No Maya Moore. No Breanna Stewart. And, until a few days ago, many had begun to wonder if Liz Cambage would lace ‘em up at all for the 2019 WNBA season.
Unfortunately, the 2018 season was a bit of an anomaly as nearly every star talent was healthy and available. A surprise contender, the Seattle Storm, raced out to pole position before ultimately defeating the Washington Mystics in the Finals. Stewart earned regular season and Finals MVP nods after both Seattle and Washington were pushed to the brink in respective best-of-5 semifinal series against the Phoenix Mercury and Atlanta Dream.
Hopes of a stellar follow-up season and title defense led by Stewart came to a screeching halt last month. The All-WNBA forward went down with what was later diagnosed as an Achilles injury that will keep her out for the entire 2019 season.
Moore, who helped lead the Lynx to four titles through her first eight WNBA seasons, announced in February that she will not play professional basketball during 2019 as she spends time with her family and devotes more time to her ministry efforts.
What do the absences of two superstar players, already two of the most dominant in women’s basketball history, in the prime of their careers mean for the WNBA as it tips its 23rd season?
SHIFTS IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP CHESS BOARD
The Storm were likely favorites to repeat as champions prior to Stewart’s injury. Now, rather than wondering if anybody can slow the Storm, we instead stop to wonder if they will make the postseason at all.
Minnesota’s status as a bonafide contender takes a significant hit without Moore’s presence as well. The club did sign veteran wing Karima Christmas-Kelly, a hard-nosed defender and driver likely to absorb many of those minutes. The Lynx had already slipped to ninth in offensive efficiency last season per Positive Residual, scoring 102.8 points per 100 possessions after back-to-back finishes atop the regular season standings.
Neither team can simply plug somebody else in to replace the production and ability to draw multiple defenders on a regular basis. Both may face the reality of having to scratch and claw just to make the playoffs, potentially giving way to teams that landed in the lottery.
The Storm can certainly ask more of 2018 All-Star guard Jewell Loyd.
The defending champs will be more reliant on their guards to puncture defenses and create open looks for others. Stewart’s gravity as a dynamic pick-and-pop 3-point shooter, among other strengths, will be sorely missed. Thus, barring any addition of a stretch big, opponents will not be stretched as thin in chasing the rest of Seattle’s bigs out beyond the arc.
Second-year point guard Jordin Canada could step into a larger role as well, unlocking more three-guard lineups alongside Loyd and Sue Bird that open up the offense.
The Lynx will need to find scoring and shooting in support of All-WNBA center Sylvia Fowles to get their offense back on track. They’ll also have ample opportunity to experiment with 2019 No. 6 overall pick Napheesa Collier’s role on both ends.
The Lynx held five draft picks this year, so the absence of the veteran Moore temporarily opens the door for somebody else to make a roster.
The paths these two franchises are set to walk in 2019 are going to be difficult, but each is in a position to explore different looks and identify another core piece that can contribute down the line.
UPCOMING COLLECTIVE BARGAINING AGREEMENT (CBA) NEGOTIATIONS
The Stewart injury, especially because it occurred less than two months prior to the start of the season, sets the table for the WNBPA to hammer a powerful point home as the two sides attempt to craft a new CBA prior to the 2020 season.
The league’s MVP, still on her rookie contract, won’t get a chance to lead her team’s title defense because she suffered a season-ending injury as she supplemented her income by playing overseas. (Stewart’s case is much more cut-and-dry while Moore’s situation, of course, should not be leveraged as a talking point unless she steers the conversation in that direction—she has indicated that she is devoting time to matters that have weighed heavily on her heart.)
Any idea that WNBA players should forego overseas opportunities in order to save themselves for the next WNBA season doesn’t hold much water. WNBA seasons don’t last much longer than four months.
One shouldn’t be surprised to hear that basketball players may simply want to play more basketball and be appropriately compensated for doing so.
Stateside marketing and branding opportunities are not as plentiful yet, either, so more robust efforts by the NBA to up the visibility of the league’s stars are necessary.
Even some opportunities to work in basketball are hampered by or cut into by the WNBA calendar and league rules. Washington Mystics guard Kristi Toliver served on the Washington Wizards coaching staff, but her salary with the Wizards was capped at $10,000. (The rule exists as a measure to preserve competitive balance, but a player on a WNBA team that does not also have an NBA owner would not run into the same issue.)
Chiney Ogwumike, a full-time analyst for ESPN, reportedly threatened to sit out at least part of the upcoming season so that she could continue covering the NBA playoffs for ESPN through the conclusion of this year’s NBA Finals.
Ogwumike is breaking new ground to hold such a prominent position in the industry while still playing. Though the television gig has been a tremendous opportunity, it does not promise clean stops and starts to accommodate her WNBA career.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver made a very bold decision to broach the idea of moving the WNBA to the more “traditional” basketball season last spring on the ESPN morning show, “Get Up”.
Such a shift would require a substantial financial investment by the NBA. Player salaries would need to be increased significantly in order to compete with overseas clubs.
Silver certainly knows this, so now may be the time for the union to call him on that bluff. He must begin putting wheels in motion to enact that change sooner than some would anticipate.
Stewart and many of the world’s premier women’s basketball stars spend more time per year playing basketball somewhere other than the WNBA. That must change in order to ensure that future generations won’t miss out on entire seasons of watching their favorite players compete in the best women’s basketball league in the world.
CAPITALIZING ON THE MOMENT
WNBA players have begun driving more conversations, in part because of their willingness to rightfully demand higher salaries. The level of play, culminating with two extremely competitive semifinal series last year, generated plenty of buzz that reached beyond the existing WNBA community.
The league capitalized on those positive strides by inking a new television deal with CBS Sports Network. The network will air more than 40 live games this season to kick off its multi-year deal with the league.
Though the product takes an undeniable hit with two of its most prominent stars out of action this season, the increased visibility on a national network is an example of a positive step in the right direction.
Dozens of sports leagues—fighting for visibility, exposure and respect—face the uphill climb daily to first introduce themselves to potential fans. They do not have the institutional media share of, say, the NBA where even the general population will be inundated with news of the latest signings and goings on of its brightest stars.
Stewart and Moore will be missed on many fronts this season. But with another television deal in place and Liz Cambage traded to a strengthening Las Vegas Aces team, more potential fans will be introduced to the Jordin Canadas and Napheesa Colliers of the WNBA—with more opportunities to hear their stories, more opportunities to latch onto new favorite players, more opportunities to up the visibility and marketing potential of said players.
The WNBA can still build on a highly competitive 2018 season towards an ever-brightening future.
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.