WNBA CBA Explained: Trades

Who or what can be traded? When can players be traded? How do trades affect the salary cap? What is a sign-and-trade?

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Welcome back to our WNBA CBA and Salary Cap Explained series. As part of our mission to unlock better insight about the women’s game, we’re breaking down the rules outlined in the 350-page WNBA Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), covering the 2020 through 2027 seasons, in plain language. Each article will focus on a bite-size chunk of the CBA to make the concepts more digestible. To catch up on the previous 11 pieces in the series, check out the list at the bottom of this piece. We are also compiling all of this information on the Her Hoop Stats website in a single FAQ document.

We have been looking at how the CBA handles extensions and trades. In the first installment, we discussed the requirements and terms of extensions and whether contracts can be restructured. This installment will break down trades, including what can and cannot be traded, the trade deadline, and sign-and-trade rules.

Who or what can be traded?

Teams may trade players, as well as the exclusive rights to negotiate with drafted players or reserved players without the player agreeing to it. The rights to suspended players with no playing time remaining on their contracts can also be traded for any reason.

This means a team could trade a player who has been suspended for the remainder of their final season, whether voluntarily or not, so the player’s new team gets the exclusive negotiation rights with the player in the long term and the old team gets a short-run return in the form of a player.

Trades including core-designated players who have yet to sign must be approved by the player. The ability of core-designated players to turn down any trades of their rights is one reason teams may choose to trade suspended players as mentioned above. The team can trade the player before they have been given a core designation, and then the new team can core the player for the next season.

Teams may not include cash or any other compensation in trades. This is different from other American sports leagues, including the NBA, where cash is often packaged with players to balance out trades. The WNBA doesn’t require trades to match incoming and outgoing salaries.

When can players be traded?

Neither the trade deadline nor the date that trades can resume are explicitly defined in the CBA. Typically the trade deadline is between half and two-thirds of the way through the season. This year, it was on August 28 at 8 p.m. EST, approximately halftime of the game between the Lynx and the Dream, and just as Sparks vs. Sun was about to tip off. It appears trades can resume sometime in January, but the CBA does not explicitly state when that date is. January 1 or 15 are the most likely options given recent transaction history, according to AcrossTheTimeline.

Teams cannot trade players signed as free agents or drafted rookies before the later of two weeks since they signed a contract or the 15th day of the regular season without the player’s written approval of the trade.

Even though contracts include the offseason after the player has no more playing obligations, teams are not allowed to trade players at any point after the deadline for that season. This stops teams from pawning off a player so another team can get the rights to core the player or sign them to a supermax as a free agent.

How do trades affect the salary cap?

Once a trade has been made, the player’s full base salary for the season transfers from the old team to the new team’s salary sheet. The salary cap is calculated with base salaries, rather than salary that is actually paid by each team. Players are paid in semi-monthly installments by their current teams, so a player’s new team is only on the hook for the remaining salary. This means that if a team trades for a player with a $100,000 base salary who has already been paid half of their salary, they will need to have room for the full $100,000 of their salary on their cap even though they only owe the player $50,000.

This is one way a team can maneuver their salary cap situation favorably. When Indiana traded Stephanie Mavunga to Chicago for Jantel Lavender, both teams benefitted from this rule in different ways. Chicago took on a contract with a lower salary hit, Mavunga’s $57,000 compared to Lavender’s $117,000, providing the flexibility to sign an additional player while staying under the cap. Indiana increased its team salary by $60,000 while only having to pay Lavender about $15,000 more than they still owed Mavunga. This gets the Fever, a team under the team minimum,  closer to that benchmark and lessens the shortfall the team will owe its players by about $45,000.

In the weird season that is 2020, this opened up theoretical opportunities for teams to be able to trade for high-salary players who had opted out of the season, and therefore had a cap hit of practically nothing—just the two payments the player received before opting out. Those two payments are unique to this season, as they still count on the teams’ salary cap even if the player opted out.

In a normal season, there would be no cap hit because one wouldn’t expect players to be paid a month before the season starts. This strategy has never actually occurred but could be used in conjunction with the ability to trade the exclusive negotiation rights to suspended players in their final season to bring players who could garner a core player designation--and possibly a supermax contract--to teams who have the means to do so.

As mentioned in our piece on bonuses, if the traded player receives a trade bonus it will count on the cap of their new team, prorated across the remaining seasons on the contract. Time off bonuses also count on the cap, even before the player has met the requirements to earn it.

What is a sign-and-trade?

A sign-and-trade is an agreement made between a player, their team, and a team they will be traded to. This is exercised either to allow the player to earn more money than they would otherwise be able to or to allow the prior team to get something in return. In the past, this was typically used with restricted free agents so the original team can get a small return for a player that doesn’t fit its plans.

With the significantly higher supermax in the new CBA, there are new reasons a sign-and-trade can be beneficial to players and teams. Skylar Diggins-Smith had already been designated as a core player by the Wings, so she had the right to deny any trade destination she didn’t like. The Wings also had the power to only let her go elsewhere if they got a good enough return because they had cored her and had her exclusive negotiation rights. Dallas got the significant return they were looking for, and Diggins-Smith got to go to her preferred destination, Phoenix.

In the case of DeWanna Bonner, Bonner was an unrestricted free agent so she could’ve gone to a new team with Phoenix getting nothing in return. However, she was able to sign for an extra year and for the full supermax, by requiring the deal to be a sign-and-trade where she initially re-signed with Phoenix, her previous team. Phoenix got three first-round draft picks from Connecticut in return for playing its part, while Bonner earns an additional $125,000 over the course of the four-year contract.

All three parties need to agree to the conditions of a sign-and-trade agreement or the agreement becomes void and the situation reverts to before the new contract was signed. The trade that is agreed to also must be completed within 48 hours.

Missed our previous installments? Here are all the topics we have covered so far…

This series is about learning, so we want to hear from you! If you would like a clarification for any rule, suggestions for future CBA Explained topics, or any other questions, please feel free to let us know in the comments or tweet at us @herhoopstats.

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.