With many WNBA teams diving headlong into free agency, a divide has eroded the mid-tier competition. A binary of approaches has materialized: Some franchises are win-now; others prepare solely for the future.
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 draft is still a month out, much has already changed during this unprecedented shuffle.
Part One looked at the lower half of the league:
12. Dallas Wings
11. Indiana Fever
10. New York Liberty
9. Minnesota Lynx
8. Atlanta Dream
7. Connecticut Sun
The WNBA, like the rest of the sports world, is also preparing contingencies in case the Coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt large-scale gatherings across the United States.
This will likely include the WNBA Draft being held remotely this year. And as TBW’s Huw Hopkins wrote, the W has already felt the ramifications, with overseas players facing challenges in returning home.
WNBA Statement Regarding COVID-19 pic.twitter.com/Lj5d8TVaqU
— WNBA (@WNBA) March 12, 2020
Hopefully, the league year can proceed relatively unencumbered, even if the season’s start is postponed to a later date. These six contenders all have a legitimate chance to be the last team standing at year’s end.
6 – Phoenix Mercury
The new-look Mercury are poised to improve on their inconsistent 2019 when they backed into the playoffs with a 15-19 record.
They leaned too heavily on All-Stars Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner. Both were top-10 in usage rate (Griner fifth at 27.4, Bonner 10th at 25.7) while playing fewer minutes than only Minnesota’s Napheesa Collier.
Griner (20.7 ppg), Bonner (17.2 ppg) and now-Washington-Mystic Leilani Mitchell (12.8 ppg) were the only three players to score in double figures for the Phoenix Mercury during 2019. They accounted for 50.7 of the team’s 76.5 points, good for a staggering 66.3 percent.
The Mercury also had trouble ending possessions. Despite strong rebounding from its stars—Bonner ranked ninth at 7.6 rpg., Griner 13th at 7.2 rpg.—Phoenix struggled to clean the glass. The team ranked second-to-last, snagging just 32.5 boards per game. They were also last in steals and scored the fewest points off turnovers and second-chance buckets.
Both Bonner and Mitchell are gone now, off to the Connecticut Sun and the Washington Mystics, respectively. Replacing their production, however, are a now-healthy Diana Taurasi, along with new acquisitions Skylar Diggins-Smith and Bria Hartley.
A return to form is essential for both Taurasi and Diggins-Smith.
The former missed most of 2019 recovering from a back injury but is just a season removed from averaging 20.7 ppg and 3.2 made threes. She was absolutely not herself last season, playing in just six games while only averaging 4.3 ppg. She also shot just 10.3 percent from the floor and hit just one of her 24 long-range attempts.
Diggins-Smith sat out all of 2019 after childbirth but holds career averages of 15.9 points and 4.9 assists while also averaging more than a steal a game. The six-year pro out of Notre Dame is a four-time All-Star.
According to WNBA.com, Diggins-Smith and Taurasi are the only two players in the WNBA since 2013 to rank top-10 in both scoring and assists during the same season at least three times. (DT did it in 2018, 2016, 2014 and 2013.)
Hartley is coming off a career-high 9.8 ppg with New York while also averaging 3.2 rebounds and assists apiece. She’ll have to take another leap to live up to her new contract: a three-year escalating max.
With no significant changes made to the bench, the Mercury will look for growth from their younger players. Both Sophie Cunningham and Alanna Smith must take a leap forward to take pressure off the big four that account for $734,500 of the team’s $1,300,000 cap.
Best-case scenario? The experienced players stay healthy and gel, and the bench improves enough to absorb pressure from the starters.
Worst-case? Injuries derail the season, and bloated contracts from the older vets close the title window for the foreseeable future. Thus, Phoenix and Connecticut (covered last time) look to be the most volatile of the franchises coming into 2020.
5 – Chicago Sky
Chicago and Coach James Wade will run it back with most of the same core in 2020 after re-signing Kahleah Copper, Stef Dolson, Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot in February.
With so many players due for raises via the new CBA, Chicago did make several trades to stay under the cap.
Astou Ndour is now a member of the Dallas Wings, with a 2021 first-rounder going back to Skytown. In a separate deal, Chicago sent Katie Lou Samuelson (a 2019 lottery pick) and a 2021 first-round pick to Dallas for Azurá Stevens.
After a strong rookie campaign in which she averaged 8.9 ppg and 4.6 rpg during just over 20 minutes, Stevens came into 2019 hobbled by a foot injury. A concussion also limited her sophomore season. She only played in nine games before undergoing season-ending surgery but will enter camp healthy this year and looking to fill Ndour’s role.
The Sky will also look to build on their exciting brand of basketball: Chicago topped the W in pace of play (99.50), and they trailed only Washington’s record-breaking offense in points (84.6). All the extra possessions generated by their pace landed them third in rebounding (behind Las Vegas and Connecticut) and second in assists (behind Washington).
Another year of experience for a team the gelled so well under Coach Wade means the sky for the Sky is, well, limitless. When forcing opponents to play at their speed, Chicago can run any team off the court. If Diamond DeShields can take another leap forward in year three, look for the Sky to improve on last year’s playoff team that made the second round.
4 – Las Vegas Aces
Everybody was high on Las Vegas as the WNBA’s newest superteam heading into last season. They posted a strong 21-13 record and made it to the semifinals before dropping 3-1 to the Mystics in a tight series. Although Liz Cambage still has not re-signed, they’re presumably returning their core of Cambage, Dearica Hamby, Kayla McBride, Kelsey Plum and A’ja Wilson.
The team made several large additions in the offseason. At the start of free agency, Las Vegas signed Angel McCoughtry away from Atlanta.
She only played three seconds last season, taking the floor as a farewell to Dream fans late in the campaign. But as I wrote for TBW at the start of free agency, while her offensive averages of 19.1 ppg and 5.0 rpg are big, she most affects the game on the defense. McCoughtry’s career average of 2.1 steals per game ranks second all-time to 2020 Hall-of-Fame Finalist Tamika Catchings.
The other significant rotation transaction solidified the bench. Guard Danielle Robinson heads to Mandalay Bay after two years as a member of the Lynx. The eight-year vet scored 10.1 ppg on 43.7 percent shooting, rounding out her line with 3.5 rpg and 3.7 apg.
She is an odd fit for a team that already clogs the paint down low, however. The closer the attacking guard gets to the basket, the more effective her game is:
One loss that might hurt? Backup guard Sydney Colson went to Chicago as a free agent. She was the heart of the team, bringing the group out with her famous Lady Aces chant.
WE SAID ????
— Las Vegas Aces (@LVAces) December 1, 2019
With McCoughtry and Robinson on board, the Vegas superteam is nonetheless even stronger.
The Aces are once again poised to make a championship run, though they’ll need to figure out their cluttered touches in the paint. Kayla McBride is the player that can take them over the top as a sharpshooter with a quick release who can shoot off both the catch and dribble.
3 – Seattle Storm
For the Seattle Storm, the expectation is that 2019 was this core’s low point—a campaign in which they still placed seventh with an 18-16 record. Both 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart and 11-time All-Star Sue Bird missed the entirety of last season with injuries.
This forced others to step up.
A year after winning Most Improved Player, Natasha Howard took another huge leap. Her scoring has jumped from 4.3 to 13.2 to 18.1 ppg in the last three years, and her rebounds have climbed from 2.4 to 6.4 to 8.2. She was also named Defensive Player of the Year, behind 2.2 steal and 1.7 block averages.
Jordin Canada also found herself forced into a starting role during her sophomore season due to Sue Bird’s absence. In 12 extra minutes per game, she improved her scoring from 5.7 to 9.8 ppg and increased her assist distribution from 3.3 to 5.2. Her 2.3 steals per game led the entire league, and she was named to All-Defensive First Team alongside Howard.
An ankle injury limited Jewell Loyd from taking the leap it looked like she would when the minutes opened up. Prior to her ankle sprain, Loyd averaged 15.8 ppg in a dozen games. During the 15 games after her month-long absence, she hit the 15-point plateau only once and averaged 9.5 ppg.
All six of Seattle’s top scorers—Howard, Loyd, Canada, Alysha Clark, Mercedes Russell and Sami Whitcomb—also averaged at least one theft apiece, and the team’s 9.5 steals per game led the WNBA.
With Stewart and Bird returning, plus the addition of forward Morgan Tuck, Seattle boasts one of the league’s deepest rosters. Having already weathered the injury-plagued 2019, they are poised for a bounce-back and are once again a contending frontrunner.
2 – Washington Mystics
Everything went Washington’s way last season.
They won the championship after posting a league-best 26-8 regular-season record and were the only team in the league with a positive win/loss record on the road (12-5). They also broke Seattle’s 2018 3-point record, continuing the long range revolution that has taken place in both the men’s and women’s games.
Coach Mike Thibault will return with most of the core that set all those offensive records. Washington’s most important offseason move? A four-year supermax agreement with Elena Delle Donne.
As reported by High Post Hoops’ Jenn Hatfield, the 31-year-old will make $899,480 over the next four seasons. During her 2019 MVP campaign (her second time with that distinction), EDD averaged 19.5 ppg with a 51.5/43.0/97.4 split. The two-way threat also secured 8.3 boards and blocked 1.3 shots per game.
Emma Meeseman also re-upped, signing a one-year max worth $215,000.
The Finals MVP was a walking bucket in the playoffs, coming up with big shot after big shot from everywhere on the floor. She scored 19.3 per contest while shooting 58.2 overall and nearly matching that with 58.1 from long distance.
Washington’s ability to stretch the floor is what makes them such a mismatch. Keeping both Delle Donne and Meeseman in the fold creates issues for both starting and reserve frontcourt players across the league.
Additionally, Washington signed 2019 (and two-time) Most Improved Player Leilani Mitchell from Phoenix.
Mitchell cracked double figures in scoring for the first time in her career, posting career highs in points (12.8 ppg), rebounding (3.0 rpg) and passing (4.0 apg). Her 44.1 percent from the floor is also more than four points above her career average. (It’s even more impressive given the fact that she was playing more minutes than ever before.)
So, why aren’t the defending champs occupying the top spot?
For one, the championship window could close as soon as next offseason, with only three rotation players in Ariel Atkins, Delle Donne and Mitchell signed for 2021. Meeseman, Natasha Cloud and Aerial Powers will all be coming due for large raises.
More immediately important is loss of the team’s other 2019 All-Star: Kristi Toliver. Though Washington and the next team are 1A and 1B, the Mystics now cannot match the unrelenting top-to-bottom depth of the team occupying my No. 1 spot.
1 – Los Angeles Sparks
No team did more to improve itself than the Los Angeles Sparks. Their two prize signings from free agency—the aforementioned Toliver and Seimone Augustus—were stolen away from 2019 playoff teams.
This is Toliver’s second tour out west. After being drafted by Chicago in 2009, she spent seven years in LA before her three-year stint in Washington.
And before a deep bone bruise prematurely ended her regular season Toliver was enjoying one of the most productive campaigns of her professional career. She put up 13.0 ppg and 6.0 apg, while firing at a 49.4 percent clip. The deep threat has made 600 3-pointers in her career on 38.7 percent shooting.
Pilfering Toliver from the champs is a terrific way to close the gap between the two teams. Her fit as a playmaker alongside Chelsea Gray, Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker is incredibly enticing.
An eight-time All-Star, Augustus moves onto LA after spending the entirety of her 14-year career in Minnesota where she won four titles. Coming off an injury-plagued year, the veteran will look to bring her leadership and experience to the loaded Sparks.
Los Angeles also acquired Brittney Sykes and Marie Gülich in exchange for last year’s draft pick, Kalani Brown. A three-year pro, Sykes is an intriguing pickup that can slot into the backcourt with Chelsea Gray if Fisher wants to bring Riqana Williams and Augustus off the bench. Gülich will be on her third team in as many seasons and provides frontcourt depth.
There are now more minutes for back-up center Maria Vadeeva as well, who only saw 12 mpg. in 2019 despite putting up 7.8 points on 49.0 percent from the floor. Per 40 minutes, only Delle Donne scored more than Vadeeva (26.9 ppg to 26.0 ppg). She also would’ve tied Cambage for eighth with 12.9 rebounds per 40 minutes.
No team enjoyed a larger home-court advantage than Los Angeles.
After dropping two of their first three at Staples Center to begin the season, the Sparks rattled off 14 wins in a row and finished 22-12 with the league’s third-best record. Their controversial ending to 2019, (which culminated in a sweep by Connecticut and the ousting of GM Penny Toler), will hopefully be forgotten by this year’s progress.
With the current roster construction, Coach Derek Fisher’s second-team would even be capable of competing for a playoff spot. But the struggle will be finding court time for all his rotation players. If Fisher can do that, no team in the WNBA will be as well-equipped to withstand the rigors of a long WNBA season.
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.