2021 WNBA Free Agency: Unresolved Situations
The dust is settling on WNBA Free Agency, but a few contenders still have a lot to figure out.
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A week after WNBA players could officially sign contracts, the dust is starting to settle on free agency. Most big-name free agents have signed with teams and roster spots are few and far between. However, a few contending teams still have plenty to do before moving on to draft preparation. Let’s talk about the unresolved situations in Minnesota, Washington and Seattle. (By the way, I am not apologizing for my awful subheading titles.)
Minnesota’s Power(s) Shortage
The Minnesota Lynx made some of my favorite moves this offseason by acquiring Kayla McBride, Natalie Achonwa and Aerial Powers. Well, they haven’t quite made all of those moves yet. Minnesota has officially announced the signings of McBride and Achonwa, but Powers has yet to be introduced.
The CBA provision limiting teams to six protected contracts on their salary sheets is causing the delay. Minnesota came into the offseason with three protected players on their roster (Sylvia Fowles, Odyssey Sims and Damiris Dantas), then signed two more in McBride and Achonwa. That’s only five spots, right? Yes, but Karima Christmas-Kelly still counts despite Minnesota waiving her last year. Therefore, Aerial Powers can’t sign a protected contract at this moment.
There really isn’t an easy solution if we assume that Powers agreed to a protected contract in free agency. There’s no way to remove protection once it is given or take Christmas-Kelly’s salary off their books now. They also can’t protect Powers’s contract in future years because the CBA limits teams to six contracts with any protection, not just in the current year.
The rub is that Minnesota will have to trade a protected contract. The choices are Fowles, Dantas or Sims. Cheryl Reeve seems to really like all of these players, but Fowles is a former MVP whom Reeve calls “the best center in WNBA history” often and Dantas just signed an extension last year. That likely leaves Sims as the odd woman out.
As a former All-Star on a contract from the old CBA salary scale, Sims should have a healthy trade market. Right now, only Indiana and Seattle (if Natasha Howard doesn’t re-sign) project to have enough space to take on Sims without sending out any salary. Los Angeles might have the space as well, but they just traded Sims two years ago. Other teams can trade enough salary out to take Sims in if they want to.
In a normal trade negotiation, Minnesota could potentially get decent value back for Sims. But Reeve’s hand is being forced here and other teams know it. Don’t be surprised to see her have to attach a small asset to Sims in a trade.
While the protected contract situation is a hurdle, the people I’ve talked to around the league don’t believe that it will cost the team Aerial Powers. Cheryl Reeve knew about it before agreeing to sign Powers, and all parties would’ve understood that some delay was likely, especially with Reeve going off to coach Team USA last week. It is still stressful to leave a player of Powers’s caliber dangling out there, so expect the Sims trade to get done soon.
Washington’s Salary Squeeze
On to Aerial Powers’s former team. The Washington Mystics brought in two-time champion Alysha Clark to replace Powers. They have also re-signed LaToya Sanders and Tina Charles, in addition to executing a sign-and-trade for Minnesota’s Erica McCall. DC has done a great job to retain a championship-level core to compete in 2021. But there is one player that Washington expects to sign who still remains in the wind: Natasha Cloud.
Cloud sat out last season without a medical exemption in order to further her social justice advocacy. Since her contract expired while she was suspended, Cloud is out of contract but cannot negotiate with other teams. LaToya Sanders was also a suspended-contract expired player and ended up taking the same salary that she was scheduled to receive in 2020 ($117,000), as did unrestricted free agent Tina Charles ($175,000).
Cloud’s contract negotiations are likely a bit trickier. With McCall’s slightly-higher-than-minimum contract on the books, the Mystics have $248,260 left in cap space with nine players on the roster. The CBA requires that teams have at least 11 players during the regular season, so the Mystics have to set aside at least $58,710 left after signing Cloud to fit a non-veteran minimum salary. The maximum amount that Cloud could sign for in this scenario is around $189,000, which would be close to her value on the open market.
However, the Mystics have to factor Emma Meesseman’s return into their plans. Mike Thibault said that Meesseman may come back to the WNBA following the Olympics and that the team would have a spot for her. She is unlikely to sign a contract before the season because of how tight DC’s cap space is. The most likely path back for Meesseman would be the Mystics cutting a player before the mid-season guarantee date and giving Emma however much they can at that point.
It’s impossible to plan exactly how much money the team will have then, though. We don’t know when the season is starting, when the guarantee date will be, or even if the Olympics are happening. Plus, the salary situation could change if players get injured or have to sit out due to the ongoing global pandemic.
The best path for the Mystics is getting Natasha Cloud to agree to her previous salary of $117,000, a far cry from what she would get on the open market. Cloud might accept that because she got paid her salary by Converse last year and she’s all about winning. But, she’s also decidedly important to this franchise on and off the court. The Mystics know how valuable she is, and so does Cloud. The team wants to keep Cloud happy and in DC long-term. Offering her a small salary this season could prevent them from doing so, especially considering their even tighter cap situation in 2022.
I’m sure the Mystics and Cloud will hammer out a deal. She’s just too important, too good and too woven into the fabric of the organization. But it might take more money than the team planned for, and that would have massive ripple effects for the rest of DC’s season.
Sleepless in Seattle
Continuing on with the former team theme, let’s move to Alysha Clark’s previous franchise in Seattle where things are not great! Losing Clark is a massive blow to the team’s title chances in 2021 and going forward. But the Storm had hard choices to make with Clark, Natasha Howard and Sue Bird all up for new contracts this year. Yet, neither Howard nor Bird have officially signed with Seattle, so what’s going on?
It seems like Howard is the hold-up. A couple of weeks ago, I outlined the potential of Howard wanting to leave Seattle to chase an MVP trophy despite being designated as a core player. Nothing that I have heard from people around the league makes me question that idea, as opposed to many of them being absolutely certain that Liz Cambage is returning to Vegas this year. It’s unclear what is happening with Howard at the moment, and it’s still possible that she will suit up for Seattle this season.
Follow me down this hypothetical path. If Howard wants out, Seattle has only two options. The team could tell Howard to kick rocks and force her to choose between signing with the Storm or not playing in 2021. If Howard signed a contract or accepted the core qualifying offer, the Storm could keep Howard for the season or trade her to any team after the 15th day of the regular season. Seattle could also trade Howard now with the limiting factor that Howard can essentially pick her destination since the team cannot trade her rights without her consent.
Getting Howard to play this year is obviously preferable for the team, but that’s not a fun hypothetical! If she decides not to play for Seattle come hell or high water, the team can hold on to her exclusive negotiating rights and just core Howard until she gives in. However, the Storm probably need the core designation available next season for Jewell Loyd. Loyd cannot get supermax money on an extension right now, and the team would rather be safe by using the core on Loyd or fellow impending free agent Breanna Stewart than sorry by allowing them to hit unrestricted free agency.
(Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Stewart could not receive the supermax salary on an extension. She could sign an extension for the supermax salary of $228,094 starting on February 13th, which is the anniversary of signing her contract last season.)
In this scenario, the Storm’s choice is between trading Howard for something now or losing her for nothing next year. Also, does Seattle really want to deal with a disgruntled star all season? I would be looking to trade Howard now if she wants out. It’s better to just move on, avoid bad PR and get something for her.
Regardless of the Howard situation, Seattle still has a bunch of work to do. Crystal Langhorne just retired. Sami Whitcomb is a restricted free agent who is receiving a lot of attention on the market. The team has officially re-signed Epiphanny Prince to a two-year, $115,000 per year unprotected contract, and brought in Candice Dupree from Indiana. Dupree is not the player that she used to be, but has plenty of playoff experience and could help on offense.
The Storm should be calling Aerial Powers and her agent every day on the off-chance that her move to Minnesota falls through. Beyond that, Jessica Breland and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough could make sense if they have cap space remaining.
The Storm will look very different in their title defense this year. But Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart are still on this team no matter what, so don’t be throwing dirt on them quite yet.