The best and worst moves of WNBA Free Agency

WNBA Free Agency rolls on into week 2. But most of the big signings or trades have already happened, so it’s time to take stock. I’m picking my best and worst moves based on a few questions. First, does a move push a team into contention for the WNBA title or does it pull them further away from it? Second, did the team properly value the player they acquired? Third, does the move fit into a cohesive vision of the team’s future? Feel free to fight me on Twitter, @gabe_ibrahim, over any of these opinions.

Best Moves

1. Connecticut picks up DeWanna Bonner

Anytime you get a player like DeWanna Bonner, you’ll probably be winning the off-season. Bonner was the best player on the market and fit on every roster in the league. You can read my initial reactions to the trade here and Justin Carter’s breakdown about what she will bring the Sun on the court here.

Bonner was an unrestricted free agent, so she could have just signed with the Sun outright. But the Sun had to trade for her because Bonner rightfully wanted her supermax contract (4 years, $889k) and could only get from her former team or through a sign-and-trade. The Sun gave up three first-round picks up for the three-time All Star. They traded their 2020 first-rounder (10th), Seattle’s 2020 first (7th), and their 2021 first. Connecticut got Seattle’s pick by signing-and-trading Morgan Tuck to the Storm.

It’s a steep price, certainly. But credit to the Sun for engineering the Tuck move and trusting that DeWanna wanted to be in Connecticut. Bonner is 32 years old and her play will likely decline by the end of the deal. But at least for next year, the move could push Connecticut from runners-up to champions so it wins the offseason.

[NOTE: this was written before Connecticut traded Courtney Williams. I still believe Connecticut is a title contender]

2. Skylar Diggins-Smith ends up with Phoenix

Skylar Diggins-Smith actually has a more extensive resume than Bonner and some could reasonably argue that she’s a more impactful player. But the move ranks below the Bonner because I think Bonner gets Connecticut closer to a title than Skylar gets Phoenix.

You can read my deep dive into the trade for a more extensive look. Basically, the Mercury turned their return for Bonner into Diggins-Smith. Phoenix gave up their 2020 first (5th overall), Connecticut’s first (10th), and their own 2021 pick (which actually makes Skylar slightly more valuable than Bonner). The picks along with Skylar’s four-year supermax deal worth $889k is a lot to give up. But Skylar has been superstar in this league on and off the court. You pay what you need to get that sort of player.

Diggins-Smith is one of the best pick and roll ball handlers in the league. Teaming her up with one of the best pick and roll finishers in the league in Brittney Griner is brilliant. She will also be playing with one of the best to ever do it in Diana Taurasi. The offense will need adjusting and I’m concerned about their defense against top competition. But replacing Bonner with Skylar keeps Phoenix in the title hunt.

3. Kristi Toliver signs with LA

The rich get richer. With this signing, the Sparks can trout out a lineup of Chelsea Gray (2019 All-WNBA), Kristi Toliver (2019 All-Star), Chiney Ogwumike (2018 All-Star), Candace Parker (ALL OF THE AWARDS), and Nneka Ogwumike (2019 All-Star, 2016 MVP). They’d still have Brittney Sykes, Riquana Williams, and a host of other quality players on the bench. That is, as the kids say, LIT. (Please let me know if that’s not correct anymore.)

My biggest concern in LA was how the coaching staff would get past the ugly ending to their 2019 season and better communicate with the team. Kristi Toliver, a literal NBA coach, should help with that. Oh and she’s a stone cold killer who just played a crucial role on the championship team.

Toliver is going to fit perfectly in the starting lineup, either shooting off Gray, Sykes, Ogwumike, and Parker dishes or running the offense. She can also lead a backup unit, which she did at times in DC. The Sparks signed her to a three-year minimax deal worth $571,817 total (starts at $185k). Toliver is 33, so she might not be worth the deal in 2022. But she’s pissed off, had her best season ever in 2019, and is exactly what this team needed.

Worst Moves

1. Bria Hartley gets a max deal in Phoenix

This section is longer than the others because I haven’t had a chance to talk about the Hartley deal yet, so let me preface this by saying that Bria Hartley is a good WNBA player with the potential to be very good. Her stats in New York underwhelmed. But it was a tough situation offensively and her stats should improve elsewhere. If you want a more pro-Hartley take, check out what Ben Dull said about the move in his free agency tracker.

But I don’t like this move from three perspectives. First, the Mercury needed to maximize their 2020 championship chances. Diana Taurasi might be in her final year, Brittney Griner remains an enigma as far as how long she will play in the WNBA, and Skylar will turn 30 in August.

Is Bria Hartley the player who pushes them over the top in 2020? I don’t think so. In her six-year career, she has never averaged double-digit points or more than 3.6 assists per game on decently high usage numbers. Hartley is a good defender and should fit nicely next to Skylar or off the bench. But she has yet to elevate her team’s play on defense. In fact, the Liberty had a better defensive rating with Hartley on the bench over the past 3 seasons. Also, she’s only played in four playoff games ever.

If she doesn’t make them champions in 2020, Phoenix must love her upside and want to lock her into this core. But Hartley is 27 so I don’t know how much growth can they realistically expect. Hypothetically, she fits very well with Skylar, Taurasi and Griner if they go small. But there are a lot of players that can fit that role next to three superstars that cost less. Essentially, giving Hartley all this money over 3 years precludes Phoenix from acquiring more stars in the future.

Lastly, you may ask “well what else would the Mercury have done?” That’s the hard part with all this. Phoenix wanted to build this team in 2020 and not wait. Hartley may have had reasonable max offers elsewhere. Fair enough.

But rushing into the Hartley deal means they can’t get proven role players with playoff experience, which is a requirement to winning a championship. The Mercury would have likely been better off giving Leilani Mitchell and Glory Johnson the contracts they got elsewhere. Unrestricted free agents Tamera Young and Essence Carson would also fit in this team. There may have been complications with those moves. But the point is that Phoenix had options.

See Also

Look, none of this matters if Hartley falls right into the perfect role and grows into the player that Phoenix sees in her. She very well could do just that. But Phoenix is taking a huge gamble on Hartley big time and gave up a lot of flexibility.

2. Danielle Robinson signs in Las Vegas

Signing DRob would be a fine move for other teams. Despite a rough tenure with Minnesota, she’s a plus defender and a solid backup point guard. She averaged 10.1 points, 3.7 assists, and 3.5 rebounds last season. Robinson finished the year with a 49.7% true shooting percentage, which is actually better than Bria Hartley’s. Vegas also signed her for just one season and maintains flexibility going forward.

That’s all okay. However, she does not fit in Las Vegas for one main reason: Danielle Robinson cannot shoot the three ball. She posted her best three-point shooting year in 2019 by hitting 22% of her 41 attempts. That’s awful. With Angel McCoughtry coming in, Vegas needed spacing and shooting around their stars (Angel, A’ja Wilson, and Liz Cambage). Robinson provides neither of those things.

She also struggled in transition as she scored just 0.748 points per transition possession according Synergy Sports Tech. Vegas loved to run last year and Robinson could cost them some points in that area. It may end up that Robinson just doesn’t play that much. It’s a low-risk move, but it makes very little sense and makes me question if Vegas even has a plan.

3. Atlanta sends Brittney Sykes and Marie Gulich to LA for Kalani Brown

I also already wrote about this trade. As the Bachelor’s Victoria Fuller would say, I was “in a mood” about what Atlanta gave up in the deal. I’ve slightly warmed up to the idea of it. The Dream’s locker room desperately needed change after a disastrous 2019 season. Sykes was slightly redundant with their roster and had just one more year on her contract. Kalani Brown plays a premium position and has a lot of potential.

My problems are two-fold. I’m not as high on Brown in Atlanta as others are. She has really nice size and pedigree. She defended post-ups very well last year, giving up just 0.714 points per possession on 42 post-up possessions in 2019. But she struggled finishing at the rim on offense and looked out of sorts on that end. Plus, she doesn’t fit at all with Elizabeth Williams and may end up not getting the minutes she needs to develop.

I also dislike giving up Marie Gulich for nothing in this deal. I highly doubt Gulich was a problem in the locker room and she has potential to be a good, modern center. LA did not have the leverage in this deal. They needed Sykes as a low-cost wing on a stacked roster. But LA got Gulich and plans to use her. If LA with all their depth could use Gulich, I fail to see how Atlanta couldn’t. Therefore, Atlanta gave up the best player in the trade (Sykes) and gave up the most assets. It’s a bad value trade, but not that damaging ultimately.

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