Tradepocalypse, Plus Deals I Like and Don't Like from WNBA Free Agency So Far
Examining Wednesday's deluge of deals and other WNBA free agent moves of interest
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While there had been some interesting movement in the opening nine days of 2021 WNBA free agency and the usual smattering of deals that leaned surprisingly high or low (we'll get to those later), everything had been relatively straightforward. Then on Wednesday afternoon, it all went bananas.
Five interconnected trades happened on top of each other, involving five franchises, and when the dust settled we were left with some angry fans, a lot of confused ones, and several situations that remain unresolved. So before we get to the good and bad of the first nine days of February, let's examine the results of Wednesday's madness.
At the center of everything were the Seattle Storm. It had become clear that Natasha Howard, cored by the Storm to retain her rights, was on her way out of town. They'd signed Candice Dupree to an expensive contract days earlier, which made no sense if Howard was staying. As is often the case in these situations in the WNBA, the player makes it clear where they want to go, and then the team is left to make the best deal they can under those restrictions (or call the player's bluff and tell them to either show up and play or not get paid - but that rarely happens). The question is whether Seattle came out of all this with a decent return given the situation. Howard brought back the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming 2021 draft, a 2022 first-rounder from Phoenix, and New York's 2022 second-rounder. Even considering that most observers don't rate this year's draft class highly, that doesn't seem like a terrible return. However, they immediately turned that Phoenix pick into Mikiah Herbert Harrigan from Minnesota, and the No. 1 into Katie Lou Samuelson and a 2022 second-rounder.
Having lost both Howard and Alysha Clark this offseason, the Storm had big holes to fill both on the wing and in the post, and you have to wear the most positive of rose-tinted glasses to feel like they’ve accomplished that task. Herbert Harrigan had a quiet rookie year in Minnesota, still needs to find her role in either the perimeter or post, and the Lynx happily moving on from her after one year isn't a positive sign. The No. 1 overall pick for Samuelson is the move that drew the most ire and shock. She hasn't impressed in her first two years in the WNBA, struggling to crack the rotation in both Chicago and Dallas, and not shooting particularly well when she did find minutes (30% from three-point range so far in her WNBA career).
Now on her third team in three years, there is still hope for Samuelson. She obviously impressed in college at UConn and has even had her moments with Team USA. But you have to look hard. The best combo forwards offer versatility and options to their coaches, like Napheesa Collier in Minnesota, performing successfully both in the paint and on the perimeter. However, there've also been countless players over the years who've fallen into that tweener gap. Too slow to defend anyone on the outside, too lightweight to battle inside, they're often successful in Europe but can't survive at either spot in the WNBA. Samuelson has yet to prove that she can produce positive results inside or out at the WNBA level.
The defense for Seattle’s gamble is that if you aren’t a fan of potential draft options like Arella Guirantes or Rennia Davis, then maybe Samuelson has more of a chance to help fill their hole on the wing. The Storm are essentially saying they like her chances more than anyone in this class. With Breanna Stewart’s contract running out in a year, the move may also have been made in part to try to keep their superstar happy, adding her former college teammate to the squad. So there are angles where you can see the thought process for the Storm - it’s just hard to see the player Samuelson has been over the last two seasons as being worth the No. 1 overall pick, however weak the draft class.
Seattle somehow managing to come away from all this without an extra first-rounder in either 2021 or 2022 seems remarkable, and they also lost fan-favorite guard Sami Whitcomb on the same day in another deal with New York. The Storm could've matched an offer sheet to restricted free agent Whitcomb but chose to turn the move into a sign-and-trade instead, receiving the rights to Australian wing Stephanie Talbot (who signed a training-camp contract the following day). The Storm were likely scared to tie up 2022 cap space when they could need money to re-sign Stewart, Jewell Loyd, Jordin Canada and Mercedes Russell, but Whitcomb is another useful player out the door for minimal return.
The Liberty, for now, come away from all of this smelling like roses. Thanks to a separate deal with Phoenix, they moved down only five spots in the 2021 draft, held on to their own 2022 draft pick in case this season remains a rebuilding year, and added players who immediately help them become relevant. No one is expecting New York to challenge for a title just yet, but between Howard, Whitcomb, free agent signing Betnijah Laney and the return of Sabrina Ionescu, this is a team that should improve dramatically. Howard in particular is a supreme defender, and Laney will also help on that side of the ball. There's also a glaring upgrade in both talent and experience on the offensive end. The contracts for all three players they brought in might prove to be slight overpays, but that's often something you have to do when you're building from the ground up.
Elsewhere amongst all these deals, Phoenix turned their first-round picks in 2021 and 2022 into Kia Nurse and Megan Walker, yet again trading away their draft picks in the hope that more known quantities can help them immediately. While I stand by my view that Nurse probably had the worst offensive season in WNBA history in 2020, I still have hope for her. As a complementary piece who isn't required to carry an offense, she should be useful. Walker was unimpressive as a rookie and has looked fairly similar overseas this offseason, but she had health issues and could improve. The problem with Nurse is that she's in the final year of her rookie-scale contract. So she's either a one-year rental, or if she's any good in 2021 then she'll get significantly more expensive very quickly. The Mercury already have Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Bria Hartley under max or supermax contracts through 2022, so signing yet another perimeter player to high-end money would seem foolhardy. It's a deal that could work out temporarily but might not pay off long-term.
Dallas acquired the No. 1 overall pick in the draft for a player that might have barely cracked their rotation. In a vacuum, that obviously seems like a positive move. The problem is that they already had the No. 2, 5, 7 and 13 picks in this draft, along with 11 players under contract. There's no room for all these people on their roster. They're clearly primed for a big trade where they consolidate several of these pieces into a star, and fans have thrown out names like Brittney Griner or Nneka Ogwumike as hypothetical targets. The problem is that the other teams have to be interested. Phoenix's Nurse/Walker trade, along with re-signing Taurasi, aren't the moves of a franchise that wants to blow things up and rebuild with youth. Ogwumike has already been reported to have agreed to re-sign with Los Angeles for multiple years. So where does the trade target come from? I have a horrible feeling that they'll end up using one or two of those picks to shed a contract they no longer want (Astou Ndour being the most likely), then select a bunch of rookies and have to cut people to make room. For the sake of Wings fans I hope they have a plan in place, but I'm yet to be convinced.
Minnesota were only tangentially connected to the big moves, picking up an extra 2022 first-rounder for Herbert Harrigan, but the surprise is that it didn't fix their current major issue. The Lynx have six protected contracts, which is the maximum, with Aerial Powers having agreed to join them but still waiting to sign. While this trade created extra cap space, it didn't solve that issue. So another move will still be necessary, unless Powers is willing to take an unprotected deal starting at around $163,000 per year.
On to the deals from before Wednesday that I liked, disliked, or raised my eyebrows.
Deals I Liked
Chelsea Gray, Las Vegas (2 years, $190,550/$196,267)
Hard to argue with the Aces adding a creative point guard like Gray, who can also hit the outside shot and has the size that Bill Laimbeer has always preferred his guards to have. Laimbeer has struggled to settle on a lead guard in Vegas, rolling through options like Lindsay Allen and Danielle Robinson, while messing around with the positions of Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young at various stages. Gray should settle things down while also helping to stretch the floor around A'ja Wilson (and Liz Cambage, should she re-sign and show up to play). The price was the max, as you'd expect, but without being forced into a sign-and-trade deal with LA so that Gray could receive the supermax. That's a win for Vegas.
Candace Parker, Chicago Sky (2 years, $190,000/$195,000)
Remember this, from what feels like about a month ago? The Sky made a move that they had to make, once it presented itself as an option. Keeping Cheyenne Parker and essentially rolling with the group from last year, hoping that Diamond DeShields would return and unlock a step forward, was the safe move. Bringing in Candace Parker was the swing for the fences. Parker will be 35 by the time the 2021 season starts, and has had some injury issues over the years, but showed in the bubble that she's still a premier WNBA player. The Defensive Player of the Year award she won was generous in my eyes, but she still has the potential to be a significant defensive upgrade for the Sky inside, while offering her standard threat as a creative offensive force. It doesn't make anything certain for the Sky, but it's a move that offers definite hope that things could be different. They even got her to sign for very slightly less than the max for some unexplained reason.
Kayla McBride, Minnesota Lynx (3 years, $190,550/$196,267/$201,984)
Natalie Achonwa, Minnesota Lynx (3 years, $164,500/$160,000/$155,100)
Aerial Powers, Minnesota Lynx (to be determined)
To be clear, they're in this section because I generally like what the Lynx did, but I could've split this group up. McBride is a great fit, an outside sniper who's also improved significantly defensively in recent years, that Cheryl Reeve will find interesting ways to utilize. Convincing Powers to come as well was a surprise, but a welcome one, and she offers another on-ball creator who has become a much smarter and more controlled player in her last couple of years in Washington. Achonwa is a smart, heady, typically Reeve-style post who fits with this squad, but that's the one that could've moved to the categories below. Three guaranteed years for a lot of money is an overpay for someone who could be the third or fourth post behind Sylvia Fowles, Damiris Dantas and maybe Napheesa Collier, who could be playing inside more with McBride and Powers demanding minutes on the perimeter. Overall, Minnesota has made positive strides, making good use of the cap space that they hoarded after missing out on the big targets in 2020. Assuming they eventually find a deal so that they can get the Powers signing completed, of course.
Deals I Didn't Like
Jantel Lavender, Indiana Fever (3 years, $175,000/$175,000/$175,000)
Danielle Robinson, Indiana Fever (3 years, $155,000/$155,000/$155,000)
As I mentioned earlier with New York, sometimes you have to overpay for free agents when you're a bad team trying to attract upgrades in personnel. However, you still need to avoid overpaying the wrong players, even if they're the only ones who are interested in joining you that year. Lavender is a 32-year-old center who's missed chunks of the last two seasons due to multiple surgeries on her feet. Robinson is a backup-level point-guard who'll also soon turn 32, who's been in the pros for a decade and still only has shooting range to around 15-feet. I understand trying to add some veteran experience to help guide this young squad, but don't do it by guaranteeing nearly a million dollars over three years to two middling veterans who are past their primes. We've already seen that the new CBA and cap system is forcing talent to spread out around the league if players want to get paid, so do what Minnesota did last year - sit on the space and wait for better opportunities. Also, if you must make these moves, structure these deals to descend (e.g., $180,000/$175,000/$170,000). The Fever still have acres of cap space this year, so pay as much of it as you can up front and preserve space in future years.
Candice Dupree, Seattle Storm (1 year, $170,000)
We already spent plenty of time on Seattle earlier, but I can't leave this one out. The only thing I like about this move is that it's only a one-year contract. Despite her career accomplishments, I don’t see how Dupree helps the Storm in 2021. She's played minimal defense her entire career, is a mediocre rebounder for a post, and even her offensive efficiency has dropped off in the last few years. While we never know for sure who might've been interested, there were better options available for what Seattle needed - Jessica Breland, Glory Johnson, even Reshanda Gray. The defensive drop off from Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard to Dupree and Katie Lou Samuelson is precipitous. Two of the best in the league to two who might be close to the exact opposite end of the scale. I'd also rather just give the minutes Dupree will play to Ezi Magbegor or Mercedes Russell (and they now have to find time for Samuelson and Herbert Harrigan as well).
Deals that Were Surprising
Brittney Sykes, Los Angeles Sparks (2 years, $110,000/$113,300)
To be clear, this isn't confusing from an LA perspective. This is a great deal for them. The surprising part is that Sykes agreed to it. She had a really positive season last year, breaking into the starting lineup, improving her offensive efficiency, and playing a central role in LA's team defense. Once the top tier of perimeter free agents (Clark, McBride, Powers, arguably Laney) were hoovered up, it seemed like there was every chance she'd get paid. Seattle could've gone after her, maybe Indiana, or she'd have fit in several other destinations. As a restricted free agent LA would've had the right to match, but she'd have set the price. Instead, she took this surprisingly low deal, and it's not even guaranteed. With an offer this low, she might as well have taken her qualifying offer ($71,400) and become an unrestricted free agent in a year after another 12 months illustrating her value. Even if she loves LA, it was a strange agreement.
Kayla Thornton, Dallas Wings (2-year extension, $107,040/$109,716)
Dearica Hamby, Las Vegas Aces (1-year extension, $142,800)
These aren't necessarily shocking, but they are interesting and illustrative of the current situation in the WNBA. Both players extended their contracts when they might well have received more money on the open market if they'd waited to become free agents. Hamby in particular has been so good in recent years with the Aces that she might well have found a max deal and a starting spot on offer elsewhere. Both may simply like the city they're in and not want to look for greener pastures, but it also shows how appealing guaranteed money (and a virtually guaranteed roster spot) is right now. While the new cap structure has led to some of the talent spreading out, it hasn't really created that much of a middle class. Teams are still throwing max money (or near-max) at veterans they want to keep or attract, then filling out their rosters with cheap, young players. So a significant group of non-star veterans are going to be squeezed out - or at best be forced to take the veteran minimum and fight for a roster spot. Taking the extension that's on offer rather than hoping something better comes along down the line is going to be an appealing option in many situations.