WNBA Dissected: Completed contracts, flubbed finishes, Lynx lore, and more from 2022 Week 2
More news and analysis of interesting and noteworthy events from around the world of the WNBA this week
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Options and Extensions
and Bonuses, Oh My!
May 15 was the deadline in the WNBA for teams to exercise fourth-year options on 2020 draftees, and to sign players drafted in 2019 to rookie scale extensions. I wrote all about it last week for those who want more details on the system, or to see what I thought was going to happen in the final few days. As it turns out, there was quite a bit of activity.
Nearly all the fourth-year options were taken up. Obviously, if you're still on a roster heading into your third WNBA season, and especially if you're still on your rookie scale contract (so haven't been waived, cleared and re-signed), someone sees some value in you. In most cases, that appears to have overruled the potential negatives of adding guaranteed money to the cap sheet for next season. That’s why these decisions were particularly interesting this year - it’s the first time that the fourth-year of rookie scale deals have immediately become guaranteed if exercised. Even players like Ruthy Hebard and Jocelyn Willoughby, who've been fringe players in the WNBA so far, had their options picked up. The only two that were declined were Megan Walker and Kylee Shook. Atlanta has made a surprisingly strong start this season but Walker has barely cracked the rotation, so declining her option made sense. They have vast amounts of cap space next year and understandably didn't value Walker enough to cut into it. As I explained in the previous article, there was no good reason to exercise Shook's option due to her 2022 suspension, so New York made the practical call.
The extensions were more interesting. Arike Ogunbowale and Napheesa Collier had already signed during the offseason, and four more 2019 draftees were added to the list in the final days before the deadline. Jackie Young got the most, with a two-year protected deal starting at $165,000 that's currently looking like a bargain after her red-hot start to the season. Brianna Turner also locked in two protected seasons, both at $150,000. These are solid, mid-range deals that make sense on both sides. The players are guaranteed good money for multiple years, while the teams lock up important but not-quite-star players at below-max money.
There initially appeared to be an extra quirk with Young's deal, as she was handed a $50,000 time-off bonus that would've used the Aces' remaining 2022 cap space to tack on to her current compensation. It's the only way teams can add money to existing contracts, in theory using extra cash to encourage players not to go and play overseas. In practice, it often goes to players who weren't going overseas anyway (but as the money counts against the cap, and most teams have very little space, it isn't used that much regardless). However, Young’s bonus swiftly disappeared. The CBA specifically says time-off bonuses can be added to contracts signed with veteran players. In this case, the Aces were trying to add to the fourth season of Young's rookie scale deal, signed before she had played a single WNBA minute. So that’s likely the reason it was wiped away. It was a clever idea from the Aces, presumably encouraging Young to extend by throwing some extra cash on top that wouldn't impinge on future cap space, but ultimately against the rules. They could still add a time-off bonus to the future years, but they may need the cap space it would swallow. Don't be surprised if they top her up in the future if they have the room to do so.
The other two extensions were a little less cut and dried in terms of value. Jessica Shepard got a two-year unprotected extension from Minnesota, starting at $120,000. She's had a strong start to this season even amongst the madness in Minnesota, so you can understand why they wanted to retain her. However, due to missing the 2020 season entirely she would only have three WNBA Years of Service at the end of this season, and would therefore have been reserved rather than a restricted free agent. The Lynx therefore could've kept her on the vet minimum ($74,305) next year, and she would still only have been a restricted free agent the following season. Considering they already have over $750,000 on their books for 2023 to four players (Collier, Aerial Powers, Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa), keeping Shepard cheaply would've been valuable. This only becomes a potential saving for the Lynx if Shepard is still going in 2024 and significantly undervalued at $123,600. The lack of protection means they can get out of the deal if necessary, but that doesn't bring back the value.
The final extension was Katie Lou Samuelson in Los Angeles, who got one year, protected, at $130,000 before ever playing in a Sparks jersey. It's a similar move to the deal they gave Gabby Williams last year after acquiring her in a trade, tacking one year on at mid-level money. Samuelson might be worth it - she had a solid enough debut with LA on Tuesday night, and we all know she can shoot. But I'd have rather waited the year for more evidence and taken my chances with her as a restricted free agent.
Players who could've been extended but weren't include Teaira McCowan, Marina Mabrey and Ezi Magbegor. There could be all kinds of reasons for the lack of activity in Dallas. If McCowan or Mabrey wanted max money then there's no real incentive for the team to cough up the contract. That's also the maximum they can get as restricted free agents, so the Wings can just wait and see if that kind of deal is available for them on the market next year, then make a decision on matching it (with an extra season of evidence about how good they are). After arriving late McCowan's also had a pretty slow start in Dallas, struggling for minutes behind Isabelle Harrison and Kayla Thornton, so it makes sense for the Wings not to go all-in on her just yet. In Seattle, Magbegor not being extended makes sense for the exact same reasons I discussed above with Shepard. Magbegor is only playing her third season, so she will be reserved at the end of this year, and the Storm can bring her back for another season on the minimum. For such a young but promising player, more evidence is again also going to be valuable.
By the way, we could still see more contract activity over the course of the year. Veteran extensions are legal right up until the final day of the regular season - it's just players from these particular draft classes that had deadlines last week.
Basic Math Breakdowns
Multiple times this week, teams made decisions at the end of games that didn't seem to add up. Literally.
There was Minnesota on Saturday night. 32 seconds left, trailing by two. The Lynx took a foul to get rid of their foul-to-give, eating up up six seconds, which I understand. There's a chance that a couple of possessions down the line you might need to send Chicago to the line, so that makes sense. However, then they were down two, 26 seconds on the game clock, 18 seconds on the shot clock. And they fouled again. Why? Surely you play defense there, hope to get a stop, and try to tie or win the game in the remaining eight seconds. The second foul certainly seemed intentional, and Cheryl Reeve didn't appear unhappy with the hack itself or the call. Unsurprisingly, career 84% free-throw shooter Courtney Vandersloot made both, and the Lynx were pretty much screwed. They then got shut down at the other end and barely got a shot off, but down by four their chances were slim-to-none regardless.
The next night, things went similarly wrong for Indiana, as you can see below.
Atlanta is up two, and grab an offensive rebound from their own miss with around 22 seconds left. In the old days, you'd have to foul there, because 24 is more than 22. But for several years in this league, the shot-clock has reset to 14 on an offensive board (credit to Fever commentator Pat Boylan for knowing that and mentioning it immediately). So just like in Minnesota, there was an eight-second differential that the trailing team could've played out. Instead, head coach Marianne Stanley's immediate reaction on the bench is to call for her team to foul. It's a mistake that pretty much ended the game. Rhyne Howard calmly made both free throws, the Fever were then down four in a two-possession game, and essentially doomed.
In LA on Tuesday night, after a beautiful Lynx play that I promise we're going to get to in a minute, the Sparks were down by three with two seconds left, and ran this:
If the pass had been perfect, I guess it's possible that Liz Cambage could've finished and been fouled, or quickly found a shooter on the perimeter with enough time to get a shot off. The latter is what Derek Fisher claimed was the plan in post-game remarks. But it seems like a hell of a long-shot in 2.1 seconds. Freakishly, they actually managed to get a three off that would've tied the game, but pinging the ball off the rim for a Jordin Canada offensive rebound and turnaround heave at the buzzer isn't exactly how they drew it up.
It's early days in the season for everybody folks, even the head coaches.
Lynx to the Past
As promised, let's look at the play that preceded the LA mess above. Plus, thanks to my Her Hoop Stats colleague Calvin Wetzel, the duo it immediately reminded me of:
You'll have to forgive me for slipping into Vitale-speak, but I was excited. That's such a pretty set, but you need a big who can pivot quickly and make a tricky pass, and a guard who can force their defender into the big and make a potentially difficult finish at the rim. Janel McCarville and Lindsay Whalen used to run it a bunch, which is why they came immediately to my mind, but the fact that very few other teams copied it shows how tricky it can be to execute. Tuesday night's version was made more difficult because the hyper-athletic and block-happy Brittney Sykes was trailing right behind Kayla McBride, who had the smarts to cross under the rim and turn the finish into a reverse, getting fouled in the process as a bonus. Lovely.
Also, it was nice to see a team actually run something in an end-of-game situation rather than just clear out and let someone go one-on-one. That's become the default play for a long time, and it often results in a pretty awful shot. Credit Cheryl Reeve for being far more creative, even if the initial creation came well over a decade ago.
Big, Bigger, Biggest?
Before we get to the usual nitty gritty of Lineup Minutiae, first a more overarching note of interest from lineups around the league: is the WNBA super-sizing? The basketball world in general has been downsizing in recent years. The desperation to get more shooting on the floor has led to players who grew up thinking they were shooting guards becoming nominal power forwards, as teams play 4-out or even 5-out basketball. Traditional paint-bound big-men have become very rare in the NBA. The WNBA was already resisting some of these changes, with players like Sylvia Fowles, Brittney Griner and Liz Cambage far too effective inside to give up on post play in favor of gunners. This year, some teams have leaned even further into size.
While some of the choices have been forced by injuries and late arrivals, we've seen several triple-big lineups around the league. Chicago has been starting Azurá Stevens, Emma Meesseman and Candace Parker and looking thoroughly effective while doing it. All three can shoot, which helps a lot, while Stevens's ability to guard wing players fairly effectively has made it work on the defensive end. In fact, all that size and length on the floor can actually improve the defense as long as you're not being destroyed by the quickness of the opposing team. LA even had Nneka Ogwumike playing the 3 for a while last week against Atlanta because none of their perimeter players could guard Rhyne Howard.
In Connecticut, Alyssa Thomas was starting at the 3 alongside Jonquel Jones and Brionna Jones while they waited for DeWanna Bonner to arrive. It's a position that Thomas has played plenty over the years, but she became a success in this league when she slid to the 4. Once Bonner was back on Tuesday night we even saw brief glimpses of the Sun's super-big lineup, where Bonner's at the 2 alongside the aforementioned trio. All those players are still capable of defending their position, and the ridiculous amount of size and strength it puts on the floor is a potential nightmare to handle. New York turned the ball over about a thousand times in that game, so it certainly worked on Tuesday.
All of these lineups have their own reasons behind them, and may become less utilized once rosters are complete, but it shows that they're a viable option. If the other team doesn't have an explosively quick wing who can exploit a bigger, slower defender, maybe you're better off with more size on the floor. Especially as so many of these bigs can occasionally hit a three these days. It's always nice to have options.
Now for the regular tiny details.
Derek Fisher upset me on Tuesday night by repeating a starting lineup for the first time all season. After four games where he flipped between different options for his fifth starter, Lexie Brown started for a second consecutive time. I was really looking forward to seeing how he was going to manage to start 36 different players in that spot over the course of the season.
On a more serious note, the balance on the Sparks roster is proving a little strange. It's becoming relatively clear that they see Jasmine Walker as primarily a 3, and players like Katie Lou Samuelson and Rae Burrell have also only seen minutes on the wing so far. That means that despite coming into the season with a 12-player roster (many teams only had space for 11), the Sparks only kept four bigs, one of whom was injured rookie Olivia Nelson-Ododa. It hasn’t really hurt them yet, but especially considering the injury history of Chiney Ogwumike and Liz Cambage it's remarkable to leave themselves that short on the inside. Maybe they’re comfortable with Walker or Samuelson as the emergency fifth big, but don't be surprised if someone like Amy Atwell is eventually sacrificed to add an extra insurance post.
The opening weeks of the WNBA season is always something of a scramble due to late arrivals and short training camp, and this year it's inevitably been heightened by players missing games due to entering health and safety protocols. It's reinforced how flexibility and the ability to play without a key player or two on any given night is going to be particularly important this year. For the real contenders, losing a star for a night or two isn't going to make the difference between making the playoffs or missing out - two-thirds of this league reaches the postseason, so if you're any good you should be making it regardless - but you have to learn how to handle these things. There's every chance that someone important could end up missing a playoff game, and their team needs to know how to succeed without them. Washington were pretty good last week, even when rookie point guard Rui Machida had to step in for Natasha Cloud. Seattle have dropped a couple of games, but are learning how they have to play without Breanna Stewart and Mercedes Russell (and who they can rely on to fill in). The team that wins the title is often the one that's stayed healthiest all year, but it's also about being able to handle the absences. Can your team cope?
You didn't think it was gone, did you? After a one-week absence, our closing segment covering those players who do all the dirty work that keeps teams ticking is back.
First up, a key role player in Seattle, Steph Talbot. Usually a wing player, Talbot's always been one of those reliable options that coaches find themselves going back to when perhaps more storied names aren't producing. Katie Lou Samuelson and Kennedy Burke were the players most expected to fill the hole left by Alysha Clark last season, but it was Talbot who did it most successfully, and she's the one still there when both those two are gone. This week, she illustrated her versatility by sliding over to the 4 in the absence of Breanna Stewart, being used as a primary defender on Tina Charles for long stretches of their second game against Phoenix. It's probably not where you want her against most opponents, but it opens up extra possible lineups, even once Stewart returns.
The video below shows the sort of complementary plays she can make, alongside shooting well from three. On the first one she forces Charles into a miss, grabs the board, and throws the lead pass to take Jewell Loyd in for a layup. Then there's a hustle rebound and a kick-out to Loyd for three. Then a spinning drive and dump pass for a Gabby Williams layup. It's work ethic teamed with skill, the essence of Clark's Corner.
There's definitely an argument to be made that Talbot's complementary skills would fit better at the three alongside Seattle's stars, allowing Gabby Williams to spend most of her time leading their second unit instead. But it doesn't really matter who starts. Between Talbot and Briann January, another regular in this section, the Storm's closing lineup is often going to be infiltrated by a key backup or two.
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How about a paragraph or two, within a month, on players released and not yet signed? Perhaps your perspective on their chances of getting signed this year or next? Start with Layshia Clarendon, one of my personal favorites.