Heading into the WNBA offseason, this year’s free agency class was widely regarded as one of the best in league history. Don’t take my word for it, though, Storm star Breanna Stewart said as much before the New Year. Stewart was just one of the recent free-agent MVPs. Like the others—Aces forward A’ja Wilson, Sun forward Jonquel Jones and Lynx center Slyvia Fowles—however, she elected to return to her team.
While there are certainly impact players (paging Tina Charles and Liz Cambage) still unsigned, much of the dust on free agency has already settled. Let’s run through some winners and losers at this point in the offseason.
Does Stewart’s reportedly signing a one-year deal create some uncertainty for the Storm going forward? Absolutely. It’s fair to wonder what the franchise’s long-term future looks like. But in the short term, Seattle will still enter this season fully capable of winning its third title in five years. In addition to Stewart, 2021 All-WNBA first-team guard Jewell Loyd, who averaged career highs in points (17.9) and assists (3.8) last year, reupped with Seattle for two years. As important, the WNBA’s all-time assists leader, Sue Bird, listened to Storm fans’ postseason serenade and elected to return for her 19th—and presumably final—season. The vaunted trio remains among the WNBA’s best, recorded a +10.9 net rating in 646 minutes together last season. While Seattle’s rotation depth was tested in 2021 and remains a work in progress, the addition of veteran guard Briann January, who in 2021 was first-team all-defense, should also pay dividends. January, a Spokane native, also said it would be her last season, furthering the team’s sense of urgency. Who knows how long this Storm run will last, but they certainly are a viable contender this season.
Losers: The WNBA’s middle class
While the leadup to free agency was read with juicy hypotheticals, seemingly all of the biggest names on the market elected to stay with the teams they were on last year. In addition to Stewart and Loyd re-signing with Seattle, reigning league MVP Jones reportedly signed a two-year deal with the Sun, 2020 league MVP Wilson inked a two-year deal to remain with Las Vegas and ’17 league MVP Fowles announced that she will spend her final WNBA season with the Lynx. One result of such decisions is it appears hard to see how some teams in the WNBA’s middle class will make significant leaps in the standings next year.
The Wings and Liberty, the latter of whom reportedly had meetings with both Stewart and Loyd, still have bright futures and are loaded with young talent. (Dallas’s most significant move was locking up star guard Arike Ogunbowale to a long-term extension, while New York added former Sky center Stefanie Dolson.) Nevertheless, as a result of the W’s top teams keeping their stars, the aforementioned teams’ rosters still pale in comparison. The same can be said for the Sparks and Dream, who won 12 and eight games, respectively, last year.
The Mystics are winners less because of what they did in free agency—though adding center Elizabeth Williams and retaining forward Myisha Hines-Allen will certainly help—but more so because of what two-time league MVP Elena Delle Donne told reporters earlier this week. Delle Donne didn’t play in 2020 and appeared in just three games last year due to recurring back issues that required surgery. On Tuesday, though, she said she had not felt pain “for months” and that she feels “phenomenal.” “I feel like I’m moving again like my younger self,” she said. “But even better and more efficient. I’m so excited to get this season started. We’ve got an awesome bunch.”
The idea of an improved Delle Donne is a scary thought for her opponents. In 2019, she notched 24.2 points and a career-best 10.2 rebounds per 36 minutes, all while shooting a career-high 54.9% from the field and 43% from three. Oh, and let’s not forget that Washington won the title that season.
Washington is not bringing back 2021 WNBA second-team center Tina Charles, who averaged 23.4 points and 9.6 rebounds last year or forward Emma Meesseman, who was the Finals MVP in ’19 but sat out last year due to international commitment. Charles especially will be missed. But coach–general manager Mike Thibault lauded the impact Williams and Hines-Allen will make, and the team is in essence adding an MVP to its roster instead. Plus, come April, Washington holds the No. 1 pick in the 2022 WNBA draft, which Thibault said Tuesday he doesn’t anticipate trading.
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Let’s start with the good: The reigning champs re-signed last year’s Finals MVP Kahleah Copper to a multiyear deal and added Meesseman to their lineup. The potentially bad: It’s still unclear whether six-time WNBA assists leader Courtney Vandersloot will be back with Chicago in 2022. On Tuesday, ESPN’s Holly Rowe reported that the Sky made what Rowe said was a “disrespectful offer,” with the Chicago Sun-Times‘Annie Costabile adding that top Russian club UMMC Ekaterinburg, Vandersloot’s current international team, is pursuing the option of paying her to sit out the 2022 WNBA season. If Vandersloot, a member of the Sky since ’11, does not return this year, it’s hard to imagine Chicago repeating. Allie Quiqley, Vandersloot’s wife and longtime teammate, is also a free agent this offseason, and it’s unclear what her plans are as well. On Thursday evening, GirlsTalkSportsTV’s Khristina Williams cited a source that said both returning was very likely, which would put the Sky among the league’s best teams. But for now, there are still major questions swirling around the organization.
In addition to retaining Jones, the Sun also brought back All-Star guard Courtney Williams, who spent four seasons with Connecticut from 2016 to ’19. Williams is coming off a career-best season with the Dream, where she averaged 16.5 points per game, and with Connecticut she should take on a lead playmaker role in the backcourt. General manager–coach Curt Miller said that in his opinion, Williams has also “quietly been the best defensive rebounding guard in the league, which will continue to help our defense and transition game.”
The Sun bowed out of the playoffs in the semifinals, but bringing back Williams would help alleviate one of their biggest shortcomings. They have a loaded frontcourt and, while losing January to the Storm will hurt, adding a proven creator in Williams could be more important.
Indiana has obtained more draft capital, adding the No. 7 pick from Chicago and a 2023 first-round pick from Chicago, as well as a second-round pick in ’22 and ’23 from Phoenix via a three-team trade. For their efforts, they now own three of the top 10 picks in the upcoming event. However, while increasing your dart throws is certainly key to a rebuilding team’s strategy, Indiana has struggled to maximize the return on those throws in recent seasons.
In mid-January, the team waived Kysre Gondrezick, the No. 4 pick in the 2021 WNBA draft, marking the second consecutive season in which the team’s top draft pick didn’t last two full seasons with the club. Gondrezick averaged only 1.9 points through 19 games before stepping away from the team for personal reasons last summer. She provided more detail on her absence in a tweet on Nov. 22. “My mental health was at high risk as I was under a lot of stress coping with my own personal silence of traumas,” she said. Lauren Cox, the No. 3 pick in the ’20 WNBA draft, was released early on last season and later joined the Sparks.
Other than the draft picks, the Fever added veteran guard Bria Hartley from Phoenix in the three-team trade but made no other additional free agent signings. Should Indiana have spent just to spend? No, they still seem a ways away from truly contending. But the pressure on the organization’s front office continues to mount with every passing offseason. If they nail their draft picks they could improve quickly, but it seems like they’ll need to do more than just compile young players.
Winner: The fans
The WNBA is getting one more year of Bird and Fowles. Mercury star Diana Taurasi should also follow up this season, and Phoenix again seems poised to contend (Charles is reportedly interested in joining last year’s runner-up). Plus, five-time All-Star Angel McCoughtry will be back on the court after missing last season with a torn ACL. At 35, she should still provide a jolt to the Lynx, with general manager–coach Cheryl Reeve calling her “one of the all-time greats in the history of our league.” It remains to be seen how much longer she will play. While there was less movement than expected, a number of teams remain rich with talent. It sets up to be a season yet again loaded with intriguing story lines.
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