We’re in the endgame now. After two insane weeks of WNBA Free Agency, the dust is settling. Most teams are done making moves outside of filling out their training camp rosters. A bombshell or two could be on the way (*stares at Tina Charles*). But we largely know what most rosters will look like in 2020. Now we can begin ranking teams and asking the big questions for each roster.
My criteria for the team’s biggest question is what issue will most impact the team’s ability to win the 2020 WNBA Championship (or complete whatever other goals they may have). These questions don’t necessarily relate to team-building issues, like cap room, contracts, or further free agency signings. It’s all about how teams complete their 2020 goals and the biggest impediments to those goals.
NOTE: I had to break this up into two parts because of length. I did by using last year’s standings and started with the top 6 teams. The bottom 6 teams will be featured in part 2, dropping very soon.
Washington Mystics: How do they replace Kristi Toliver?
After one of her best season ever, Kristi Toliver left the Nation’s Capital for Los Angeles. As great of a move as it is for the Sparks, Toliver’s departure leaves a big void for DC. They have to replace not only Toliver’s 13 points and 6 assists per game, but also Toliver’s off-court leadership.
Head Coach Mike Thibault’s direct solution was signing Leilani Mitchell. Mitchell brings a lot of the same skills as Toliver. She’s an excellent shooter and pick-and-roll ballhandler. She isn’t quite the creator that Toliver is, but played better on defense and in transition last season.
Coach T will also need to rely on his young players to make up for Toliver’s absence. Ariel Atkins and Aerial Powers need to step up even more after breakout years in 2019. The duo may start together and create a very scary defensive lineup with Natasha Cloud, EDD, and Latoya Sanders. Shatori Walker-Kimbrough will need to step up with increased opportunity. After missing all of last season, Kiara Leslie will get a chance to prove herself. Personally, I believe these players will step up and make up for Toliver’s production.
However, replicating her off-court impact will be difficult. The team had near perfect chemistry last season. Mitchell is a vet and the rest of last year’s team grew immensely in the championship run. Still, it’s very hard to predict how Toliver’s departure will affect the locker room.
Connecticut Sun: How do they get over the hump?
The Sun had a rollercoaster of an offseason. They acquired DeWanna Bonner and Briann January from Phoenix (in separate deals). But Connecticut lost Courtney Williams, Shekinna Stricklen, Layshia Clarendon, Rachel Banham, and Morgan Tuck.
The Sun got more talented with Bonner but they also lost key cogs from 2019. They need to improve from last year’s stellar season to win a title because of the moves made by other contenders. So where does that improvement come from?
They ranked 5th in defensive rating in 2019 by giving up 96.8 points per 100 possessions. Subbing Bonner and January for Williams and Stricklen should make the defense stronger. But the points per possession stats suggest it won’t be a giant leap forward. Bonner is an excellent offensive player and should keep the offense humming. But she (and January) probably can’t make up for losing Williams in terms of shot creation. Obviously the fit and chemistry of this team could push them to new heights. But at least on paper, they aren’t SO much better than last season.
If all their moves make them only slightly better than 2019, the Sun will need growth from their young players. Bria Holmes got a nice payday (1-year, $130k) after a pretty average offensive year in 2019. But Holmes could improve with greater opportunity (as she showed in Atlanta) and she adds a lot defensively. Natisha Heideman and Brionna Jones showed flashes last season. They need to be consistently good to push Connecticut over the top.
Las Vegas Aces: Where’s the spacing?
Every offensive statistic: “Three-pointers are good and necessary for a top-level offense.” Las Vegas Aces:
That’s an exaggeration, but not by much. In 2019, the Aces finished last in the league in three point attempts by a wide margin. They brought in Angel McCoughtry, who is one of the best players in league history and a career 28.6% three-point shooter. McCoughtry does almost all of her work in the paint and in the mid-range. That’s great, but it’s also true for Liz Cambage, A’ja Wilson, Jackie Young, Danielle Robinson, and Dearica Hamby. Bill Laimbeer will have to figure out a way to get these players space to operate.
Giving Kelsey Plum the keys to the offense as a point guard will help. In the playoffs, Plum played great in that role and opened up the team’s spacing. Kayla McBride and Sugar Rodgers returning will also help. But there will be increased pressure on all three to play from the outside and potentially hurt their ability to drive to the basket.
Laimbeer figured it out last year with similar challenges, but finding spacing will be even more difficult in 2020.
Los Angeles Sparks: How will Derek Fisher manage this star-studded roster?
The Sparks will come into the 2020 season with one of the most talented rosters in league history. LA added Kristi Toliver and Seimone Augustus to the group of Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Chelsea Gray (who is expected to re-sign soon), and Chiney Ogwumike. They also brought in Brittney Sykes and Marie Gulich. In short, WOW.
The challenge for head coach Derek Fisher will be to ensure that the team has chemistry on and off the court. The starting lineup will likely feature Gray, Toliver, Sykes, Parker, and Nneka with Chiney coming off the bench first. Gray and Parker will orchestrate the offense with the rest cutting and moving off of them. This should work well.
But Fisher has a lot of mouths to feed. Players will have to sacrifice numbers to make it work. Fisher will have to figure out how to handle end of game situations both in terms of who’s playing and who’s taking the last shot.
All of this bleeds over into the locker room. When players feel they aren’t getting enough minutes or shots, they tend to become disgruntled (like any of us would). It’ll be precarious situation for Fisher. He had well-documented issues in the playoffs last year. But he and the team have seemingly moved on. In 2020, Fisher will have to be perfect to make sure the team gels.
Chicago Sky: Does Diamond DeShields make the leap in 2020?
The Sky are essentially running it back in 2020. Chicago acquired Azura Stevens from Dallas in exchange for Katie Lou Samuelson and a 2021 first-rounder. They also lost Astou Ndour to the Wings and replaced the injured Jamierra Faulker with free agent Sydney Colson. Stevens has a lot of potential and could raise the team’s ceiling, especially considering that Samuelson didn’t contribute much in 2019. But she’s coming off a foot injury so I don’t want to overestimate her impact yet.
Even with a healthy productive Stevens, the Sky are largely the same group from last year. But like I mentioned with Connecticut above, every other contending team in the league got better for 2020 or was already better than Chicago in 2019. So where does Chicago get better from last year to keep up with their competition? To me, the answer is Diamond DeShields.
Diamond had a breakout second-season where she made the All-Star Game. Earlier this offseason, she proclaimed herself the “best guard in the league.” Chicago will need that to be true.
She lead the league in total defensive possessions and ranked 4th in total offensive possession, so she doesn’t need more opportunities. DeShields just needs to be more efficient. She ranked in the 64th percentile on offense and 47th percentile on defense in terms of points per possession, per Synergy. To be the superstar that Chicago needs, DeShields needs to take better shots, turn the ball over less, and stick with her assignments off-ball. At just 24 years old, DeShields not only could make those improvements but is expected to.
Courtney Vandersloot played at an MVP-level last season. Allie Quigley is an All-Star. Stefanie Dolson, Gabby Williams, and Jantel Lavender help make up a very good supporting cast. But the Sky will go as far as DeShields take them.
Seattle Storm: Can they be better than they were in 2018?
They’re back! Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird are returning to the Storm after missing all of 2019. Stewart is coming off a torn achilles suffered right before last season. While a torn achilles is possibly the scariest injury for a basketball player, we can reasonably expect the 2018 MVP to get back to 100% at just 25 years old (BY GOD). Bird is on the other end of the aging curve at 39 and has knee issues. But she’s Sue fricking Bird.
The superstar duo comes back to a team full of familiar faces. The Storm essentially swapped Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis for Morgan Tuck from Connecticut (in separate trades). The two fill different roles, but largely replace each other. Courtney Paris is probably on the way out and Shavonte Zellous may be too. Other than those three players, most of the 2018 core including Jewell Loyd, Alysha Clark, and Natasha Howard, is still in Seattle.
But the dynamics of the team have changed since that championship run. Natasha Howard had a breakout season where she averaged 18 points and 8 rebounds and finished 5th in MVP voting. Jordin Canada proved to be a defensive monster by leading the league in steals per game. Alysha Clark (48.1% on 106 three point attempts) and Sami Whitcomb (34.2% on 184 threes) showed their value as knock down shooters. Mercedes Russell was one of the most improved players in the league.
All of this sounds great. Just add the best (*Mystics fans scream* “second-best!”) player in the world and the greatest point guard in league history to this group and they will roll to the title, right? The Storm might just do that. But it will also be a huge challenge for Dan Hughes. It isn’t so much of a locker room issue (as I talked about with LA) because these players have all played together and won a title as a unit.
The challenge is maximizing all of these players and putting together lineups where each can shine. Last season, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. In 2020, Seattle will need to make adjustments to avoid the opposite issue.