaptable to your players, your personnel within your philosophy, and the ways you like to play.”

Other than his two years in Tulsa and brief stints as an interim coach, Kloppenburg has been an assistant for his entire career. Dating back to his first tenure with the Storm in 2000, he’s since worked for the Phoenix Mercury, NBA’s Charlotte Sting, Indiana Fever, and Los Angeles Sparks. Kloppenburg says he’s grown comfortable in his current role with the Storm and enjoys working with Hughes, leaving him less inclined to pursue other — and perhaps more prominent — opportunities.

“I’m honestly not as ambitious as I was probably earlier in my career but obviously if something came up, you’d take a look at it,” he said. “But honestly, I’ve really enjoyed coaching this team obviously, but I don’t really think I’m driven… to keep trying to become a head coach anymore.”

With a revamped roster and an opportunity to contend for a WNBA championship, Kloppenburg and the Storm tip off the 2020 season against the new-look New York Liberty on Saturday at noon EST. The game will be televised on ESPN.