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2021 WNBA Free Agency: First Impressions
A flurry of WNBA free agency news broke over the last few days, and some of the biggest names in the WNBA are switching teams.
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WNBA players generally can’t sign contracts with teams until February 1st under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Yet we know about many marquee agreements already on January 29th. The bonanza started on Wednesday night with the nuclear bomb that Candace Parker was leaving the LA Sparks to join her hometown Chicago Sky, per Ramona Shelburne of ESPN. Reporters broke a bevy of other moves over the next couple of days. There are still plenty of signings (and maybe some trades) left to happen, but let’s talk about some of the moves that have already been reported.
Candace Parker going home
Candace Parker signing with the Chicago Sky may be the biggest free agent signing in league history (if you have other nominations, leave them in the comments). There are very few basketball players who have the star power that she has. The impact of Parker’s move from a league perspective is potentially earth-shattering because we have never seen anything like it in the WNBA free agency.
Parker is coming off a phenomenal season in which she won Defensive Player of the Year and had one of her most efficient scoring seasons ever. She certainly still has “it.” But the question is whether she can put the Sky over the top in the playoffs.
Parker should fit very well offensively. She will fill the role of primary post option and roller in pick-and-rolls that Cheyenne Parker vacated. (Candace) Parker averaged 1.02 points per possession on post-ups last year, according to Synergy Sports. That was one of the highest marks in the league. She has not been the roller in the pick-and-roll often over the past few years, but it’s reasonable to expect that she can play that role. Additionally, matching Parker’s cutting ability with Courtney Vandersloot, the only passer in the WNBA substantially better than Chelsea Gray, is tantalizing.
More important than her offensive contributions, Parker will need to elevate Chicago’s defense to get them to the promised land. The Sky finished eighth in defensive rating last year. Since 2014, every team to reach the WNBA Finals has been in the top half of the league in defensive rating.
Parker’s post-up defense is likely more important than her post-up offense because of how much Chicago struggled in that area. According to Synergy Sports, she gave up just 0.512 points per possession in the post last year. Her ability to get out on the perimeter should help the Sky’s woeful defense against spot-ups as well.
Any time you can get a player like Candace Parker, you do it as fast as possible. She’s one of the best players in league history and one of the best players in the league right now. She will also fit very well with the Sky’s group of players.
However, it’s too early to tell if signing Parker makes Chicago the favorite to win the championship. The Sky have been pre-season title contenders in each of the past two seasons only to falter in the playoffs. They are certainly in my top tier of WNBA power rankings right now. But health and Diamond DeShields’s growth are still crucial considerations when evaluating the Sky’s championship odds.
Chelsea Gray joins the super team in Las Vegas
The exodus from Los Angeles continued with Chelsea Gray bolting to the Las Vegas Aces, as first reported by Howard Megdal of The Next. Gray’s arrival meant the departure of Kayla McBride from Vegas (more on her in a minute). But the Aces still have a super team. Assuming Liz Cambage returns, Bill Laimbeer can trot out a starting lineup of Gray, Kelsey Plum, Angel McCoughtry, A’ja Wilson and Cambage with Dearica Hamby and Jackie Young coming off the bench. That’s wild, y’all.
While the talent is off the charts, the Aces may not look like worldbeaters to start the year. There are a lot of mouths to feed on offense and a lot of adjustments to make. Wilson, McCoughtry and Cambage all had usage rates over 28% in their last season of play. Plum will have to readjust to being a shooting guard after excelling as the team’s point guard in the 2019 WNBA playoffs before her injury. Gray is best with the ball in her hands as well and isn’t the shooter that McBride is.
Still, this offense will hum at some point. Gray is used to playing with two dominant bigs after years with Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike. She and Plum should provide enough space for the non-shooters. Plus, it’s not like Laimbeer’s teams have ever really shot threes. Gray will put Cambage, Wilson and Hamby in great spots to score with her passing ability. By the end of the season, the Aces may have the best offense in the WNBA.
Defensively, the Aces may take a step back without Kayla McBride. Gray is an excellent defender and rates out better than McBride in terms of defensive points per possession. However, Gray can’t cover bigger wings as well as McBride does. The Aces desperately needed that wing defense in the playoffs, and it’s hard to see where they will get it now.
These concerns are minor in the grand scheme of things. Laimbeer is a hall of fame coach, and he is now adding an All-Star point guard to last season’s MVP, two former scoring champions, two other No. 1 overall picks and the reigning Sixth Woman of the Year. Vegas has an embarrassment of riches and will be competing for a title this season.
Minnesota adds Kayla McBride, Aerial Powers and Natalie Achonwa
Minnesota didn’t get the biggest names on the market, but they may have made my favorite moves so far this offseason. Kayla McBride is the headliner, and she is going to look amazing in Cheryl Reeve’s offense. The Lynx run a ton of flare screens, pindowns and down screens for shooters, like this one for Lexie Brown.
Now, McBride will be running these actions as the shooter rather than Brown, Rachel Banham and Bridget Carleton. Those three players (who are still currently on the roster, by the way) are all solid shooters who excelled at points in Minnesota’s system. McBride is clearly a cut above any of them. She figures to have a bigger offensive role and could be in for the most efficient season of her career.
Aerial Powers to Minnesota was a victory for the HHS mock offseason podcast. She will also fit really well into Reeve’s offense. She can shoot off screens and drive to the rim when teams close out too hard. She may also get a chance to run the offense with back-up units, which she did briefly in the Wubble before getting hurt. Minnesota is betting that Powers can scale up, but she would still be very useful in a similar role to what she had in Washington.
Natalie Achonwa is another player that fits perfectly in Minnesota. Reeve loves versatile bigs with a good feel for the game, and Achonwa fits that mold more or less. She’s an excellent cutter and solid in the post. She may not be a star, but she can certainly be the backup 4/5 for the Lynx.
The biggest question is how Reeve sets up the lineup. There are six starters on this team for five spots: McBride, Powers, Crystal Dangerfield, Naphessa Collier, Damiris Dantas, and Sylvia Fowles. She will experiment throughout the year, as usual, and can play matchups. But it’ll be interesting to see if Achonwa, Brown, and last year’s first-round pick Mikiah Herbert Harrigan get enough minutes to keep them happy.
Quick thoughts on other reports
Washington snagged Alysha Clark from Seattle, as reported by Kareem Copeland of The Washington Post, in one of the most surprising moves of free agency. The Mystics still have a ton to do with their remaining free agents, so it makes sense to wait before breaking down how Clark fits with the team. But a championship team from two years ago (if they can re-sign their players) is bringing in the WNBA’s best role player who won a title and shot 52% from three last year. She also fits perfectly into DC’s culture and makes their main competitor weaker. It’s an amazing pickup for DC and it will be fascinating to see how Seattle tries to make up for losing Clark.
Betnijah Laney is on her way to New York. The Liberty, like the Mystics, are a team that I don’t think is done in free agency, so I’m holding off on going deep on this move. She reportedly had multiple max contract offers, so it’s safe to assume that New York will pay her max money. That is a steep price to pay for a player who has only had one good season so far. But Laney fits NY’s timeline at age 26 and is the type of hard-working player who should push younger players to grow. On the court, she should help the Liberty’s atrocious pick-and-roll defense. If she can shoot 40% from three again, this is a home-run signing. If she can’t, it’s a slight overpay for a team with a ton of cap space.
I’m lukewarm on Cheyenne Parker going to Atlanta. The Dream have had an interesting array of talent for the past couple of years, but just haven’t put it together after their 2018 WNBA playoff run. Parker is a really good player on both ends, and her fit next to Elizabeth Williams is intriguing. I’ll have to revisit this fully later.