With so many WNBA teams diving headlong into free agency, a divide has eroded the mid-tier competition.
In fact, we’ve seen a binary of approaches in this new CBA era: Some franchises are win-now while others seem to be preparing only for the future (which may be multiple seasons down the road).
The new CBA led to a ballooning of both player salaries and the cap. This created a free agency free-for-all that has shaken up rosters across the league. Though the WNBA Draft is still a month out, much has already changed during this unprecedented shuffle.
In Part One, I’ll look at the back half, counting down from teams 12 to seven:
12 – Dallas Wings
Dallas lacked a true point guard last season, and it was evident in the passing numbers. The Wings ranked dead last in both assists (15.2) and assist percentage (58.9 percent) while playing at the league’s slowest pace (91.4).
Arike Ogunbowale led the team with 3.2 apg. but also averaged 2.1 turnovers. She did whatever she could to keep her team competitive, though they relied on their star guard too heavily. Her 28.8 usage rate trailed only New York Liberty forward Tina Charles and Los Angeles Sparks center Maria Vadeeva.
The Wings were one of the most active teams in free agency. But they were the only one of said franchises that seemed to be making aggressive moves to help beyond 2020 rather than in the upcoming season.
The departure of Skylar Diggins-Smith marks the end of an era. In return for trading her to the Phoenix Mercury, Dallas received three first-round picks: two in 2020, and one in 2021. The Wings’ offseason strategy of stockpiling assets has netted them five of the first 15 selections in 2020 (picks 2, 5, 7, 9 and 15).
The team also acquired two players selected in 2019, former lottery pick Katie Lou Samuelson from the Chicago Sky and Marina Mabrey (who played alongside Wings’ star Arike Ogunbowale at Notre Dame) from Los Angeles.
Reunited. ???? pic.twitter.com/nIOn6VPLrW
— Dallas Wings (@DallasWings) February 21, 2020
As noted by Winsidr’s Justin Carter, Dallas currently has 15 players under contract, and that’s before they select their four first-rounders. Thus, there’s quite a bit of shuffling yet to do before the season tips off.
Either way, while this young core will be fun to follow, they won’t be ready to compete this year.
11 – Indiana Fever
Indiana largely stayed quiet this offseason, keeping together 2019’s core. The Fever took flyers on two intriguing international players, however: 6’10” Hungarian center Bernadett Határ and Belgian guard Julie Allemand. On March 6, Indiana dealt Shenise Johnson and the No. 16 pick to the Minnesota Lynx in exchange for the No. 14 pick and a 2021 third-rounder.
New head coach Marianne Stanley will look to build behind 2019 All-Stars Candace Dupree and Erica Wheeler, as well as 2019’s strong draft pick Teaira McCowan. The latter was a force on the glass during her rookie campaign: Her 19.5 rebound percentage was best in the entire league. In just 22.8 minutes per game, she pulled down 9.0 rpg., which ranked second behind Connecticut Sun big, Jonquel Jones.
Last season, Indiana struggled to stop opposing point guards. It gave up the most assists per game (20.5) while forcing the fewest turnovers (13.0). The Fever are not likely to address that issue in the draft, though.
That’s because the team will add the No. 3 pick in the draft, likely either Oregon’s Satou Sabally or Baylor’s Lauren Cox, depending on which player Dallas selects at No. 2. Though the Fever could use help on the perimeter, both players offer upside that would be difficult for them to pass up. Finding someone to play alongside McCowan upfront will create an impressive combination for years to come.
10 – New York Liberty
The final major domino of the offseason has been teetering on edge for weeks.
Days into free agency, rumors surfaced about longtime star big Tina Charles being on the trading block. Though the Phoenix Mercury can no longer absorb her contract, perhaps another team could.
New York may have waited too long, however, as most teams have now filled out their rosters (or at least spent most of their cap space), limiting any potential returns for Charles that don’t involve taking on poor contracts. The more assertive contenders can no longer accommodate the seven-time All-Star while rebuilding teams may not want the veteran eating up minutes allocated for the next generation of talent.
During the first barrage of transactions, both DeWanna Bonner and Skylar Diggins-Smith netted three draft picks apiece. Although Charles is on par with both those players, the Liberty likely can no longer expect to receive a similar return.
Charles was given a Core designation at the start of free agency, but one wrinkle could come into play as of March 7. There’s obviously a chance that she has not appreciated being dangled in trade talk, or that she wants to do whatever possible to play for a contender. As per the CBA:
A Core Qualifying Offer may be withdrawn by the Team at any time through the following February 15. If the Core Qualifying Offer is not withdrawn by February 15, it must thereafter remain open through the following March 7; provided, however, that the Core Qualifying Offer may be withdrawn by the Team during the period February 16 through March 7 if the player agrees in writing to the withdrawal. If a Core Qualifying Offer is withdrawn, the player shall thereupon immediately become an Unrestricted Free Agent.
Assuming Charles does stay, she would return to a locker room without much turnover. Aside from Tanisha Wright’s retirement, only Bria Hartley left in free agency, signing an eye-opening max deal with the Mercury.
The signing of veteran guard Layshia Clarendon is a small-scale move that does little to nudge the needle on New York’s 2020 outlook. However, a healthy Asia Durr could also help the team get out and run for Coach Walt Hopkins.
The hopes for success fall at the feet of presumptive No. 1, Sabrina Ionescu. As I wrote for TBW back in September, Ionescu brings a steadying hand to the point guard position that has been a problem spot for the Liberty in recent years. After being third in turnover percentage during 2017 (and holding the third-best record), the Liberty have fallen to 11th and 10th in consecutive years.
If they have any hope of competing for a playoff spot in 2020, it’ll be on the backs of young guard play, led by Ionescu, Durr, Kia Nurse, Marine Johannes and Rebecca Allen.
9 – Minnesota Lynx
The Lynx are the only 2019 playoff team on my list to fall from contention. In line with the theme, they’re another group that has remained idle while other teams have sought to improve themselves.
Last year, newcomers Odyssey Sims (via trade with LA) and (Rookie of the Year) Napheesa Collier helped steady a franchise in flux. Coach Cheryl Reeve’s squad could have floundered following the loss of Maya Moore for the entirety of the season (and Seimone Augustus for the majority of it), but she instead managed to at least mirror their 18-16 2018 record.
So why am I not a believer in the Lynx heading into 2020?
Sims—who played a strong point guard on the way to being selected to her first All-Star game—is due to miss much of, if not the entire, season due to her pregnancy. The crafty lefty led the team in scoring (13.4 ppg.) and dishing (5.4 apg.).
The Las Vegas Aces signed away Sims’ backup, Danielle Robinson, the team’s fourth-leading producer (10.1 ppg.) and second-leading passer (3.7 apg.). The two players accounted for 9.1 of the team’s 20.3 apg., which ranked fourth in the W. Minnesota’s 67.0 assist percentage was also good for fourth. It must select a guard in the draft to mitigate these losses.
This past week, Los Angeles signed away 14-year veteran Seimone Augustus. She’s since admitted to taking less money to leave the team she’d spent her entire career with, having felt disrespected throughout the negotiations. Though it’s speculative as to how that all went down—perhaps the team prioritized chasing after the big names (even though they didn’t sign any) before circling back to their own free agents?—Augustus’ departure is a crack in the foundational bedrock that Coach Reeve has built during her four-time championship tenure in Minnesota.
Is this culture shift an isolated incident, or a precursor to more chemistry issues?
8 – Atlanta Dream
To counteract Minnesota’s falling out of projected playoff contention, Atlanta has climbed its way back into the mix, bringing in reinforcements to help Tiffany Hayes. Despite beginning free agency with a few whiffs—both Tiffany Mitchell and Astou Ndour had Atlanta offer sheets matched—the Dream kept swinging.
Three major additions have improved their outlook.
First, the Dream signed Glory Johnson away from the Wings, after she’d spent the first seven years of her career with the Tulsa/Dallas franchise. Though her stats have fallen off the last two seasons, she showed off a new weapon last year: After never averaging more than 0.6 3-pointers, Johnson converted 1.3 shots per game from deep while setting a career high at 34 percent.
Her rebounding percentage has fallen for four straight seasons, so she’ll need to regain her aggressiveness down low if she wants the one-year deal to turn into a multi-year contract next offseason.
Both Shekinna Stricklen and Courtney Williams also came over from Connecticut, which I talked about in-depth in my article about Week 2 of free agency. Stricklen’s 2.2 3-pointers per game will help space the floor for Hayes, who converted 49 percent of the 151 attempts she took within five feet last season.
Another scoring guard, Williams will also keep pressure on perimeter defenders, giving Atlanta a 1-2 punch that will frustrate opponents.
7 – Connecticut Sun
Although they were the runner-up in 2019, the Connecticut Sun have fallen farther than any team in my power rankings. This is more of a testament to the improvement made by the teams that leapfrogged them than it is a condemnation of the Sun’s transactions.
But it’s still a precipitous drop.
When the Sun acquired Bonner in the early days of free agency, the team looked poised to be a frontrunner in 2020. A string of departures—the aforementioned Clarendon, Stricklen and Williams, as well as Morgan Tuck (Seattle Storm) and Rachel Banham (Minnesota Lynx)—left major minutes to be accounted for. To offset their losses, Connecticut has added Briann January and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.
The Sun must play through Alyssa Thomas more, as they did in the 2019 postseason. Thomas raised her assist averages from 3.1 during the regular season to 6.6 in the playoffs. She managed that while maintaining a nearly identical usage rate.
Clarendon, Stricklen, and Williams all had individual defensive ratings stronger than the 96.8 posted by the team, a number that ranked fifth in 2019.
Briann January’s defensive pressure along the perimeter will also help ease the transition. She’s been named First Team All-WNBA All-Defensive four times, and Second Team twice. Her play for Phoenix in 2019 impacted strongly: In wins, she averaged 8.6 points on 46.1 percent shooting; In losses, just 4.9 on 32.3 percent. Her ratings told a similar story: She had a positive 14.7 net rating in wins and a negative 15.9 in losses. Her consistency will be huge for Connecticut.
Mosqueda-Lewis will slot into the role vacated by Morgan Tuck. Both are stretch-forwards that took a majority of their 3-pointers from above the break (75 of 82 for Mosqueda-Lewis and 41 of 42 for Tuck).
Connecticut won’t have much of a presence in the draft: They pick late in the second and third rounds (23rd and 35th overall). The team they’ve got now does not boast much depth past its starting five, and one injury has the potential to derail the entire season.
THE REST OF THE PACK
Next week, I’ll break down the top half of the league: All are contenders that can win the championship if things break their way.
We’re heading towards one of the most competitive WNBA seasons in history, with the crop of talent potentially never deeper than it is right now. The league invested in itself with the latest CBA, and the on-court product looks poised to make good on that move.
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.