After a thrilling 2021 WNBA season that saw the Phoenix Mercury and Chicago Sky go from the do-or-die first round all the way to the WNBA Finals, both teams fortified their rosters with intriguing new pieces in the first week of free agency. Meanwhile, elite players like A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart, and Arike Ogunbowale re-upped with their teams, setting the stage for what should be a wide-open championship race in 2022.
Here are our grades for what each team did in the first week of free agency:
Atlanta Dream: C+
The headline for Atlanta is re-signing Tiffany Hayes, who after opting out of the Bubble season in 2020 picked up where she left off for the Dream in 2021, putting up production and efficiency numbers in line with her All-Star campaign in 2017. At 32, Hayes doesn’t necessarily figure to be part of Atlanta’s nucleus as they continue to rebuild, but she is a franchise icon, having played in the city her entire career at a high level and becoming a prominent figure in the city’s basketball community. The Dream also re-signed Monique Billings and Nia Coffey and traded for backup center Kia Vaughn, but they lost longtime defensive anchor Elizabeth Williams. Atlanta’s season will be about whether new ownership, a new general manager, and a new head coach can align on a vision for the franchise.
Chicago Sky: Incomplete
There may be no greater drama in the WNBA right now than the alleged standoff between the 2021 champion Sky and star point guard Courtney Vandersloot. Russian basketball powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg is reportedly considering paying Vandersloot for the 2022 WNBA season in order to keep her fresh and committed to their team come next winter. This comess after Chicago’s offer to re-sign Vandersloot, who is coming off an All-Star campaign and made close to the veteran maximum in 2021, was reportedly “disrespectful” in Vandersloot’s eyes. It’s a move Ekat has made before, paying Diana Taurasi her WNBA salary in 2015 when she, like Vandersloot, was 33 in the tail end of her prime. WNBA players make millions overseas and relative pennies in the U.S.
While the Vandersloot drama (which likely explains why her wife, Allie Quigley, is also still a free agent) makes it impossible to grade Chicago’s offseason, the Sky have done well to tune up their title team on the margins. They re-signed Finals MVP Kahleah Copper to a lucrative new deal that locks her in long-term, and they replaced departed starting center Stefanie Dolson with 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman. Candace Parker isn’t going anywhere. And in a trade Thursday, the Sky also acquired point guard Julie Allemand, a similar player to Vandersloot and a teammate of Meesseman’s on the Belgian national team.
Connecticut Sun: A
Connecticut has kept its championship core intact remarkably well, as Jonquel Jones, Alyssa Thomas, and Jasmine Thomas have now all been teammates in Connecticut since 2016. They will stay that way for longer now that 2021 WNBA MVP Jones is back on a two-year max deal. Add in likely Hall of Famer DeWanna Bonner and solid drafting over the years and you get a pretty good idea of how the Sun have been in at least the WNBA semifinals for the past three seasons. They are rock solid.
If anything, their continuity got even better in free agency as they brought back fan favorite Courtney Williams on a reasonable one-year deal, the second-leading scorer from their 2019 Finals team. Williams won’t help Connecticut’s shooting woes, but she may be able to bring some juice to their defense, which was pulled apart by the Sky in last year’s semifinals.
Dallas Wings: A
Could Dallas finally put a core together and move forward? They signed franchise centerpiece Arike Ogunbowale to an extension on her rookie contract, and for the first time in a long time, the Wings have opted for a quiet offseason. That will be refreshing to fans who watched the team flail for a half-decade, ruining relationships with both Skylar Diggins-Smith and Liz Cambage and ultimately tearing down a playoff team.
After a postseason berth in 2021, Dallas has a chance to build a promising young team around Ogunbowale, with the likes of Satou Sabally, Marina Mabrey, and Allisha Gray blossoming last year. And that’s not to mention Charli Collier and Awak Kuier, the versatile post players Dallas drafted in 2021.
Indiana Fever: B
Since the legendary Tamika Catchings retired from her playing career, the Fever have been caught in purgatory. For every promising move they make, there seem to be one or two head-scratchers that hold them back. Such was the case this offseason, as Catchings (now general manager) wowed WNBA fans by releasing 2021 No. 4 overall pick Kysre Gondrezick after a rookie season in which she played just 19 games. But Catchings followed that up by getting fantastic value on the trade market, sliding in as the third team in the Chicago-Phoenix deal that sent Allemand to the Sky.
That trade landed the Fever three first-round picks, plus two more second-rounders. It sets Indiana up to own the 2022 WNBA Draft, with the second, seventh, and 10th overall picks at their disposal. This class has an incredible top-three of blue chip prospects, and this deal could really help the Fever jump start a rebuild that has gone on too long.
Las Vegas Aces: A+
Take a team that was first in offense and second in defense in 2021, add in Becky Hammon as head coach, and it’s hard not to be bullish on the Aces’ chances to finally win their first championship in 2022. Las Vegas will bring back 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson on a maximum two-year deal in addition to a tremendous supporting cast that includes Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, Dearica Hamby, and Jackie Young. They have the best blend of talent in the WNBA.
Of course, the elephant in the room for the Aces despite their prolific roster is the likely departure of Liz Cambage, who has seemingly not had discussions on a new contract with the team and this week publicly criticized the contract Hammon to head to Las Vegas. But while the Aces did play better in 2021 with Cambage on the floor, their fortunes have always been tied to Wilson. When Wilson was the sole star big on the roster in 2020, she won MVP and took Las Vegas to the Finals. A more perimeter-oriented version of this team without Cambage should be just fine.
Los Angeles Sparks: B-
A year after sending two young prospects to Chicago for point forward Gabby Williams, the Sparks sent Williams to Seattle without ever seeing her take the floor in purple and gold. In exchange, they received shooting forward Katie Lou Samuelson and this year’s No. 9 pick, but many of the bigger dominos are still yet to fall for L.A., as the future of Chiney Ogwumike is uncertain, and rumors linger about whether Cambage could ultimately wind up with the Sparks.
Minnesota Lynx: B
It’s impossible to be too down on the Lynx after they announced franchise icon Sylvia Fowles will return for her 15th and final season in 2022. But the big problem for Minnesota remains that they do not have a player they trust to go get a bucket late in a playoff-type environment. Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield is seemingly too small, while recent additions Aerial Powers and Kayla McBride don’t have the shot creation juice and All-Star Napheesa Collier doesn’t fully have the trust of the coaching staff in those spots. The Lynx added veteran Angel McCoughtry, but after several major injuries in the past few seasons, she doesn’t figure to be a clear solution to that issue.
New York Liberty: A
New York added one of the winningest coaches in WNBA history in Sandy Brondello, then signed a new center in Stefanie Dolson who should fit beautifully into Brondello’s offense, which is driven by post players who can screen, pass, and shoot from the elbow. All that’s left is for former No. 1 overall pick Sabrina Ionescu to take a long-awaited leap.
Phoenix Mercury: A-
Once again, Phoenix is swinging for a moonshot. After failing to develop former top-10 pick Alanna Smith and declining an option on her, the Mercury are diving head-on into building a super team. They offloaded inconsistent guard Bria Hartley in the three-way deal with Chicago and Indiana, which gave them the cap flexibility to sign another younger player, former All-Star wing Diamond DeShields. The move also created space to add another high-level player in future Hall of Fame inductee Tina Charles, adding even more firepower and star status to the roster.
How those two fit with Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, and co. remains to be seen, as does the impact of newcomer head coach Vanessa Nygaard, but the Mercury can’t be faulted for not trying. This could be Taurasi’s final season, and everyone in Phoenix wants one more ring.
Seattle Storm: B+
That was too close for comfort. Both of Seattle’s star free agents, Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart, took meetings with New York before returning to the Storm on one-year deals. That means they will once again be title contenders in 2022, but after what will likely be the final season of the legendary Sue Bird’s career, the Storm dynasty could finally fracture. In the meantime, newly added role players Gabby Williams and Briann January should give Seattle solid depth to make another run.
Washington Mystics: A
The Mystics have been smart so far, re-signing young All-Star Myisha Hines-Allen and stockpiling familiar faces for depth and defense. But really, this grade jumps to an A because of the positive news surrounding 2019 MVP Elena Delle Donne, who told reporters recently that she has been pain-free for months following years of back injuries, and is in “phenomenal” shape physically.