What did the WNBA Pay for Free Agents in 2020?

Comparing 2020 WNBA salaries with 2019 performance for this year's free agents

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Welcome to part two of our series analyzing 2020 WNBA player compensation compared with 2019 player performance. In part one, we compared the latest salary data for the 2020 season with players’ 2019 performance as measured by Win Shares.

As a refresher, Win Shares is an advanced statistic that approximates the total number of wins a player produces for their team through their play on the offensive and defensive ends of the court. Unsurprisingly, winners of the WNBA (and NBA) MVP award often lead the league in Win Shares, as they are contributing the most to their team’s success by this measure overall. We chose Win Shares (retrieved for 2019 from Basketball-Reference) for this analysis as it gives the best readily-available estimate of a player’s contributions last season. Of course, Win Shares is just one measurement of performance and certainly isn’t perfect. However, it does allow for a consistent assessment of each player.

In this installment, we focus on the new contracts (including time-off bonuses) signed this year by the 2020 restricted and unrestricted free agents as reported in Winsidr’s WNBA free agency tracker. Our analysis includes all 2020 free agents who are currently on a roster and played at least 100 minutes during the 2019 season with two exceptions noted below.

Based on this analysis, WNBA teams spent approximately $20,000 per incremental Win Share on free agents in 2020. Of course, this data is just an approximation of the financial worth of a Win Share and teams consider many factors beyond just Win Shares when negotiating contracts. There’s a pretty clear trend between the 2019 Win Shares data and 2020 salaries for free agents as shown below.  The R-squared of the trend line is 0.45, meaning that approximately 45 percent of the variance in salary is explained by the win shares. On the trend line, salary increases by $20,164 per win share with an offset of $115,055 for zero Win Shares. 

Two players who would otherwise qualify are excluded from the analysis because they are outliers (in the best possible way!). Washington’s Elena Delle Donne and Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones were the top two players in Win Shares in the league in 2019 with 7.7 and 5.6 Win Shares respectively. Both signed the new maximum contracts available to them including a supermax for Delle Donne, but are still limited to far below their worth on a completely free market. Adding Delle Donne and Jones back in with the $20,000 trend line and also noting the league maximum salaries specified in the CBA, we see:

If we project what Delle Donne and Jones’ salaries “should be” based on their league-high 2019 Win Shares, they are both “underpaid” by over $40,000. Delle Donne’s estimated contract valuation checks in at just over $270,000, while Jones’ is just shy of $228,000 - both well above the largest possible salary allowed by the CBA. By that math, despite paying them the maximum possible amount, Washington and Connecticut are getting a bargain on their biggest stars.

We can also see that the third-highest player in Win Shares for 2019, Phoenix’s Brittney Griner sits almost directly on the trend line at five Win Shares and a “supermax” contract of $215,000. The trend line equation projects a salary just $875 higher than her actual contract.

Another interesting player is Leilani Mitchell, who checks in at 3.5 Win Shares for 2019 with Phoenix and signed a new contract with Washington for $127,000. From her location on the above plot, she seems like a bargain, especially at 18th in the league overall for total Win Shares last season. At 34 years old, she had her best season statistically in the league in 2019 and her salary probably reflects pricing in regression to the mean. Taking a closer look at her stats, she sits at 36th overall in 2019 for Win Shares per 40 minutes and 30th for Player Efficiency Rating (PER, a stat that is also adjusted for minutes). That indicates that she also benefited from a high volume of minutes during the 2019 season. This makes sense given her increased role for Phoenix in Diana Taurasi’s absence last season. Still, Mitchell ends up being a great signing for the Mystics, fitting in nicely on the cap sheet with their lack of flexibility.

Moving further to the left on the chart, we see increased variation as we look at the free agents tapping in at below three Win Shares for the 2019 season. Several different items drive this variation, as players in this free agency group represent many situations. For example, Los Angeles’ Chelsea Gray checks in at 2.4 Win Shares and $195,000 in salary. A lower total Win Shares number here is not necessarily surprising given the wealth of star power on the Sparks. With so many star caliber players on the roster, Win Shares are likely to be more evenly distributed between players than concentrated with one or two. 

Tina Charles is another notable player in our analysis.  The WNBA great signed for $175,000 this off-season after a rocky 2019. She actually had -0.1 Win Shares while shooting just 41% on two-pointers and 19% on a struggling Liberty team.  The Mystics are clearly betting that she’ll be rejuvenated in Washington.

Also included in the mix are new players like Megan Gustafson, who is entering her second year in the league. Because she was initially cut by Dallas last season and then resigned on a temporary contract, Gustafson is not on a rookie deal and was able to ink a deal with Dallas for $62,000 in 2020. 

Below is the full data set of Free Agents, their 2019 Win Shares, 2020 salary, and modeled 2020 salary based on the Win Shares trend line:

The analysis above also raises interesting questions about how players who weren’t free agents in 2020 are being paid compared to their projected worth. Keep an eye out for more on that in part three of the series.

Thanks for reading the Her Hoop Stats Newsletter. If you like our work, be sure to check out our stats site, our podcast, and our social media accounts on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram. You can also buy Her Hoop Stats gear, such as laptop stickers, mugs, and shirts!