WNBA Dissected: Divorces, drama and more from 2021 Week 8
Players exiting, arriving, arguing and quarterbacking around the WNBA this week
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1. Conscious Uncoupling
Just as last week's column was coming out, news of the latest roster moves around the WNBA was starting to emerge. Both Kiah Stokes in New York and Candice Dupree in Seattle had guaranteed contracts, which meant that the midpoint of the season - where unprotected deals become guaranteed for the rest of the year - was irrelevant. When teams want to release a player with guaranteed money but are hoping to save some cash (and cap space), you often end up with a discussion of what the WNBA calls a 'divorce agreement'. It's essentially a buyout, but this league has a strange fondness for awkward terms that confuse and occasionally upset people. The player is perfectly within their rights to say no, in which case the team would either have to keep the player or waive them for the full value of their guaranteed money. But players are often willing to give a little back if they know a new deal is waiting for them elsewhere, or if the idea of being paid a little less to do nothing is preferable to being paid in full to stay in shape and play basketball where you're not wanted.
Stokes fell into the former category. Being willing to accept $45,000 as a buyout for a contract that was originally nearly $110,000 seems like a steep discount, but she'd already missed 20 days of the season via absences (cutting around $23,000 off the top) and she knew there was a new deal waiting for her in Las Vegas. Between the $35,200 the Aces gave her (very slightly more than her applicable prorated minimum, which was nice of them) and the playoff bonuses she's much more likely to receive in Vegas, she won't be giving much up. Plus there's obviously a significantly increased chance of winning a championship.
Dupree was a little different. As I anticipated back in February, her short tenure in Seattle was essentially a disaster. They tried her as the starter alongside Breanna Stewart and quickly gave up on that idea. She was then largely ineffective off the bench. The Storm, unsurprisingly, didn't really need someone whose only real skill at this point is taking mid-range jump shots, and who wasn't even hitting all that many of them (44% from the field on low volume, after a career around 50%). Dupree was on a $170,000 contract, which I considered a pretty ridiculous overpay when they gave it to her, and accepted $142,000 as her 'divorce' settlement. That's an important saving for the Storm, because it leaves them the cap room to do something with her roster spot rather than just having to play with 11, but it’s still a lot of money in WNBA terms.
Unlike Stokes, Dupree doesn't appear to have a new gig lined up. At 4th on the all-time WNBA scoring list, she's obviously been a very productive offensive player over her career and built up a lot of goodwill over the years. However, I've been somewhat mystified by the amount of discussion I've seen of her potential new destination, or confidence about how she'll walk into a spot somewhere else. A team trying to win back-to-back titles, who desperately need a backup post, just paid her $142,000 to go away. Other teams are going to come running to add that player? Her on-court/off-court numbers in Seattle were ugly, with a -4.5 net rating on the floor (for a team that regularly blows opponents out), and a +19.3 when she was on the bench. She hasn't had a positive +/- for a season since leaving Phoenix after 2016 (and has the third-worst cumulative career +/- in league history, if we really want to pluck out the negative numbers).
With contracts recently guaranteed for the season and most teams lacking in both cap space and roster spots, there are also several franchises that literally can't sign her even if they wanted to. Coaches always tend to prefer veterans who they've seen perform for years at WNBA-level, so there's still a possibility someone gives her a call. But I think there's a good chance that we've already seen Candice Dupree's final minutes in the WNBA.
2. Go Long
It's been delightful having Sabrina Ionescu back to something resembling her best in the last couple of New York games, and she put on a passing show on Monday night. Dallas won't be too happy with their transition defense, but have a look at these:
Anyone who's ever played full court basketball will know that those aren't easy passes. First you have to have the vision to see that your teammate is beating the defense down the floor, then the bravery to instinctively throw the pass, and then you have to execute it. There's a small window to drop that ball into so that it gets over the defense and falls for the runner so they can finish, without carrying them out of bounds.
It's no coincidence that the best practitioners of this kind of pass in the WNBA are the preeminent point guards. The likes of Sue Bird, Courtney Vandersloot and Chelsea Gray constantly have their heads up to look for plays like this, and then the touch to make the pass. She went through a rocky patch this season, at least in part due to injury, but Ionescu is well on her way towards joining that elite group.
3. Dream Drama
First off, I have no idea what's going on in the Atlanta Dream locker room. I've seen the same reports, rumors, denials and social media nonsense that all of you have probably run into since Sunday night. Atlanta was playing in Las Vegas, where Chennedy Carter reportedly had some kind of argument with a teammate during a first-quarter timeout. She was in the game until the end of that first quarter, sat on the bench for the whole of the second, and then didn't emerge after halftime. I've checked the video like it's the Zapruder film and can't find anything much more than that.
Dream PR stated during the game that Carter would not return but was not hurt, which was a strange thing to announce publicly during a game and opened up all sorts of discussion and speculation. Carter was then suspended until further notice on Tuesday for conduct detrimental to the team. Courtney Williams put out some tweets about being brought up to respect vets and coaches whether you agree with them or not, but that's about it for genuine information. Speculation has inevitably been rife.
Carter has always carried herself with the kind of confidence and swagger that tends to rub some people the wrong way, especially when that player's young and coming into a team with other strong personalities. She's also not the only one on the Dream roster who's had conflicts over the course of her career. Courtney Williams's clash with Alex Bentley in Connecticut led to Bentley being traded and Williams’s exit from the Sun was somewhat acrimonious, for example. Especially given that a lot of their strong personalities are high-usage ball-handling guards who were also going to be competing for playing time and shots, it's perhaps not a complete surprise that something like this eventually happened.
The drama and the suspension has inevitably led to a lot of discussion about potential trades for Carter. If the Dream see her as more trouble than she's worth, maybe it would be time for everyone to move on. The problem is coming up with a deal that would satisfy all sides. Plenty of teams would be happy to acquire a scoring guard who can create her own shot, was 47% from the field and 38% from three as a rookie, and still has over two years left on a cheap rookie-scale deal. But the baggage of recent events and what's becoming an attached reputation inevitably hurts her value. Talent trumps baggage in sports, as we've seen countless times over the years in the people who've been given second, third, fourth and gazillionth chances. The next team will always think they're the ones who can get through to the player who's had issues elsewhere. But they'll pay less to acquire them. Atlanta would want relatively equitable value for a 22-year-old potential all-star who can lead an offense; everyone else would be looking to steal her on the cheap.
Who would even be carrying out the trade? The Atlanta Dream franchise has been rather unsettled this season off the court. There wasn't much the new ownership group could do about Nicki Collen walking away right before the season began to take the Baylor job, but a couple of weeks before that they had fired team president and general manager Chris Sienko. He's never really been replaced, and with Mike Petersen as an interim head coach there appears to be a lack of clear leadership at multiple levels. None of this can have helped with any simmering tension amongst the players, all of whom will be well aware that Petersen is unlikely to be in charge by the start of next season (having said himself that he doesn’t want to be the long-term head coach).
Next year and beyond is also key to why the Dream wouldn't want to give up on Carter unless they've decided her personality and attitude is truly impossible to tolerate. Most of their roster become free agents at the end of the season, so trading Carter away when her value is low to try to make other players happy might not be a great idea. Several of those other players could walk away for nothing at the end of the season anyway. Carter was meant to be a building block for the future, whether those teammates stuck around or not. With only a few days left until the Olympic break, the Dream will be hoping that everyone can cool off and they can bring Carter back into the fold. Or at least that the trade offers might improve a little once the drama recedes in our collective memories.
4. All-Star Podcast (that also discussed all-stars)
With Team USA using it as an Olympic warm-up, this year's version of the All-Star game might actually be a little more interesting to me than the typically terrible excuse for basketball that we see at these events. However, the most interesting part of all-star events in any sport is always the discussion around who deserves to make the game, not the game itself.
In a recent Her Hoop Stats podcast, Megan Gauer, ESPN's Kevin Pelton and myself discussed who would make the game if it had been played under standard rules. There were also plenty of tangents along the way, including discussion of this year's actual system and the players selected. There was a surprising amount of agreement, but a surprising difference of opinion or two as well. Is Candace Parker an All-Star this year? Is Satou Sabally? Am I now on the opposite side of Skylar Diggins-Smith debates? Did Andrea Stinson and Allison Feaster come up for some reason? Listen in to find out at Apple, Google, or wherever you get your podcasts.
5. Lineup Minutiae
They've probably appeared the most in this section of the column over the course of the season, so it seems appropriate to talk about the Dallas Wings when Vickie Johnson appears to have made some decisions. After a season where a lot of players have seen a lot of minutes, last Friday night seemed to mark an inflection point. Johnson finally benched rookie center Charli Collier, going small with Kayla Thornton and Satou Sabally inside and adding Allisha Gray to Moriah Jefferson and Arike Ogunbowale on the perimeter. We then saw a much greater willingness to leave both Jefferson and Tyasha Harris on the bench and let a combination of Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey run the offense. The rotation in general was much tighter for the next couple of games, with seven players taking the vast majority of the minutes.
Collier didn't play at all in that first game where she was removed from the lineup, then briefly came in against New York before a couple of poor possessions saw her return swiftly to the bench. Bella Alarie, who's been vastly better than Collier defensively but offers virtually nothing on the offensive end, has also been practically iced out.
After being down by 30 early against Chicago in Collier's final game as a starter (they made it closer, but never entirely recovered), the Wings beat Chicago in the rematch a couple of days later with their new lineup. The loss to New York that followed took the shine off that, but I like that Johnson is starting to flex her muscles as a head coach. A ten-player rotation is hard to maintain, and especially when the numbers say it just isn't working - as they have been with Collier for much of the season - decisions have to be made. It looks like we're finally seeing some in Dallas, and it should be positive for their chances this season. [Author’s note: This section was written before last night’s game, when Collier was back in the lineup and 10 players once again shared the minutes fairly evenly. The changes may not have been as permanent as anticipated.]
6. Clark's Corner
I don't want to encourage plays like this, because someone's going to get themselves killed, but it's an illustration of one of the many reasons to love Jazmine Jones:
Not everything she does may work out perfectly, but you are going to get every possible fraction of what Jones has to give. There's a constant energy and enthusiasm about her play (and even her attitude while on the bench) that's infectious. You need players like that, who constantly keep everyone up for the fight and make things happen with their effort as much as their skill. Which isn't to say that she's without skill. Jones is shooting 43% from three-point range this season, still slashing to the rim whenever given the chance, and was a big part of the recent Liberty win over Dallas in the game where she went vaulting into the stands in that clip above.
She's still not a point guard, and the Liberty seem to be increasingly realizing that this season with Whitcomb and Laney doing much of the ball-handling when Ionescu rests, but Jones is carving out a place for herself in this league. It rarely gets you anywhere on its own, but effort is a skill, and a valuable one.