WNBA teams operate under a hard cap and only get 12 roster spots. It’s a harsh reality of the league’s current state.
Rookies, young players coming off rookie-scale deals and veteran bench players alike are often victims to roster crunches, with talent ranking far down the list of reasons why.
The guaranteed contract—referred to in the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) as “base salary protection”—is another factor at the start of each season as teams maneuver to finalize their 12-player rosters while staying under the salary cap.
Teams can have current or former obligations to no more than six guaranteed contracts at any one time. The appeal of one of these deals from a player’s perspective is obvious: A team can’t just waive you, meaning they’re more likely to keep you even if they aren’t pleased with your production. That protection is a worthy carrot for teams to dangle in free agency or when re-signing their own players.
Those deals can come back to haunt teams, or at least make life much more difficult for a franchise and an up-and-coming player in its path.
Kelsey Bone, Las Vegas Aces
The Aces changed course right before the final deadline to finalize their opening night roster. Head coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer initially told reporters that the team would be waiving veteran guard Sydney Colson.
Laimbeer changed his mind shortly after that point, and the team worked toward a buyout with Kelsey Bone. Her contract was guaranteed at $112,000 for the 2019 season per the High Post Hoops salary database.
The Aces also waived 2018 second-round pick Jaime Nared that day, kept Colson and finalized the opening night roster at 11.
Nared and Colson were the two most obvious names affected by the Bone buyout. But the Aces handling of this situation calls back to two trades made last offseason that directly touched two other teams and the decisions they made in finalizing rosters.
Aces receive: 2019 second-round pick
Indiana Fever receive: Kayla Alexander, 2019 third-round pick
Aces receive: Kelsey Bone
Phoenix Mercury receive: 2018 No. 26 overall pick, 2019 second-round pick (from Las Vegas via Indiana)
The Aces turned Alexander and a late-round pick into a better one that they then used to acquire Bone. Laimbeer got great value out of his frontcourt rotation. Bone just happened to be the one that got squeezed. Some of that speaks to the stiff competition. Some of it also speaks to Bone not producing enough to demand more floor time.
The Mercury turned Bone—somebody that did not play at all in 2017—into a potential flyer on a promising young player that could be infused with their core of veterans.
Regardless of how the 2018 season played out, the Fever should have been valuing that second-round pick they were sending out as one that would land in the top four spots of that second round. That level of asset needs to be valued as something that can net you a rotation player—a reasonable view of Alexander at the time.
But the Fever didn’t give her much run last season and ended up waiving her. Speaking of that…
Kayla Alexander, Indiana Fever
The Fever waived Alexander, eating $93,600 in guaranteed money to have her not play for the team this season.
Unlike the Aces, they did not just acquire Liz Cambage, nor were they under any particular stress to get under the salary cap with that specific move.
Waiving Alexander closed the loop on the deal that shipped out a valuable second-round pick. Not having that pick hurt even more once the news broke that Victoria Vivians suffered a torn ACL this spring while playing overseas.
That injury takes a starting wing (and half of one of the league’s top 3-point shooting duos) completely out of the 2019 rotation. There were some interesting guard/wing options still on the board at No. 13 that ended up making opening-night rosters.
Now, the move did end up clearing the way for both Erica McCall and Stephanie Mavunga—two young bigs on rookie scale deals—to make the roster.
Had the team never made that trade in the first place, it’s possible they could have used that early second rounder to address a need on the perimeter and make the most of this time without Vivians.
Camille Little and Leilani Mitchell, Phoenix Mercury
The Mercury ended up keeping four rookies to start the season, including Sophie Cunningham, who the team selected with that No. 13 overall pick. Phoenix also kept veteran forward Camille Little, who’s on a $101,000 guaranteed deal for this season.
The end result of the Mercury cap crunch led to the team shedding two contributors from the last two seasons: point guard Leilani Mitchell and guard/wing Stephanie Talbot.
Mitchell was waived outright and had two years left on her deal at nearly $100,000 in each season. Perhaps the team is waiting to bring her back later in the season at a lower number, pro-rated based on the amount of time left in the season.
The Minnesota Lynx benefitted from this roster crunch as they stepped in to acquire Talbot in exchange for their own 2020 second-round pick. The Lynx have several new guards/wings already on their 2019 roster, but Talbot fits right in with all of them as a steady, low usage 3-and-D contributor.
Phoenix opened the season without the services of Little (ankle), starting power forward Sancho Lyttle (knee) and All-WNBA guard Diana Taurasi (back).
The result? The only four available bench players are the team’s four rookies.
Mitchell has been a solid 3-point shooter for most of her 10-year WNBA career and would have opened the door to some two-PG lineups next to January to get even more playmaking on the floor when accounting for Taurasi’s absence.
Talbot started 36 regular season and playoff games for the club across the last two seasons. They did add veteran wing Essence Carson in free agency, whose presence accounts for that loss. Yvonne Turner could also step into a larger role across all three perimeter positions.
In a sense, the Mercury situation boiled down to the need to shave on bigger contract off their books in order to keep 12 players. Mitchell’s could be waived for nothing. Little’s couldn’t.
Jantel Lavender, Chicago Sky via Los Angeles Sparks
Let’s be clear: Lavender currently is the best of the bigs mentioned here, but the Sparks already had about 70 percent of the cap tied up in eight players. Six of the eight are locks: Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Alana Beard, Chelsea Gray, Chiney Ogwumike and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt.
The team also re-signed Riquna Williams, who started in both of the team’s playoff games last season. Williams was arrested on assault charges in Florida nearly a month ago, citing an incident that occurred last December.
The Sparks replied to a request for a statement after Williams’ re-signing was announced, stating they “are aware of the allegations surrounding guard Riquna Williams. We’re monitoring the situation and will have no comment until the legal process is completed.”
The other two (Kalani Brown and Maria Vadeeva) were both under contract for several more years apiece on rookie scale deals and overlap positionally with Lavender on top of the existing post corps that already included Parker and the Ogwumikes.
The Sparks managed to get a 2020 second-round pick from the Sky in exchange for Lavender. L.A. would have needed to find a way to save money somehow, but a trade for a draft pick was the cleanest path toward ensuring they could make room for 12 players, not just 11. Young guards Alexis Jones, Marina Mabrey and Sydney Wiese all made the team’s opening night roster.
Will these moves come back to haunt any of these teams?
This is Lavender’s 10th WNBA season. The Sparks would have needed to open up some playing time for Vadeeva and Brown even if they had not acquired Chiney Ogwumike earlier this offseason. Lavender was a reserve on a big contract that was also fully guaranteed.
The Aces may have a bit of a mystery on their hands with their non-Kelsey Plum point guard minutes. They got a promising start from Colson in the season opener. (They too could have held onto that Indiana pick and gotten some utility out of it by drafting a guard that could have competed for a roster spot.)
Phoenix just needs Lyttle and Taurasi to get healthy. That team has the pieces it needs to compete for a title. Minutes on the wing became tougher to come by for either Talbot or Turner—or both—the minute they signed Carson. Mitchell was banged up last season, however, and could have given them a lift both in Taurasi’s absence and as a spark plug off the bench.
The Fever aren’t competing for a title in 2019, so their scenario unfolded on a much smaller scale.
2019 No. 3 overall pick Teaira McCowan is the future at the position, and they couldn’t have predicted the Vivians injury. To the team’s credit, they did claim Kennedy Burke off waivers. The No. 22 overall pick was waived by the Dallas Wings prior to the start of the season, so Pokey Chatman and the Fever may have ended up with that extra young second-round talent on the wing after all.
All salary information obtained via the High Post Hoops salary database.
Ben Dull covers the WNBA, the WNBA Draft and women’s college basketball. His year-round coverage can be found at High Post Hoops, BBall Index, and The Basketball Writers. He is a San Diego native and recent alum of Concordia University Irvine’s Master’s of Coaching and Athletic Administration (MCAA) program.