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WNBA Dissected 2023 Week 1: Priorities, bonuses, smallball and more
The return of the weekly column covering everything of interest from across the WNBA
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After last week's roster breakdowns, we're now back for another season of your regularly scheduled programming: a weekly dose of WNBA talking points, rule quirks, lineup minutiae and general analysis. There won't be too much on the actual basketball this week, because we've only had a few games and this is still essentially preseason, but there's already some interesting stuff to tackle after less than a week of action.
Getting Your Priorities Straight
Largely speaking, the WNBA is probably feeling a little smug about how their new Prioritization rules played out. Only three players who were under contract arrived late for camp (and were presumably hit with the requisite fines), and only one obvious name avoided signing due to the potential suspension for failing to arrive before the regular season began. However, that one player's situation has turned into something of a saga.
As I detailed in my Prioritization explainer many months ago, Gabby Williams was always likely to be the highest-profile name to be hit by the new rules. France have the latest-running season among the significant leagues in Europe and made no concessions to the WNBA's demands. As a key member of the French national team in recent years, Williams is very well-paid in France and wasn't going to change her plans to fit in with the WNBA's altered rules. The dates for their playoff finals were set in stone for nearly a year, so everyone involved knew that if Williams's team Lyon reached that stage - which was always likely for a team with their talent and depth - she was probably going to have to miss the 2023 WNBA season.
Lyon were nearly eliminated in the semifinals, raising hopes that Williams might be free in time to sign in the US, but they scraped through. However, Williams suffered a concussion, which was worrying considering the same thing happened late last season in Seattle, but also led to possible scenarios where she could be WNBA-eligible via not playing again for Lyon. Then she played in Game 1 of the finals anyway, which seemed to put paid to those ideas, only for her to come to an agreement with Lyon to suspend (or break, depending on which report or translation service you use) her contract. So technically she had ended her overseas commitments before the WNBA regular season began, and appears to have retained eligibility to sign in the WNBA in 2023. Lyon won Games 2 and 3 without her, by the way, to take the title.
Unfortunately, everything still appears to be up in the air. Williams's concussion is reported to be serious enough that she needs at least three weeks of complete rest, which puts her participation in June's EuroBasket Women in serious question along with the potential WNBA deal.
On the WNBA side, Seattle still own Williams's restricted rights. They would have to make a cut to sign her, and possibly even two cuts if they wanted to give her something near the max (although that becomes less likely as time goes on). If Williams isn't ready for a while due to her health (or at least until July due to EuroBasket Women), does the move make much sense for the Storm? There's always a desire to win games, but this has become an obvious rebuilding season for Seattle. They'll have played 13 games by the end of EuroBasket Women - if they're already something like 2-11, does the signing make sense for either side? She could always be traded elsewhere (or sign an offer sheet, as long as it's signed before July 1), but that only adds another layer of complications. Even after getting out of her Lyon deal in time, it seems like it's still a distinct possibility that we won't see Williams in the WNBA in 2023.
Beyond Williams, hopefully this year hasn't given the WNBA a sense of overconfidence around Prioritization. A few players signed contracts that took the rules into account and made sure they'd be released in time to make it back to the US, but generally speaking minimal accommodation was made by overseas leagues for the new rules. Things fell perfectly this year, with no Olympics or World Cup meaning the WNBA could start relatively late even with their expanded schedule, and the playoffs in multiple European leagues being completed a little quicker than expected. There's the potential for a lot more drama next year if the WNBA aren't careful with their own schedule. The rules become harsher, suspending players for the entire year if they're late for camp or arrive after May 1 (whichever is later). The drama may well not be over, and you can bet that the complaining over the rules definitely isn't.
Paid Time Off
I promised to explain Time Off Bonuses on Twitter a few days ago, so this is me keeping my word. The topic came up last week because first the Los Angeles Sparks gave Nneka Ogwumike a time off bonus of $30,030, and then the New York Liberty gave $5,000 each to Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot via the same mechanism. The original theory behind these bonuses was to essentially pay players to stay home. In practice, it's all worked out a little differently.
Teams can give players up to $50,000 as an encouragement not to play in other leagues during the WNBA offseason. They set a threshold anywhere from 0 to 90 days, and that's the maximum time the player can play professional basketball for any other team or organisation if they want to earn the bonus. While the money applies to this year's cap, the offseason we're talking about is the next one and not the one that's already happened. So from a salary cap perspective it's irrelevant whether the player actually meets the criteria and earns the bonus, because the WNBA season it applies to will have already been completed. The only element left to be decided is whether the player gets their money. If they go over the allowed number of days, the bonus disappears (assuming anyone at the WNBA is paying enough attention to notice that they haven't met the requirements).
The problem with these bonuses is that they don't really appear to have much effect in the area they were intended for in the first place. $50,000 isn't enough compared to what star players can earn if they want to go overseas, so it's unlikely that it's making much impact on whether they go or not. It's a little extra cash you can give to a star player, but it's probably not changing anything. A lot of players who've received them over the years are the ones who rarely go overseas anyway, so it just becomes extra money rather than any kind of incentive to act differently.
However, the bonuses handed out this week were at least quite clever. Both the Sparks and Liberty were well aware that they were likely to be going over the salary cap, and staying over it for the rest of the season. This might seem strange for a league that has, in theory, a hard cap. But exceptions allow you to go over the cap, and they count against it even once those extra players have been released. LA were going to make use of the new pregnancy replacement player I discussed extensively in the roster breakdowns last week, and that extra player was going to take them over the limit immediately. New York, with only $11,389 of cap space left and about to sign Epiphanny Prince to a hardship contract to cover for Marine Johannès, knew they were likely to end up over as well. So both teams essentially used up their space before it was swallowed up by those exceptions. The Sparks had a little fun with it, putting Nneka's #30 uniform number in the bonus figure, but it was still nearly all of their remaining space.
In New York's case, it felt more like fulfilling a promise than anything else. When Stewart and Vandersloot were agreeing to their deals with the Liberty, and Stewart in particular was taking below what she was worth, New York may well have said they'd top up their salaries with everything they could if there was any unspent space after all the roster moves were complete. Unsurprisingly, there wasn't much space left, so there wasn't much to add. For star players at clubs like Fenerbahçe in Turkey, where both Stewart and Vandersloot played this year, $5,000 is barely a drop in the ocean of their salaries. So if they want to go overseas, they'll still be going. But at least now you know what was going on with these bonuses. Aren't you glad that you asked?
I absolutely love this, always think teams/players should do it more, and adored seeing Alyssa Thomas put it into practice. Washington had a little trouble corralling a rebound and advancing the ball up the floor, which meant they'd already used about six seconds when Elena Delle Donne was casually dribbling towards halfcourt. Thomas, recognising how long it had already taken, stepped up to pressure Delle Donne for those last few steps to get the ball over the timeline. That forced Delle Donne to take an extra half-second, meaning the clock ticked over 16 before the ball was past halfcourt, and it was therefore an 8-second violation and a turnover. Defenses don't do this enough - spotting when the offense has already used too much time and the violation is on the table, then extending their defense to try to force it. Thomas basically saw it and executed it on her own.
On a team that now needs her to lead more than ever with Jasmine Thomas and Jonquel Jones gone, Alyssa Thomas already looks better than ever. No, she can't shoot, and no, it doesn't matter. She makes things happen at both ends of the floor, drives the team forward, and if she stays healthy will be in the discussion for all the awards at the end of the year. The Sun may not be the same squad they were in previous years, but with Thomas at the heart of the team they're still going to be damn good and play really, really smart.
Yes, it's the return of everyone's favourite section, the part where we take note of interesting lineup changes or quirks that are happening around the league. Perhaps the most intriguing general element to be seen so far is how 'smallball' is continuing to make its progress into the WNBA. The global game has increasingly moved towards putting mobility and shooting on the floor ahead of pure size, but the WNBA has somewhat resisted these changes with true posts like Brittney Griner and Sylvia Fowles to handle inside. Most of the time, genuine power forwards have remained the choice for nearly every team at the 4, even if those have increasingly been players with at least a little range.
However, now we're seeing more signs of genuine 4-out lineups. Alysha Clark's first appearance for Las Vegas was coming off the bench as the de facto 4, after spending virtually her whole WNBA career as a 3. Minnesota and Seattle have both used lineups where it's sometimes difficult to even tell whom you'd designate as the 4, because there are essentially four guards/wings on the floor with one big. Phoenix are using Michaela Onyenwere at least as much at the 4 as the 3, after years of dual-post lineups with Griner and Brianna Turner. Indiana seem desperate to go small with either Victoria Vivians or Lexie Hull as the pseudo-4 when Aliyah Boston and NaLyssa Smith rest. There are examples virtually all across the league.
That said, most teams - and especially the good ones - are still starting with two players you'd consider posts, while keeping the smallball options in their pocket as a change-up. Dallas have plenty of 4-out sets, but they're still opening games with Teaira McCowan and Natasha Howard, for example. Phoenix and Atlanta have tried starting games with combo-forwards at the 4, but that's yet to become the trend league-wide. Differences in approach are what keep this game fascinating, and it's going to be interesting to see this potential progression over the coming years.
A few extra notes:
DiJonai Carrington has barely played in Connecticut's first few games, even falling behind recent rookie addition Leigha Brown in the rotation against Washington. This caused inevitable consternation on #WNBATwitter, but for as long as it keeps working, don't expect Stephanie White to change tack. They clearly thought Brown could do a defensive job for them on Delle Donne, hence that move. So there's also the chance that Carrington simply slides back into the rotation when they think the matchup suits her better. But she'll have to earn those minutes back.
LA have only played one game so far, but hardship signing Karlie Samuelson featured for over 26 minutes off the bench. Obviously the frontcourt rotation would change with Azurá Stevens back and Dearica Hamby closer to full fitness, but an emergency addition playing such a heavy role doesn't seem like the greatest roster construction. That gap at the 3 I discussed in last week’s roster breakdowns will only show up more significantly when they have to release Samuelson.
Not exactly a lineup note, but it felt silly not to mention the Aces somewhere in here. They were playing against what is likely one of the weakest teams in the league, but Saturday's game was a reminder that the best team in the league last year spent the offseason getting better. It was a controversial loss, but moving on from Dearica Hamby was literally the only meaningful loss from last season's roster, while Candace Parker and Alysha Clark have been added. I may not be the biggest Cayla George fan in the world, but even she gives them more depth and cover in the paint than they had last year. Meanwhile, their closest challengers from last season, Connecticut and Chicago, both lost superstars and leaders. It's been repeatedly proven that it is very, very hard to repeat as champions in this league - no one has done it for over 20 years - but the Aces might be the best-placed squad to take a crack at it in a very long time.
Most weeks, this will return to being Clark's Corner, and given her style of game Veronica Burton may well make return appearances. But for now, let's just bask in how freaking great that pass is. Ogunbowale doesn't even have to break stride for the layup, never mind dribble. By my count that pass is about 70 feet, so well over 20 yards, and right on the money. Does Dak Prescott have a backup for 2023?