You might have thought that the 2021 WNBA postseason, complete with Candace Parker returning to the top with her Chicago Sky and Diana Taurasi slamming (and breaking) doors, was as dramatic as the WNBA could get.
Buckle up: The offseason is here, the movement is about to begin and things are going to get frenzied. By Friday at 5 pm ET, we’ll know who has been cored — the one player each team can choose to essentially provide a franchise tag on and keep off the market. On Saturday, negotiations with free agents can begin. Deals can become official starting on Feb. 1.
It’s going to be a wild ride.
So how do you keep track of it all, especially when there are dozens of unrestricted free agents and 10 more restricted free agents, and when all 12 teams have postseason aspirations? (Look for your tanking elsewhere, friends; in the WNBA, teams win or lose on merit.)
Let’s break it down into the key questions that will shape the way the league looks in the years ahead.
Will any franchise players move?
The top of this market is filled with destiny-altering talent: Four of the league’s top seven players, according to their 2021 win shares, are potential free agents. Whether they go anywhere is another matter.
Let’s start with Sylvia Fowles — if she’s not retiring, expect her back in Minnesota. That’s an easy one.
In theory, Breanna Stewart is a free agent. The 2018 WNBA MVP and two-time WNBA champion can choose to find a new employer, with no shortage of suitors. However, she sounds like she has no intention of leaving, telling reporters back in October, “In Seattle we have the pieces” — a status reinforced by Sue Bird’s announcement that she plans to return for another season as well.
The two of them are unlikely to make decisions about their futures without coordinating with one another. The real question is whether Stewart is so dedicated to Seattle that the Storm can instead use their core designation on Jewell Loyd, keeping Seattle’s three most important players in the fold ahead of any other offseason moves. More on Loyd below.
Then there’s Jonquel Jones, the reigning WNBA MVP and most vital player on the Connecticut Sun roster. Rachel Galligan reported on Monday the expected news that the Sun have offered her the core designation. Again, this limits Jones’s options in theory and keeps her from unrestricted free agency. However, should she wish to leave Connecticut, she wouldn’t be the first player to elect not to sign and request a trade instead. Her initial actions here will help map out whether other teams can call Curt Miller with offers for Jones.
The same is true of the 2020 WNBA MVP, A’ja Wilson, who is a restricted free agent this offseason, meaning that her current employer, the Las Vegas Aces, can match any offer sheet she signs elsewhere — for instance, in Atlanta, a city not far from her hometown of Hopkins, South Carolina. But don’t expect the Aces to let the living statue go anywhere.
So who are the biggest names likely to switch teams?
Let’s go back to Loyd for a moment, in the event the Storm play it safe with Stewart and core her instead. That would leave Loyd, a difference-making scorer, as an unrestricted free agent. That means every single team in the league in need of a combo guard who can create his own shot — a select group of players, so that’s essentially everyone other than Dallas (Arike Ogunbowale) and Phoenix (Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith) — will do whatever it takes to add Loyd, whose usage rate was third in the league last year. It is easy to envision the Chicago Sky trying to get younger in the backcourt by making a run at hometown hero Loyd — going after Chicago natives certainly worked for them with Parker and, prior to that, Allie Quigley. But ultimately, as a free agent, Loyd can write her own ticket and go where she wants.
A similar fate is likely to await Tina Charles, who spent most of 2021 with the Washington Mystics reminding people that she is, indeed, Tina Charles. What was intended to be an addition of Charles as a strong supplementary player to Elena Delle Donne while the Mystics chased a title turned into the Tina Charles Show in DC, with Delle Donne limited to just three games due to her continuing back issues. Charles put up some of the best numbers of her career, including a true shooting percentage of .538 — matching her mark in 2012, her MVP season, exactly — but she did it in dramatically different fashion, hitting 36.5 percent of her 3-point attempts while taking 137 of them. In 2012? She took five all year.
Charles has pre-existing relationships from his time in New York with both Atlanta Dream general manager Dan Padover and new head coach Tanisha Wright. As the Dream put together the next iteration of their roster, it’s hard to imagine a better fit than Charles.
As for bigs on the move, one statement from Becky Hammon’s press conference introducing herself as the new head coach and general manager of the Las Vegas Aces stood out to me: “We’ll probably shoot a few more threes.”
This gets at the heart of the difference between former head coach Bill Laimbeer and virtually everyone else in the league, an embracing of a throwback, multi-big offense centered around Wilson and Liz Cambage. The latter, a punishing finisher down low but now your prototype stretch-five, found ways to coexist with Wilson, while Laimbeer insisted Wilson was best suited as a power forward.
While it is hard to argue with results like Vegas’s 42-12 record over the past two seasons or Wilson’s MVP trophy, it is unlikely that Hammon will view Wilson as anything other than a clear and obvious five in the Vegas plans. That leaves Cambage without a position, and likely headed elsewhere, assuming she elects to play in 2022. Teams in need of more interior scoring, like the Los Angeles Sparks and New York Liberty (if she’s changed her mind about the East Coast), could be logical destinations for Cambage. Expect her minutes played and points per game to rise dramatically in either new location.
And all of this is just the top of a market that includes potential difference-makers from Quigley, Courtney Vandersloot and Briann January for backcourts to Tiffany Hayes and Rebecca Allen among versatile wings to bigs like Myisha Hines-Allen, Stefanie Dolson and Mercedes Russell. Interest in them could push WNBA teams to make trades to open salary slots for them, adding another level of fun to the madness.
So keep your rosters handy. And write them in pencil.