2021 WNBA Free Agency: BIG questions

The WNBA is heading into one of the most interesting free agency periods in its 25-year history. Gabe Ibrahim breaks down the defining questions of the offseason.

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Just over a year ago, the WNBA and the WNBA Players Association introduced its groundbreaking Collective Bargaining Agreement. The new CBA was supposed to usher in a new era of league growth and player empowerment through larger salaries, employee benefits and marketing opportunities. Then, COVID-19 threw a wrench into the 2020 season and the full realization of those dreams was deferred, despite the success of the Wubble and stars changing teams in last year’s free agency. 

2021 should see the league’s complete vision under the new CBA, if things go right. The stars and fans that the W missed in 2020 will hopefully be back in the upcoming season. More importantly for right now, this free agency period could change the WNBA’s status quo and how WNBA free agency works in a big way. Stars may be on the move, teams will need to adjust to a relatively unknown market, and the entire league will still be grappling with the pandemic’s effects. 

Which stars want change?

This offseason, several big-name players could decide to leave stable situations and shake up the league. Fans seem to believe that money, winning, or “loyalty” are the biggest, if not the only, considerations for players. However, players are people, and like the rest of us, have to think about so much when deciding where to work. No player may illustrate this better than Seattle Storm star Natasha Howard

Howard has won two championships with the Storm and one with the Minnesota Lynx. In Minnesota, she was a bench player on one of the greatest teams of all time before being traded to Seattle. In her first year in Seattle, she was the starting power forward on one of the greatest starting fives in league history. 

Howard has accomplished everything a player could want from a team perspective, and it may be time to move on to new challenges like winning MVP on a team of her own. She hinted about that possibility on Twitter recently.

It’s important to realize that Howard loves her teammates, and likely deeply appreciates the Storm organization. But she just doesn’t have the opportunity to realize the potential she showed in 2019 with the Storm. With Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird injured, Howard put up the best season of her career with averages of 18 points and 8 rebounds per game. She finished fifth in MVP voting AND won Defensive Player of the Year. Stewart will always be the first option in Seattle, so Howard will have to move if she actually wants to chase the MVP.  

However, there’s a couple of issues with Howard changing teams, beginning with the Storm designating her as a core player. That means she would have to force a trade to depart like Tina Charles and Skylar Diggins-Smith did last year. Seattle would hate to lose Howard. But the Storm could get great value for her and the team may need to retain the core designation for Stewart or Jewell Loyd next offseason. Since the CBA only allows a team to have one player under contract signed pursuant to a core designation, those players cannot be cored in 2022 if Howard signs a multi-year contract this offseason. Seattle may not need to core Loyd or Stewart to keep them, but the team would probably want the designation available. 

The second question is what team with cap space wants to give Howard a superstar role. In her excellent 2019 season, Howard was not particularly efficient. In fact, she had one of the worst points per shooting attempt mark of any player to average 18 or more points per game in WNBA history. She will likely need time to grow into a superstar role, so the team that acquires her would need to be patient. As a result, contending teams may not be willing to give up assets to bring her in, especially because most of those teams have superstars already. New York, Indiana and Atlanta seem like the most likely landing spots if Howard wants to move on since they are building, have assets that Seattle could use, and need a superstar. 

Howard is just one of the huge names on the market. Could Chelsea Gray move on to a younger team where she would be the leader? Does Kayla McBride want a bigger offensive role elsewhere? Do we ever really know what Liz Cambage wants to do? You could come up with reasons for every big-name free agent to leave their situation.

My prediction is that at least one powerful free agent will leave, set off a massive domino effect and push the WNBA even further into the era of player empowerment. 

What is the WNBA’s “middle-class” worth? 

One of the complaints about the old CBA was that most players signed either maximum-salary or minimum-salary contracts. The less lucrative maximum player salary made it easy for teams to offer the max to any good player, not just the truly great players. Of the ten remaining contracts signed under the old CBA, only four pay less than the maximum and one of those belongs to Sylvia Fowles, a clear max player. The WNBA largely lacked a middle class because of the lower maximum salary. 

The new CBA’s maximum player salary, whether we are talking about the supermax ($221,450) or the regular max ($190,550), is just too lucrative to offer to most players. Some non-elite players such as Bria Hartley and Astou Ndour received a max contract last offseason, but we saw a middle class emerge in 2020 and it should only get bigger in 2021. 

Thirteen players are now on less-than-max contracts. Ten of them signed as free agents in 2020 and three of them received extensions after free agency wrapped up. Despite these contracts, the people I’ve talked to around the league still don’t have a great picture as to player values yet. 

This year’s free agency will give us a much clearer view into how much non-star players are worth, and how good last year’s deals were. Some of the free agents that will probably be in this “middle-class” are Natalie Achonwa, Amanda Zahui B and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough. I’d be shocked if any of those three (among others) got a max contract and I’d be shocked if any of them signed for the minimum. These signings will help set the market for more players than anything that happens with stars, and it only takes one team overpaying to wreck the market for the rest of the teams or improve it for a lot of players. 

Who isn’t playing in 2021?

UGH. I hate having to ask this question every season in the WNBA. Someday, the league will get to the point where sitting out is no longer financially feasible for players. The new CBA pushes the W in that direction. However, we aren’t there yet and it seems probable that some players will sit out in 2021. 

The Olympics and the Eurobasket happening in the same season may force some players to just skip the WNBA completely. Emma Meesseman is one player to watch in that regard. Meesseman takes her obligations to Belgium very seriously and is a free agent after signing a one-year contract last offseason. Exciting young prospects Marine Johannes (France) and Han Xu (China) may face the same decision. The WNBA has a scheduled break for the Olympics, but some players may decide to skip the extra toll on their bodies. 

All of this is based on the assumption that the Olympics and Eurobasket happen. COVID-19 is still ravaging the world and likely will for a good chunk of 2021. The NBA has had massive problems by not going into a bubble this season, but many NBA personnel say they are unwilling to do another bubble. If the situation isn’t better by early May, the WNBA may be stuck in the same spot and many players may decide to opt out of the season. Let’s just hope the COVID situation is under control in five months. Or that the WNBA might be willing to delay its season to ensure player safety. 

Of course, teams won’t know what will happen heading into free agency. They will have to make decisions without knowing exactly what the season will look like. It’s a tough spot to be in, and will likely affect every team in the league. 

The WNBA will keep growing and getting stronger in 2021. There’s simply no doubt that the league will succeed as we enter its 25th season. The answers to these big questions will help define what the future of the WNBA looks like, and who will benefit from the league’s recent changes.

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