During this third decade of the WNBA, players are finally starting to realize some of the agency that their counterparts in the NBA enjoy.
That’s not only true of them as a group but as individuals as well. The new CBA appears to open the door to greater and more frequent player movement, as well as greater freedom to leverage teams as potential suitors.
This momentum leads to a question: How long until we see WNBA players synchronize their free-agent destinations as has happend with some of the past couple decades of NBA “super teams?”
Before considering this situation, it’s necessary to dismiss the pompous and ridiculous doubts about the merits of this situation. Fans decrying free agents in the NBA teaming up often mount self-serving, weak criticisms. The common utterances on social media essentially boil down to, “[Michael] Jordan would never have done that,” or, “these guys are taking the easy path.”
These criticisms leak the minuscule amount of water they might have ever held when four facts are brought into the conversation:
- Jordan played on a team that had Basketball Hall of Famers Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman added to it, (not to mention All-Star Horace Grant before Rodman).
- The alternative is a player not wanting to play with the best available talent.
- These criticisms are often absent when teams trade for multiple star players.
- The goal is to win championships, which is what fans want.
There’s also often an element of jealousy in these criticisms. Fans of the team selected by multiple free agents are rarely the ones voicing these complaints.
In doing so, a fan would say: “I want my team to win championships but not in this way. It’s unfair to the rest of the league.”
I have yet to hear anyone say such a thing.
The potential rewards for everyone involved in a “super team” situation are simply too hard to dismiss. Players often take pay cuts in comparison to what they could have made elsewhere.
There are a lot of other ways to make up for that initial sacrifice, however. These include cash prizes for making and advancing in the playoffs, increased royalties on merchandise sales and enhanced visibility leading to more opportunities to cash in off-the-court.
WNBA players now have greater access to these opportunities than at any other time. The circumstances that have led up to NBA players pooling their resources are also emerging in the WNBA.
Increased compensation for players means there’s a greater chance for them to take an actual offseason. Until now, the fact that many have played overseas during the WNBA offseason has limited the league’s ability to market around free agent signings. If more players take time off, that increases teams’ chances to milk free-agent signings for all they’re worth.
Players earning maximum compensation in the new collective bargaining agreement depends on more than just their on-court performance. The more heavily they are engaged in building the league and their teams as a business, the more they make. That provides another incentive for teams to get greedy when players’ interest aligns.
In the meantime, it puts pressure on teams to make themselves out to be such a destination for players to draw that interest.
Toward that end, not all of the WNBA’s 12 franchises are equal. While individual players make their decisions about where they want to play for a variety of reasons, those reasons are all valid. They also point to the culture of those organizations.
One franchise that seems worthy of scrutiny right now is the Dallas Wings. Just one offseason after Dallas traded away its best player, Liz Cambage, to another Western-Conference team because she was publicly unhappy with her situation with the Wings, that situation appears to be repeating itself.
Skylar Diggins-Smith, arguably the face of the franchise in 2019, also wants out of Dallas.
Like Cambage, that will require the Wings’ trading her, though Dallas has used the core designation on her.
No other players, like 2019 Rookie-of-the-Year runner-up Arike Ogunbowale, have expressed displeasure with the Wings. But that doesn’t erase how for two consecutive seasons, Dallas’ best player has expressed that she wants the team to move her. If the Wings do move Diggings-Smith, regardless of what package of drafts picks and players they get in return, the story of Dallas being undesirable for elite players is written.
The Wings aren’t the only team that has work to do, however.
The Atlanta Dream have recently announced their decision not to use the “core player” designation on Angel McCoughtry. McCoughtry has mostly been silent publicly about any desire to leave Atlanta, including whether the political stances of co-owner Kelly Loeffler play any role in that possibility.
As the Dream’s statement noted, one of McCoughtry’s options is to re-sign with Atlanta. The Dream seem open to that right now as well.
Regardless of McCoughtry’s motivation, Atlanta’s decision not to core her leads into a discussion about the future of that labor device. The number of times a player can receive a core designation decreases to just twice over the term of the recently ratified CBA, so there is a heightened risk in putting the tag on a player.
Dallas would mitigate that risk if it trades Diggins-Smith. The Dream have avoided it by declining to use the core tag on McCoughtry. There is value to keeping players happy and creating a reputation for doing so. If a franchise cores and keeps an unhappy player, it risks ruining that reputation.
The more teams abandon the core tag, the more players have access to unrestricted free agency.
Such a change in strategy would signal a positive shift in the league. Instead of it being pivotal for players to satisfy their teams in order to keep their jobs, the paradigm is starting to reverse.
The question of how long until we see two or more WNBA superstars join the same team in the same offseason via free agency is easily answered: It’s going to be sooner rather than later.
The economic incentives of doing so are real. That goes for the teams as well as the players. That, combined with new incentives for creating a player-first culture and greater access to unrestricted free agency, will eventually produce this result.
Could we see DeWanna Bonner and Kristi Toliver sign with the same team later this month, for example?
That’s a different story for a different time, but the very fact we can seriously ponder the question is a great step forward for the league, its players and its fans.