Imagining the WNBA’s Hot Stove That Isn’t

Right now fans could be watching Twitter feeds for any clue as to the future destinations of some of the WNBA best talents in free agency. But they’re not.

Everything is quiet amid a missed opportunity.

The league’s horrible compensation structure—which gives players as a group a mere 20 percent of basketball revenues—is mostly to blame for the lack of this drama.

The 2020 free-agent class is loaded. It features high-profile names like current MVP Elena Delle Donne, rising stars like Liz Cambage, ageless veterans like Tina Charles and underrated players like 2019 WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman. Suffice to say, if players of this caliber hit free agency all at the same time in the NBA, the media hype would be lit. (Case in point, that did happen the past couple offseasons amid a flurry of signings, trades and media frenzy.)

The big reason for the WNBA’s inactivity is that many of its players are currently elsewhere. Many of them do so because their WNBA salaries are insufficient to allow them to not work during the WNBA offseason. Not only does this act to shorten WNBA players’ careers because they get “tread on the tires” quickly, but it hurts the league itself as well.

Offseason drama around player transactions keeps leagues like the WNBA relevant and front-of-mind when games aren’t being played. When a team signs free agents, it automatically becomes something the franchise markets while fans and media begin anticipatory speculation. From social media to ticket sales pitches, new faces in new places are part of leagues’ lifebloods.

Because WNBA teams often have to wait until players finish their “second” seasons, there is a small window to negotiate contracts. It’s easy to think about what could be, however, if the WNBA had more of a traditional offseason structure.

This particular one would have great potential.

Many WNBA free agents would be inclined to sign just one-year deals because there are a lot of unknowns beyond 2020. The WBPA agreed to play the 2020 season under the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement but, beyond that, there are many variables that could affect players’ value tremendously.

The first of those is a potentially significant escalation of team salary caps. In 2019, the franchise cap was set at just under a million dollars. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect that to possibly double for the 2021 season and beyond if the league is going to get proactive.

But the exact cap for the 2020 season is not yet clear, and the WNBA has yet to announce what that figure will be. The cap for 2019 grew by about two percent from 2018, so simply replicating that growth under an ultra-conservative approach creates a 2020 potential cap of about $1.01 million.

Players and teams also aren’t sure what’s going to happen in a new CBA as far as service time requirements for free agency go. In the current CBA, players with four or five years of service whose contracts expire are restricted free agents. Those with six or more seasons become unrestricted free agents when their contracts expire.

May 9, 2019; New York City, NY, USA; New York Liberty center Tina Charles (31) catches a pass during the preseason WNBA game against the China National Team at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Two other designations that may not survive (or could at least be altered) in a new CBA are the Core and Reserved designations. Reserved players are those whose contracts expire but have recorded only three or fewer seasons in the league. These players can only negotiate new contracts with their former teams in those instances.

Core players see a similar limit binding them to exclusive negotiations with the last team they played for, though the system is more complicated. Each team can designate one potential unrestricted free agent each offseason with the Core “tag,” but there is a cost to doing so. Using the core designation makes all/any of the teams’ other players who in normal situations would be considered restricted free agents become unrestricted regardless of service time.

Additionally, under the terms of the current CBA, an individual player may only receive that designation four times in her career.

(As an aside, we’ve seen most men’s leagues start with fairly restrictive free agency rules—if they even allowed non-trade player movement at all during their nascent days—but freer policies eventually evolved because players pushed for it and leagues recognized it was good for business. Hopefully, the WNBA has been paying attention to the decades of evidence and continues to make the process easier for players.)

As the 2020 season will be played under the same terms, the major difference between this offseason and its predecessors will be an incentive to sign single-year contracts because of the CBA’s expiration. While that leaves players and teams with uncertainty about their futures beyond 2020, it provides a unique opportunity to go “all-in” for those teams with salary-cap space and perhaps bring in one or two of the biggest free agents in the league.

The following are some examples of how teams with cash to burn could make splashes right now in an alternate universe where WNBA players weren’t working during the offseasons.

Elena Delle Donne

Sep 12, 2018; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne (11) shoots as Seattle Storm forward Natasha Howard (6) looks on during the second half in game three of the WNBA Finals at Eagle Bank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason’s prize would likely be the league’s most recognizable player, the 90/50/40 wonder, Elena Delle Donne. Coming off both a historic MVP season and her first WNBA championship, whichever team lands her could claim immediate offseason victory.

The Washington Mystics have six players under contract for the 2020 season as it currently stands, totaling $441,428 according to Spotrac and could use a core designation on Delle Donne. That gives them nearly $560,000 to spend, and they would have the exclusive right to negotiate with her if they use the Core tag. That should be sufficient to bring Delle Donne back, even at a premium.

Washington might risk its ability to retain its other crucial free agents like Meesseman and Kristi Tolliver, however.

If the Mystics opt not to put the Core tag on Delle Donne, she should have many options. The Connecticut Sun, (who Delle Donne helped deny a championship in 2019), only have four players on the books for 2020. Bringing Delle Donne in would cement a commitment to finishing the job of winning a title.

The Chicago Sky, (the team that drafted Delle Donne), enters the offseason with the most cap space in the league: less than $400,000 committed to five players right now. While it might mean bidding adieu to “VanderQuig” (i.e. guards Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot; both free agents), no team is better suited financially to bring in the top prize.

Brittney Griner

UNCASVILLE, CT – AUGUST 23: Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner (42) defends Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas (25) during the second round of the WNBA playoff game between Phoenix Mercury and Connecticut Sun on August 23, 2018, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. Phoenix won 96-86. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire)

One player whose instant recognizability rivals Delle Donne’s is also a free agent. Brittney Griner is arguably the most lethal defensive force in the league and, like Delle Donne, the Phoenix Mercury have the option to apply the Core tag to her.

Phoenix has a little less room to maneuver than Washington, however. The Mercury have $519,503 committed for 2020 to seven players right now. Their focus might be to bring back both Griner and DeWanna Bonner and try to recreate the opportunity lost with star guard Diana Taurasi missing much of 2019 due to injury.

As is the case with Delle Donne, if Phoenix opts not to core Griner, then the market could be robust. Missing the star power of Maya Moore and with almost $600,000 under the cap to spend, the Minnesota Lynx would be an interesting fit. Pairing Griner with veteran center Sylvia Fowles would give Minnesota a franchise-appropriate “Twin Towers” in the Twin Cities.

Sue Bird

UNCASVILLE, CT – JULY 20: Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird (10) and Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart (30) wait to check into the game during a WNBA game between Seattle Storm and Connecticut Sun on July 20, 2018, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. Seattle defeated Connecticut 78-65. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire)

A move away from the Seattle Storm may not be desirable for Sue Bird because girlfriend Megan Rapinoe plays for Washington state’s NWSL club Reign FC.

Thus, the Storm may not have to apply the Core tag to Bird if she’s resigned to stay in Seattle for personal reasons. The fact that both Breanna Stewart and she missed all of 2019 due to injury, which inhibited the franchise’s ability to defend its WNBA championship from 2018, might motivate Bird to re-sign as well.

If she hits the market, however, she might be a tremendous asset for another Western Conference contender. The Las Vegas Aces should return stars like Dearica Hamby, Kayla McBride, Kelsey Plum, A’ja Wilson and Jackie Young. With more than $500,000 to spend under the projected cap, adding Bird to that mix would build on the franchise’s clear momentum. That might hurt their ability to bring back a key part of 2019’s success, however…

Liz Cambage

Jul 27, 2019; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Team Wilson forward Liz Cambage celebrates after Team Wilson defeated Team Delle Donne in the WNBA All Star Game at Mandalay Bay Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

After a tumultuous end to her time with the Dallas Wings, Cambage appeared to be content with her Aces situation last season. Her talent and growing celebrity appeal are unquestionable. Although the skilled center has never been bashful about playing elsewhere in the world, perhaps Las Vegas has captivated her heart.

It would be hard to say the feeling shouldn’t be mutual.

Cambage’s value goes beyond her on-court production, and she’s well worth a significant chunk of that cap space Las Vegas has, especially on just a one-year deal. The Aces could put a Core tag on her to ensure exclusivity, but like with Bird in Seattle, it may not be necessary.

Other notables: Skylar Diggins-Smith, “VanderQuigs,” Charles, etc.

UNCASVILLE, CT – AUGUST 14: Dallas Wings guard Skylar Diggins-Smith (4) fast breaks during a WNBA game between Dallas Wings and Connecticut Sun on August 14, 2018, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. Connecticut won 96-76. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire)

While those players may be the four most easily recognized by casual fans, the class is far deeper. Several of these players are coming off seasons in which they were Core players, including Charles, Glory Johnson, Bonner and Vandersloot.

Whether the Dallas Wings, Sky, New York Liberty or Mercury would be willing to spend that designation on the same players again is uncertain. Dallas could use it on Diggins-Smith instead, as could the Sky with Allie Quigley or Stefanie Dolson and the Mercury with Griner.

Losing any of these players would be significant for each franchise: Diggins-Smith’s scoring and veteran presence is crucial on a rebuilding Wings squad. Charles would provide a great complement to expected top overall draft pick Sabrina Ionescu in New York during 2020. Quigley and Vandersloot represent two-thirds of Chicago’s talented backcourt, along with Diamond DeShields, that carried the team in 2019.

The fact that these conversations aren’t prominent in December is an unfortunate byproduct of the lack of real investment in these athletes and the WNBA. The new CBA is an opportunity to give WNBA fans the hot stove season they deserve.

Hopefully, the league and the players will move in that direction.