Just as we thought the WNBA was settling into stasis following another wild free agency period, the league went nuclear again, as five different teams came together for five separate trades. The hierarchy of the league changed once again, as the reigning champion Storm rearranged its roster with an eye toward the future and the upstart Liberty pumped up their defense with a former Defensive Player of the Year.
That’s on top of the WNBA free agency period that began last week, in which star players like Candace Parker and Aerial Powers changed teams. For the second straight season, the new collective bargaining agreement created incentives for players to change teams, and it affected just about every franchise.
Loose transactions such as Minnesota’s need to get rid of a protected contract and the state of the Chicago Sky frontcourt remain in the air, but things are largely settled now. Here’s the state of affairs in the WNBA as free agency (maybe?) winds to a close.
1. Washington Mystics
The Mystics still haven’t been able to truly defend their 2019 championship, as nearly half the roster opted out of the Bubble in 2020. And they still have not been able to ring in the debut of Tina Charles, the likely Hall of Famer who was traded to Washington this time last year and was granted a medical exception from participating in the Bubble. The roster, still, is looking like it will be one of the best in the league in 2021.
Washington signed All-Defensive wing Alysha Clark to a multiyear contract this winter, giving head coach and general manager Mike Thibault, who is known for loving physical 3-and-D wings, perhaps the preeminent such player in the entire league. Clark has made nearly half her threes over the past two seasons while taking around four per 36 minutes. She has also grown as a playmaker, making it likely she will fit smoothly into the Mystics’ five-out motion offense. Clark was among the best signings of the offseason.
And yet it all comes down to Elena Delle Donne, the 2019 MVP who is still, to me, the best player in the league. Because of her physicality and ball skills, she is the ultimate matchup-breaker for a defense, and has grown to be a good defender and playmaker in her own right. With new weapons like Clark and Charles in tow, Delle Donne should have an inside track to take Washington to its third Finals in four years.
2. Seattle Storm
It takes a lot to knock down a defending champ from their perch, but the Storm this offseason intentionally cut away at their depth and overall level of proven talent in order to prolong their championship window. But in doing so, they may have hurt their championship equity in the process.
Seattle traded away 2019 Defensive Player of the Year and perennial All-Star candidate Natasha Howard as well as bench shooter Sami Whitcomb in exchange for, in effect, second-year forward Kiki Herbert-Harrigan, stretch forward Katie Lou Samuelson, and two second-round picks. At its surface, it’s an ugly swap. But the Storm also face more of a cap crunch moving forward, as their strong drafting comes to roost and they have to pay Sue Bird’s replacement, Jordin Canada, as well as additional young talent like like center Mercedes Russell, who may now be the starter. There’s also the matter of a new contract for reigning Finals MVP Breanna Stewart.
As a stopgap, the Storm also signed the legendary Candice Dupree, who is fifth in WNBA history in total points, but the true answer to how effectively Seattle can survive these losses will come from how much young players like Canada, Russell, Ezi Magbegor, and even Jewell Loyd can continue to improve.
3. Las Vegas Aces
While they weren’t involved in the megadeals on Wednesday, the Aces continue to take advantage of 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson’s rookie contract to put a consistent title contender around her. To that end, the Aces were able to add All-Star guard Chelsea Gray to the mix in addition to bench scorer Riquna Williams. But the biggest additions may be players who were already on the roster.
Despite making the 2020 Finals behind an elite defense and an otherworldly scoring season from Wilson, the Aces were severely depleted. High-scoring guard Kelsey Plum missed the season with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon and All-Star center Liz Cambage was granted a medical exemption. That forced them to coax veteran big Carolyn Swords out of retirement and rely on fringe WNBA players deep into the playoffs. The expectation now is that both Plum and Cambage will be back for the 2021 season, though Cambage remains officially unsigned after being “cored,” which is the WNBA equivalent of the franchise tag.
The result is a roster that may be the league’s most talented, top to bottom. How Wilson and Cambage continue to adapt to one another and whether the Aces can cobble together enough floor-spacing to compete with elite modern offenses will decide whether Las Vegas finally wins a championship, but they have the talent to get it done.
4. Minnesota Lynx
Often overlooked because of their lack of a megastar, the Lynx quietly added two high-level modern wings to a core that already made the semifinals in 2020. With Powers and Kayla McBride in place to bolster the Lynx’s perimeter defense and allow All-WNBA second team forward Napheesa Collier to potentially take another step forward offensively, Minnesota should be able to improve.
By also signing Natalie Achonwa to be the backup center, the Lynx have to hope that they can keep veteran defensive anchor Sylvia Fowles healthier as well, after she missed the semifinals with a calf strain in 2020. Should Collier indeed take that step forward as a go-to scorer with more spacing and talent around her, the Lynx can win with depth and balance as they always have, and potentially return to the Finals for the first time since 2017.
5. Chicago Sky
All the hype went toward Chicago this month, which is what happens when you sign someone as famous as Parker. The team surely needed a defensive anchor like Parker, but they will need health and improvement from young pieces like Azura Stevens and Diamond DeShields, both of whom left the Bubble with injuries last season.
Until we see it, the Sky’s defensive upside will be in question. An older and relatively less athletic starting backcourt coupled with a crop of young players whose status and quality is in question makes it hard to bet on the Sky to necessarily be a championship team, even with Parker.
6. Phoenix Mercury
A core of Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, and Skylar Diggins-Smith and is enough to put you in the championship conversation every season. Despite Griner leaving the Bubble early, the Mercury made a late run by playing a speedy, wide-open system with Taurasi and Diggins-Smith handling the entire offense. That will change with Griner back in 2021, but they should be effective playing in the halfcourt as well, after a huge step forward defensively by Brianna Turner and the team added two-way players like 2019 All-Star Kia Nurse and reserve big Kia Vaughn this offseason.
If players like trade acquisition Megan Walker or 2019 first-round pick Alanna Smith also improve, or if Griner returns to an MVP level like she played at in 2017 and 2018, Phoenix can rise into the top tier of contenders, but for now, they sit firmly in the middle. The WNBA is just too deep.
7. Connecticut Sun
The real story of this offseason for Sun is the unfortunate Achilles’ tear for Alyssa Thomas, who has long been their most important player and maybe the best defender in the entire WNBA. Without her, the Sun’s ceiling is just not as high, though 2019 third-place MVP finisher Jonquel Jones will be back after opting out of the 2020 season, and this team still has plenty of veteran talent.
Connecticut was able to re-sign two-way guard and leader Jasmine Thomas as well as breakout center Brionna Jones, and scoring forward DeWanna Bonner, the team’s max signing from 2020, is still around. They should make the playoffs, but a return to the Finals for the second time in three years is unlikely to be in the cards.
8. Atlanta Dream
How much longer can the Dream’s drought end? They have an inordinate amount of talent, especially on offense, as the flashy Courtney Williams joined “Hollywood” Chennedy Carter to form one of the more potent offensive backcourts in the WNBA. Add in the shooting of Shekinna Stricklen as well as new frontcourt additions Cheyenne Parker and Tianna Hawkins and the return of star wing Tiffany Hayes, and this team has no reason not to be among the best offenses in the WNBA.
The question, then, is whether a younger squad led by Elizabeth Williams in the middle, can defend well enough to make the playoffs. With another year of experience for the group and a more full roster, my bet is they will figure it out and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2018.
9. Los Angeles Sparks
Just eight teams make the WNBA playoffs, so the perennial contender Sparks fall out. Despite losing Gray and Parker, they still have 2016 MVP and one of the steadiest two-way stars in the league, Nneka Ogwumike, but things are pretty bare around her. Los Angeles also will get 2020 signee Kristi Toliver back after she opted out of the Bubble, as well as their new point guard Erica Wheeler, a solid scorer and play-maker, who just signed last week.
The end result is a solid roster with some interesting players, but one that just lacks the top-end talent to make them a title contender, let alone a lock for the playoffs.
10. New York Liberty
Despite adding Howard and 2020 Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney, the Liberty still have a lot to prove in 2021. We still have only seen a handful of minutes from 2020 No. 1 overall pick Sabrina Ionescu, and the rest of the roster is very young outside of Laney, Howard, and point guard Layshia Clarendon.
There’s reason to believe New York’s five-out approach on offense and a healthy season from Ionescu could put them in the top half of the league on that end, but are Howard and Laney enough to bolster the defense? That seems like a tall order.
11. Dallas Wings
This is more so about the rest of the league getting stronger than the Wings getting worse. Dallas took care of business this offseason, re-signing former No. 4 overall pick Allisha Gray and extending longtime forward Kayla Thornton. But they remain very young and capped out, never a good mix.
The story of the offseason for Dallas will be how they use the top two overall picks (yes, they now have both after trading Samuelson for No. 1) to bolster the core around budding superstars in Arike Ogunbowale and Satou Sabally.
12. Indiana Fever
The Fever took a seemingly intentional step backward this offseason despite general manager Tamika Catchings saying in a press conference that this would be Indiana’s last year in the draft lottery. They lost Dupree and Wheeler without really replacing them, and will instead let young players like Tiffany Mitchell, Teaira McCowan, and Lauren Cox see what they can do in 2021.