The most exciting WNBA Free Agency period in league history is crawling to a close. Most free agents have found home and most teams have complete rosters. You know what that means? It’s time to jump to conclusions and judge each team’s moves without seeing the teams!
I graded teams based only what they did in this free agency period. C is the average grade and teams who didn’t actively make detrimental decisions but didn’t get any closer to their goals. Teams who got better (or got closer to accomplishing whatever they want to do) graded above a C and teams who got worse got below a C.
- Team salary and cap space figures are my own based on salaries reported by Winsidr and High Post Hoops. You can check out my complete cap sheets on Winsidr’s patreon for just $3 a month.
- I also will be expanding on these grades for Patreon after the draft in April and after training camp.
Los Angeles Sparks: A
- Acquisitions/Retentions: Chelsea Gray (re-signed 1-year max); Kristi Toliver (signed 3-year max); Seimone Augustus (signed 1-year, $110k); Tierra Ruffin-Pratt (re-signed by 2-year, $180k); Brittney Sykes, Marie Gulich (acquired from Atlanta for Kalani Brown)
- Departures: Alana Beard (retired); Alexis Jones (released); Marina Mabrey (traded to Dallas for 2021 second round pick); Kalani Brown (traded to Atlanta)
- Remaining free agents: Marianna Tolo (reserved)
- Training Camp Contracts: None
The Sparks had the best free agency period of any team after having the worst end to the 2019 in the WNBA. First, they traded for Brittney Sykes and Marie Gulich from Atlanta. Sykes will help take pressure off Candace Parker on defense as she ranked in the 74th percentile of defensive efficiency per Synergy Sports. Gulich can play as well and it just cost them Kalani Brown, who has more potential than production right now.
Then, the Sparks produced fireworks. (Somebody stop me.) Kristi Toliver unexpectedly left Washington and returned to LA on a three-year max deal. Toliver is already 33, but she had her best season ever in 2019 and her leadership will help the team almost as much her play will.
The only move more surprising than signing Toliver was bringing in Seimone Augustus. The face of the Minnesota Lynx and a living legend seemingly signed with the Sparks out of nowhere. I’m not sure what Seimone has left on the court (Mone, please read this and go wild). But she can make a big shot and help the team from the bench.
They also retained Chelsea Gray, the best point guard in the league (*ducks projectiles coming from Chicago and Seattle*), and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who will likely be more efficient coming off the bench. The Sparks did lose Alana Beard to retirement, but she couldn’t contribute that much in 2019. Losing the potential of Brown, Marina Mabrey, and Alexis Jones hurts their future plans a bit.
But when you have a chance to win a title, you have to go all in. That is exactly what the Sparks did. I love the aggressiveness and the fit of the players they signed. After last season, Head Coach Derek Fisher said that the whole franchise had to look at themselves in the mirror and find a way to improve. They did that in this free agency period. Now we’ll have to see if they improved enough to win the title.
Minnesota Lynx: D
- Acquisitions/Retentions: Rachel Banham (acquired from Connecticut for 2021 second round pick, signed 2-year, $203k)
- Departures: Danielle Robinson (signed with Vegas); Seimone Augustus (signed with LA); Maya Moore (sitting out 2020)
- Remaining free agents: Bridget Carleton (reserved); Temi Fagbenle (reserved); Anna Cruz (reserved)
- Training Camp Contracts: Cecilia Zandalasini (likely TC, will make team); Kayla Alexander; Linnae Harper
The Minnesota Lynx had the worst offseason of any team in the league. First, they struck out on big free agents Skylar Diggins-Smith, Kristi Toliver, and Dewanna Bonner. Then, as mentioned above, they lost the best player in franchise history in Seimone Augustus.
In an instagram video, Augustus explained that she didn’t want to leave the Lynx and the team hurt her feelings in some way, so she left. Basketball is a business. But it’s a business built on relationships and how you treat people matters. Letting Augustus go may not hurt the Lynx’s goals in 2020. But it will hurt their credibility with players, agents, and fans.
Forgive the NBA comparison, but the situation is reminiscent of Dwyane Wade’s departure from Miami in 2016. It shook the franchise to its core and put a black eye on its successes. Heat GM Pat Riley was wrong to diminish Wade’s contributions to the Heat to what he was worth in 2016. Similarly, Lynx head coach and GM Cheryl Reeve was wrong for not making Seimone clearly feel like the most important player in the franchise’s history.
Furthermore, the Lynx did NOTHING with the cap space saved from Augustus’s departure. They let Danielle Robinson go. Then, Minnesota traded a second round pick for Rachel Banham and paid her $203k over two years. Banham ranked in the 19th and 14th percentile of offensive and defensive efficiency respectively, per Synergy. She certainly won’t lift the Lynx into the 2020 title conversation.
They avoid getting an F by bringing back Cecilia Zandalasini (even though she couldn’t negotiate with other teams) and saving cap space for next year. Zandalasini has really grown her game in Europe and will get big minutes in 2020. Saving cap space is prudent but let’s not pretend Cheryl Reeve is playing 3-D chess or anything. Historically, It’s been hard to attract star free agents to Minnesota and 6 teams (Connecticut, Indiana, Vegas, LA, New York, Washington) have more cap space than the Lynx next year. It may all work for Reeve, but this free agency was a largely unmitigated failure.
New York Liberty: C+
- Acquisitions/Retentions: Layshia Clarendon (signed 2-year, $240k); Marine Johannes (signed 2-year, $138,040)
- Departures: Bria Hartley (signed with Phoenix)
- Remaining free agents: Tina Charles (core); Reshanda Gray (reserved); Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe (reserved)
- Training Camp Contracts: None
The Liberty’s grade is still incomplete because the Tina Charles situation and two important reserved free agents remain unresolved. Also, a lot of their offseason will be defined by the draft in April. But I’ll grade what they’ve done so far.
I love the Marine Johannes signing. She electrified in her limited time with New York last season. She scored 0.971 points per possession on 136 possession and ranked in the 93rd percentile for offensive efficiency, according to Synergy. Johannes (albeit on a tiny sample size) was the best spot up shooter in the league as a rookie! She held up on defense as well. The Libs locked her in for two years and have a chance to extend her next offseason if things go well.
I’m less excited about signing Layshia Clarendon. She is coming off a freak ankle injury and hasn’t been able to replicate her 2017 All-Star season over the past two seasons. At first, I felt her contract was a bit rich. I’m okay with it after seeing other player valuations because she’ll be a great mentor to the young Libs and won’t preclude future moves.
Bria Hartley left for a max deal in Phoenix. Hartley is a solid player, but she doesn’t make sense for the rebuilding Liberty and certainly not on a max deal. Again, this grade is incomplete and might change. But I think a C+ is appropriate because they made smart decisions but didn’t necessarily improve their team.
Phoenix Mercury: B-
- Acquisitions/Retentions: Skylar Diggins-Smith (sign-and-trade from Dallas, signed 4-year supermax); Brittney Griner (re-signed 3-year supermax); Bria Hartley (signed 3-year max); Jessica Breland, Nia Coffey (acquired from Atlanta)
- Departures: DeWanna Bonner (signed-and-traded to Connecticut); Briann January (traded to Connecticut); Leilani Mitchell (signed with Washington); Camille Little (retired)
- Remaining free agents: Essence Carson (UFA); Angel Robinson (reserved); Sonja Petrovic (reserved); Marta Xargay (reserved)
- Training Camp Contracts: Yvonne Turner (hurt), Kia Vaughn
I have talked so much about Phoenix’s offseason already. You can find my thoughts on DeWanna Bonner’s exit, the Skylar Diggins-Smith trade, and Bria Hartley’s contract on the front page of the site. To sum up all of that: Bonner leaving=bad, Trading for SDS=great, Hartley’s max contract=yikes. So please check that those pieces for deeper analysis of those moves. Here I want to talk about their other actions and if this team is closer to a title now then they were at the beginning of February.
Signing Brittney Griner is a no-brainer, but Phoenix gets extra credit for locking BG in for three years. They acquired Jessica Breland and Nia Coffey in the Courtney Williams deal. Breland has not produced well over the last two season. But she is a veteran and has played in the playoffs, which makes her by far the best option for Phoenix in the starting lineup. Coffey is an interesting project who will need to grow up quickly to be the team’s sixth woman.
Losing the backcourt of Leilani Mitchell and Briann January hurts, but was necessary once they signed Hartley. Would I rather have one of those two and about $60k in cap space rather than Hartley? Yes. But they did get assets for January at least (she was traded in the Courtney Williams deal as well).
So how much closer is Phoenix to a title? I’d say not much. Skylar Diggins-Smith is certainly great, but Bonner probably fits better with Diana Taurasi. They lack depth in a major way, are relying on very young players, and left themselves very little room to acquire some more help now or going forward. They may have one more signing left (perhaps Essence Carson or Tamera Young). However, no team will want to face the trio of SDS, Taurasi, and Griner in the playoffs. It’s just a matter of getting good enough seeding to make a run at the title, which I am dubious of right now.
Seattle Storm: B-
- Acquisitions/Retentions: Breanna Stewart (re-signed 2-year max); Sue Bird (re-signed 1-year supermax); Morgan Tuck (signed 2-year, $230k)
- Departures: Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (traded to CT for 2021 second rounder)
- Remaining free agents: Courtney Paris (UFA); Shavonte Zellous (UFA)
- Training Camp Contracts: Epiphanny Prince
The Storm didn’t do anything wrong. They just didn’t do much, so don’t look too closely at their grade. Re-signing Breanna Stewart is nice, especially to a two-year contract. She needed to sign for two years to be eligible for a supermax in 2022 after her 5th year of service. Similarly, re-signing Sue Bird is great. But I don’t think they deserve a ton of credit in this free agency period for drafting two transcendent players and creating a great culture around them. Seattle has gotten plenty of credit for that over the last 18 years in the form of three championships.
They traded four slots in April’s draft for Morgan Tuck and gave her a 2-year deal with the first year protected. Tuck won four NCAA championship with Breanna Stewart at UConn and Seattle wants to recapture some of that magic. She underwhelmed with the Sun, but showed flashes of her spot up ability and defensive prowess. She can play the 3 in theory, even though she’s best at power forward.
Either way, she can fill Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis’s role more efficiently than KML did in 2019. Mosqueda-Lewis was traded to Connecticut for a second rounder in 2021. Both players probably needed a change of scenery to refresh their careers. I (and Seattle) would rather have Tuck though.
Factoring in the 10th draft pick, they have room for one more free agent signing around $110k. That might be reserved for Shavonte Zellous, but at this point it’s a guessing game. Regardless, Seattle is betting that they can replicate their 2018 championship magic. With Stewie, Sue Bird, sudden MVP candidate Natasha Howard, and a group of smart, talented veterans, I’d say it’s a pretty smart bet.
Washington Mystics: C-
- Acquisitions/Retentions: Elena Delle Donne (re-signed 4-year supermax contract); Emma Meesseman (re-signed 1-year supermax contract); Leilani Mitchell (signed 2-year, $250,500 contract)
- Departures: Kristi Toliver (signed with LA)
- Remaining free agents: Kim Mestdagh (UFA)
- Training Camp Contracts: Lee-Seul Kang
The reigning WNBA Champs had a more eventful off-season than I expected. Washington came into free agency with the most star studded group of free agents in the league: Elena Delle Donne, Emma Meesseman, and Kristi Toliver. But they were expected to keep all three of them.
Unfortunately, Kristi Toliver bolted for LA as I discussed above. Losing Toliver is a huge blow to the Mystics but it’s not necessarily a bad move. The Mystics needed to keep their cap space open over the next two years for Latoya Sanders, Natasha Cloud, Aerial Powers (expiring after this season), and Ariel Atkins (expiring after 2021). Toliver’s max deal would have made keeping all of those player impossible.
DC signed Leilani Mitchell from Phoenix to ameliorate the loss of Toliver. Mitchell became the first WNBA player to win the Most Improved Player Award twice last season. She can replicate a lot of Toliver did on the court as a shooter and defender. She’s not quite the creator that Toliver is, but she’s faster and better in transition. Getting her on a declining two-year contract is the best that DC could have done, in my opinion.
EDD signed a four-year supermax deal, which is great and expected. However, Emma Meesseman re-signed for just 1 season and wants to “take stock of everything” after 2020. This is concerning not just for the Mystics but for the WNBA. Meesseman could leave the WNBA to play in Europe full-time or just retire from basketball. If she does play in the WNBA in 2021, it will most likely be with DC since they can core designate her.
The Mystics get a C- because the team got slightly worse and Meesseman didn’t sign long-term (even though that’s not necessarily their fault). Regardless, Washington is still a title contender as long as Elena Delle Donne is in the picture and healthy.