Breaking Down WNBA’s Wild Week of Free Agency
February 10 kicked off an exciting flurry of free-agent activity for the WNBA, and each of the 12 franchises has made moves they hope will improve their roster for the upcoming 2020 season.
With the new CBA in place, some teams—like the Los Angeles Sparks and Phoenix Mercury—have pounced with large dollar offers to entice players to new homes. Others have used draft capital—like the Connecticut Sun and, again, the Phoenix Mercury—to acquire high profile talent.
As my colleague Derek Helling recently wrote for TBW, the era of the WNBA super team looks to be here already, and the divide between championship heavyweights and the bottom of the pack is growing.
Here’s what to make of the biggest moves and their potential impact on the 2020 season.
Angel’s in Mandalay Bay
Just hours into free agency, Angel McCoughtry signed with the Las Vegas Aces. The six-time All-WNBA player was an unrestricted free agent let loose by the Atlanta Dream, though she’d spent the first decade of her career there.
She’s coming off an injury-plagued season in which she only got onto the floor for three seconds of one game late as a farewell to Atlanta fans. But after seeing the return Dallas received for Skylar Diggins-Smith (more on that in a bit), Atlanta’s decision to let her walk for nothing is confounding.
♠️ #1 Overall Draft Pick (2009)
♠️ 5x WNBA All-Star
♠️ 5th All-time in PPG in WNBA History
♠️ 6x All-WNBA Selection
♠️ 7x WNBA All-Defensive Team Honoree pic.twitter.com/4AvDx6L89B
— Las Vegas Aces (@LVAces) February 11, 2020
If she can return to form, McCoughtry makes the league’s largest frontcourt even larger, slotting in beside Liz Cambage (assuming she returns), A’ja Wilson, Kayla McBride and either Kelsey Plum or Jackie Young. That’s five number one overall picks on the Aces roster! (i.e. McCoughtry, Cambage, Wilson, Plum and Young)
McCoughtry’s career averages of 19.1 points and 5.0 boards would translate anywhere, but it’s on the other end of the court where she makes the largest impact.
She’s a seven-time All-Defensive teamer, and she’s ranked top-five for steals in all but 2018 (when she ranked 12th) and last season. Her 597 swipes are 10th all-time, and her career mark of 2.1 steals per game ranks second all-time to Tamika Catchings (2.35 per game and all-time leader with 1,074 total).
Last year, Las Vegas finished at 21-13 (the W’s fourth-best record) before getting bounced by the Washington Mystics 3-1 in the best-of-five semifinals. With McCoughtry aboard, Coach Bill Laimbeer has an even more formidable lineup ready to hit the hardwood in 2020.
Other transactions for Las Vegas: Backup point guard and chant-leading hype woman Sydney Colson signed a contract with the Chicago Sky.
Toliver Returns West
The first shocking transaction also came on Monday: Months after winning the championship with Washington, Kristi Toliver signed with Los Angeles. She spent years 2-8 of her 11-year career in LA but also has deep roots in the DC community.
Her work as an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards had even prompted the “Kristi Toliver Provision” in the new CBA, which allows players to make market-rate salaries paid out by team affiliates.
WNBA Free Agency sheets are here! Check out this one for @KristiToliver and her move from DC to LA. The @LA_Sparks are getting a tremendous producer on the offensive end of the floor. Also, it's interesting to see her shot heatmap highlight the left-wing threes pic.twitter.com/Ay49rEIjzU
— py_ball (@py_ball_) February 14, 2020
Toliver is a terrific shooting add for an LA team that made 242 threes in 2019, (the fourth-most in the league), at 34.1 percent, (the fifth-highest clip). Despite playing just 23 games, Toliver made 36 threes on 36 percent shooting.
Over the course of her career, she converts 1.8 treys per game at 38.7 percent. In 2019, she averaged 13.0 points and 6.0 assists while shooting a career-high 49.4 percent from the field.
The Sparks had minutes to fill with the retirement of defensive star Alana Beard at last season’s end.
Toliver is potentially slotted to start alongside Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray and new acquisition Britney Sykes. (Sykes came over in a trade from Atlanta with Marie Gulich in exchange for LA’s first-round pick last season: Kalani Brown.)
Chiney Ogwumike, Riqana Williams and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt make for a deep bench, and Brown’s departure allows minutes for offensive center Maria Vadeeva, as well. With Toliver joining her old team, Washington made a reunion of their own, signing 2019 Most Improved Player Leilani Mitchell away from Phoenix.
Bonner to Connecticut
Mitchell wasn’t the only big name to leave the Mercury this week. Via sign-and-trade for three first-round picks, DeWanna Bonner went from Phoenix to the runner-up Connecticut Sun. After losing role players Morgan Tuck to the Seattle Storm and Layshia Clarendon to the New York Liberty, it looked like Connecticut might have had trouble staying as competitive in 2020.
The Bonner trade silenced those doubts.
Bonner averaged 17.2 points (fifth in the W) and 7.6 rebounds (ninth) in 2019. She shot 4.5 of 4.9 from the line per game, both tops in the league, on 91.6 percent shooting, which ranked fifth.
Despite her size, she’s a one-woman fast break and can shoot from anywhere on the court:
She and recently re-signed center Jonquel Jones are arguably the best shooting tandem of bigs in the league. If the team retains restricted free agent guard Courtney Williams—which, barring something unforeseen, they will—the Sun have a formidable big three alongside Alyssa Thomas (arguably their strongest player last postseason) and Jasmine Thomas.
Connecticut played to within a game of the title last season, and they’ve gotten stronger.
There have been rumors about Williams departing. As a restricted free agent, however, the Sun would have every opportunity to match, and they currently have the cap space to do so. As I wrote last week for TBW, Courtney Williams is the heart of the team, their leader on and off the court.
Connecticut’s hand may be forced if Shekinna Stricklen looks to go elsewhere before the situation with Williams is resolved. Williams responded to some of the rumors flitting around Twitter on Friday morning.
Y’all old heads love to bring up my lifestyle like going out to clubs turning up and being around black women twerking is such a problem because I’m in the WNBA. I’m 25 and that’s a good time for me!! Just bc y’all good time doesn’t look like mine doesn’t mean that’s a problem ????
— Courtney Williams (@CourtMWilliams) February 14, 2020
Mercury fans had only a day to fret about losing Bonner. On Wednesday, they traded three picks of their own to the Dallas Wings for disgruntled guard Skylar Diggins-Smith.
Diggins-Smith did not play in 2019 but holds career averages of 15.9 points and 4.9 dimes.
The Merc took a 'whatever it takes' mentality when pitching @SkyDigg4 on Phoenix.
Their main selling point? Family ????
— Phoenix Mercury (@PhoenixMercury) February 14, 2020
Four-time All-Star Diggins-Smith will join six-time All-Star Britney Griner (who opted into the three-year max on Friday, according to Howard Megdal) and a now-healthy nine-time All-Star Diana Taurasi. This gives the Mercury a big three of their own.
Depth is still a concern, as I wrote about during the midpoint of last season. Griner, Bonner and Mitchell (the latter two now gone) accounted for 50.7 of 76.5—or 66.3 percent—of the team’s points last season. Griner and Bonner’s usage rates of 27.4 and 25.7, ranked fifth and tenth, respectively, in the entire league.
On Thursday, Phoenix also signed guard Bria Hartley from New York to an eye-opening max deal. Hartley averaged a career-high 9.8 points per game last season while playing hard-nosed full-court defense.
Though this might go down as an albatross contract, Phoenix is in win-now mode to optimize the Taurasi–Griner–Diggins-Smith window.
Can report details on @Breezyyy14's new deal with Phoenix: Three years, 185k/190500/196000, full protection. Our updated #WNBA free agency tracker with cap sheets is here! (We'll have Hartley in there shortly) #WNBAFreeAgency https://t.co/UbcPzykScW
— Howard Megdal (@howardmegdal) February 14, 2020
Another Dallas Departure
For the second straight offseason, a star player demanded out of Dallas. (It was MVP runner-up Cambage who left for Las Vegas in 2018.);
Late last season, Diggins-Smith was very vocal about how she felt the team handled her playing through pregnancy, and the bad blood culminated in a trade request. Dallas has taken a unique strategy this offseason, re-signing its smaller pieces rather than going whale-hunting like the big contenders.
The Wings’ largest acquisition was a sign-and-trade with Chicago for Astou Ndour, sending back a first-round pick in return for the talented 6’5” center-forward. Just a few days later—after both Bonner and SDS have come at the cost of three first-rounders apiece—this could be a steal.
Dallas made a second deal with the Sky on Friday, acquiring 2019 draft pick Katie Lou Samuelson and another first-round pick (this one in 2021) in exchange for forward Azurá Stevens. Samuelson struggled with injuries and court time during her rookie season but looked terrific last week with Team USA.
Another loss is forward Glory Johnson, who heads over to the Dream following an up-and-down campaign that saw her average a career-low 7.3 points and 1.5 rebounds. Her deal, according to Howard Megdal, is a one-year prove-it for $165,000.
More than any other team in the W, Dallas is preparing itself for the future, compiling four first-round picks. With their recent difficulties retaining star players, is this new generation a chance to reset the culture?
The Dallas Wings currently have the No. 2, 5, 7 and 9 first round 2020 draft picks.
— Rachel Galligan (@RachGall) February 12, 2020
One certainly hopes so because the recent two-year trend has been a bit troubling from the outside.
With the Seventh Pick in the WNBA Draft…
It’ll be fun to follow whoever gets selected with the seventh pick in April. That’s because, since Monday, that future prospect has belonged to four different organizations.
It began with Seattle, who sent it to Connecticut in the Tuck sign-and-trade. Then, it moved from Connecticut to Phoenix in the Bonner deal. A day later, the Mercury shipped the selection to Dallas. Will the Wings package it with others to better their position?
Odds and Ends
The Chicago Sky are poised to run it back as much as possible, re-signing Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, Stef Dolson and Kahleah Copper. Ndour and Samuelson, of course, are now in Dallas, and Jamierra Faulkner is out for the season with an injury. But the band is mostly intact.
Gabby Williams probably returns to a full-time wing with Colson’s acquisition, and Stevens will play Ndour’s role.
Seattle is also keeping their roster intact, but it’s now a healthy version of the squad that won it all in 2018. Their fearsome foursome of Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd, Natasha Howard and Sue Bird (along with all the depth pieces and Tuck’s addition) makes them an immediate title contender.
The Atlanta Dream struck out twice to open free agency, offering contracts to two restricted free agents: Then-Sky player Ndour and the Indiana Fever’s Tiffany Mitchell. Both offers were matched, however.
Atlanta’s deals for Glory Johnson and Kalani Brown offer frontcourt help, but it’s been a rough week for them.
And as for the final three teams in the league…
my entire timeline trying to get the lynx liberty and fever to announce some moves pic.twitter.com/qIqCk3XLAD
— Ben Dull (@ben_dull) February 14, 2020
The Indiana Fever, Minnesota Lynx and New York Liberty—along with their fan bases—have largely watched from the sidelines as the dominoes fall.
Minnesota is likely down a point guard for the year, what with Odyssey Sims expected to miss most (if not all) of 2020 due to her pregnancy. Rumors have been floating for the last several days that Tina Charles might be on the move from New York. (Jackie Powell of High Post Hoops broke that down on Friday.)
Both Indiana and New York are laser-focused on the draft, but with all the rich getting richer, these young rosters and the incoming rookie class will face a steep learning curve. Still, this turned out to be one of, if not the most, exciting offseason weeks in WNBA history and is something that should invigorate a lot of fanbases with so many new faces.
Myles Ehrlich is a TBW staff writer from Brooklyn, NY. He has been writing since childhood when it passed the time better than rolling scenery and folk CDs on family road trips. He legitimized his passion at New York University and The Writer’s Foundry MFA. His work has been published with Castings, MASH Stories, and flashfictionmagazine.com. When not writing, Myles is usually playing, watching or reading about sports. His east coast WNBA fandom resides with the New York Liberty; his west coast with the Las Vegas Aces.