2021 Free Agency Rankings, Part Three

Winsidr has decided to rank the 2021 free agent class. You can find parts one and two below:

PART ONE: 11-20 (plus our rules outline)

PART TWO: 6-10

Today, we present the top five 2021 unrestricted free agents. For more around-the-clock coverage of the WNBA, please consider joining our illustrious group of Patreon subscribers!

We made it. After hours of deliberation, rumination, and tweaking, it’s finally time to present Winsidr’s top five 2021 unrestricted free agents. Let’s talk hoops!

  1. Natasha Howard

People still don’t seem to grasp the value Howard brings to Seattle. Once a narrative gains steam, it’s hard to place it back in the box. Howard’s early performances in the Wubble were scattered. Where she excelled in an expanded offensive role in 2019, she struggled to acclimate to her once-again reduced role early in 2020. People began asking, “what’s wrong with Natasha Howard?” And that was it. Season over. A disappointment, per Twitter. 

Odd. In many ways, Howard was better in 2020 than she was in 2019. She took about half as many shots, but increased her field goal percentage by nine points and her three-point percentage by four. In Game 2 of the WNBA Finals, she scored 21 points on 9-of-10 shooting, adding 8 rebounds and 2 blocks. She knew exactly what was needed of her when the Storm had the ball, and never seemed to overstep. 

Defensively, the narrative that “Howard fell off!” is a complete and utter fallacy. Per Player Impact Plus-Minus, Howard has been an elite defender for half-a-decade. 2020 was no exception. Our friends at Her Hoop Stats provide the cold hard proof. Since 2016, Howard has finished in the top five in defensive win shares per 40 minutes. Her year-end placements in chronological order? 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 3rd, and 1st. Huh. 

When Seattle plays Los Angeles, it’s Howard who guards Candace Parker. In the Finals, it was Howard who guarded A’ja Wilson as Breanna Stewart conserved energy on Carolyn Swords. Do people hate their own eyes? Stewart is an above-average defender, but she often receives credit for things Howard and Alysha Clark are doing on the defensive end. 

This is a fun one because it’s Los Angeles’s first offensive possession of the game. Candace Parker tries to ease into the flow. Howard refuses to acquiesce, smothering Parker with her long, active arms. 

Then there’s the obvious: Howard plays center, helping, not hurting your spacing. That’s a major draw. New York is dedicated to developing Kylee Shook, but what if it wants to make the playoffs in Sabrina Ionescu’s “sophomore” season? Nabbing Howard (or No. 3 on this list) would improve New York’s chances immeasurably. 

That said, Seattle would be foolish to let Howard (or Clark) walk. 

 

  1. Nneka Ogwumike 

You know what struck me as curious? When, this summer, Winsidr asked the 12 WNBA head coaches which player is the best leader in the league. 11 named Sue Bird. One named Ogwumike. 

The following isn’t a knock on Bird, who’s the all-time leader in games played and provides everything you could ever ask for from a floor general. It’s just that folks seem to hear the word “leader” and instantly draw a connotation to the point guard position. What is Nneka Ogwumike doing if not leading every second she’s on the floor? Forget for a second that Ogwumike is the President of the Player’s Union, far more important than her colossal role on the court. When Ogwumike is in uniform, she makes fewer missteps than just about anyone in the WNBA. I challenge you to watch any Sparks game from the last few seasons and point out an erroneous move made by the Los Angeles center. They simply don’t occur. 

Look what happened to the Sparks when Ogwumike missed this year’s one-game playoff against Connecticut. The team crumbled, despite Candace Parker’s best efforts. There’s a stability Ogwumike provides on both ends that her teammates heavily rely upon. 

Ogwumike is a beacon of efficiency. Her true shooting percentage exceeded 63 percent in 2020, per Across the Timeline. She only took one three-pointer per game in the Wubble, but hit half of them. She made the All-Defensive Team four times, in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2019. 

Above is a perfect illustration of the intelligence required to be an elite WNBA defender. Ogwumike denies entry to Brittney Griner in semi-transition as Parker scurries back into the frame. Parker recovers and takes Griner, leaving Ogwumike to pick up Brianna Turner. Parker, too, fronts Griner, only this time the entry pass is not denied. Watch Ogwumike anticipate how the play is going to unfold before it actually does. When Skylar Diggins-Smith rotates the ball to the corner, Ogwumike takes a step into the restricted area, straying farther from Turner. She understands that one more pass and Griner is looking at a wide-open layup/dunk. That’s exactly what happens, only Ogwumike slides into position with celerity and is waiting, completely vertical when Griner turns to hoist her shot. The ball acts as if laced with rim-repellent. 

Another thing I love watching Ogwumike do on the court: seal folks so deeply in the post that they’re practically standing behind the basket, utterly helpless. There’s a reason Ogwumike is so efficient, and it’s because she’s constantly putting herself in situations that maximize her effectiveness. 

To me, there is no better leader in the sport than number 30 from Tomball, Texas. 

 

  1. Liz Cambage

Every list has a wild card. Liz Cambage is that wild card. Many feel Cambage is only willing to sign with a select few WNBA teams. It’s impossible to know for sure, so I refuse to waste time speculating. If that’s the case, she’s more than earned that right. This is a dominant, “can go off for 50 points in a single game” type player we’re dealing with here. 

Cambage is hands down the best post player in the WNBA. No one is better at bullying opponents on the block and creating scoring chances around the basket. She is a one-person offense. 

Here’s the problem: Cambage’s main contention for the premier post player crown shares the frontcourt with her in Las Vegas. Spacing-wise, it’s a pair that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. A’ja Wilson doesn’t shoot threes. Cambage does, but opponents are more than happy to concede those looks. Downright giddy, even. Cambage is consistently among the league leaders in free throws attempted, so anything that eases the burden on those tasked with guarding her is greatly appreciated by opposing coaches. 

At this point, you’re probably tired of hearing me nominate New York as a potential destination for those on this list. I get it, only the Liberty have both the cap space and the need for players like Cambage on their roster. How fun would a four-around-Liz offense be in the Big Apple? Why wouldn’t Cambage want to play in an uncluttered lane? 

The faulty fit in Las Vegas isn’t Cambage’s fault. Two-way value is the barrier holding her from the top of this list. It’s not that she’s a bad defender. Far from it. The 29-year-old is a top-level shot blocker who more than holds her own in the post. But Cambage can be exploited in space by teams who stray smaller than the 2019 Aces tended to. The top two players on this list are equally dominant on both ends. Cambage is someone you acquire because she can score in bundles. The perfectly adequate to slightly above-average defense is an added plus, not the selling point. 

On the other hand …

 

  1. Alyssa Thomas

… the selling point here is complete ownership of the paint on both ends. A nightmare-inducer no matter the opponent. A matchup that will leave you bruised, sore, and tethered to your bed the following morning. 

Would you rather run wind-sprints until the cows come home, or attempt to draw a charge from Alyssa Thomas? Food for thought. 

Thomas is a lock for the four-year max. She dominated the 2020 playoffs, practically willing Connecticut to the WNBA Finals before it finally ran out of steam in the second half of Game 5 against Las Vegas. 

There is no better pick-and-roll defender in the league. Thomas does it all: aggressive traps, decisive hedge-and-recover patterns, canny switches, stifling one-on-one denials should the screener manage to get their hands on the ball … it goes on and on. I’m not breaking any news in this paragraph. 

Let’s stop to consider how deadly Thomas can be in these same actions when Connecticut has the ball. Watch this play from the other day in which Thomas is operating as the ball-handler in a semi-transition pick-and-roll:

Thomas denies the drag screen, crossing over to her left and creating the angle for an easy two. She’s quite adept at seeing an opening and bursting through it before defenders realize what’s happening. When Thomas gets going downhill, often off a defensive rebound or a turnover in transition, she’s impossible to stop, unless of course, you’re willing to take the aforementioned charge. 

Thomas is coming off the best rebounding season of her career. That’s essential to mention because rebounding was a major part of Connecticut’s surge following its 0-5 start in Bradenton. The Sun placed second in the WNBA in rebounding percentage, trailing only Las Vegas. Connecticut was elite defensively, and a major part of that was refusing to allow second-chance points. Thomas is the best defensive rebounder on the team with Jonquel Jones absent, and it isn’t close. Should Thomas re-sign – and I don’t see why she wouldn’t – those two figure to gobble up an unfathomable number of misses in 2021. 

See Also

Self-praise is no praise, but did I just complete a section on Alyssa Thomas without typing the words, “shoulder,” “motor,” “toughness,” or “grit?” Wow. And they said it couldn’t be done.  

 

  1. Candace Parker

The fun part about this exercise? Nothing about it is definitive. I wish I could puff out my chest and declare these to be “THE 2021 Free Agency Rankings,” much like Kelsey Mitchell went to “THE Ohio State University.” But that’s simply pompous and untrue. The top ten is so fluid that if you polled a random sampling of folks who work in and around the WNBA, you wouldn’t receive a single duplicate. 

As an example, I was discussing my rankings with someone who works in the league the other day. They posited that perhaps I ranked the Los Angeles big three in reverse. That’s to say, this person felt that Chelsea Gray – who I placed at No. 9 – holds more value on the open market than Candace Parker or Nneka Ogwumike. Gray, aged 28, deserves the four-year maximum contract. Parker, aged 34, is a much bigger risk on a long-term contract. Ogwumike, aged 30, falls somewhere in between. I totally understood where they were coming from. 

Here’s my response: I count eight teams with a legitimate shot of reaching the 2021 WNBA Finals (Chicago, Connecticut, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Phoenix, Seattle, and Washington). That’s two-thirds of the league. It’s hard to conjure a more wide-open climate. General managers must strike while the iron is hot. You never know when the next Houston Comets will come along. With that in mind, I’m prioritizing the “now” more than ever. Candace Parker was an MVP candidate in 2020. Signing her is your best shot at winning in 2021. 

To that, the Parker haters are surely asking, “But what about 2019? What about when travel is once again a factor?” It must be acknowledged that Parker likely benefited from a single site season. Does that delegitimize how dominant she was in the Wubble? Absolutely not. For starters, the 2020 season was a grueling sprint. Parker didn’t miss a game. As for 2019, it’s the clear outlier in an otherwise spotless career. It also happened to be a transitional and turbulent year for the Sparks franchise. Anyone who isolates 2019 devoid of context in an attempt to bash Parker is telling on themselves. 

First, the numbers. Per Her Hoop Stats, Parker finished 4th or better in defensive win shares four out of the last five seasons. You can surely guess the exception. 

Parker does everything well. Her head is constantly on a swivel, assessing whether or not to ditch her assignment in case reinforcement is needed elsewhere on the floor. She doesn’t sacrifice positioning to chase unlikely blocks. She is comfortable switching onto smaller players and tracking them on the perimeter. 

How many players would’ve fallen for this fake out of Alysha Clark’s crafty bag of tricks? 

Many of the WNBA’s best players currently line up at the power forward position. That means Parker is shouldering a two-way burden night-in and night-out that few could capably handle. When Los Angeles played Seattle this season, Parker guarded Breanna Stewart. Stewart did not guard Parker. 

Parker ranked in the league’s 99th percentile in defensive rebounding percentage (32.6%) in 2020. She ranks in the 97th percentile for her career. People had a lot to say about Parker winning Defensive Player of the Year. What went largely unmentioned in that discussion is the role rebounding plays in team defense. Parker isn’t a traditional big, yet she’s been an elite rebounder for the entirety of her career. 

What happens after one rebounds the rock? Usually, an outlet pass, which can be the difference between a dynamic transition offense and a more lethargic, muted pace. Parker sees the floor like the MVP she is. 

Golly. 

This year, Parker ranked 14th in the WNBA in assist percentage (25.2%). The last time she finished outside the top 25 in that stat? 2011. Strong passers who play the 4 or the 5 unlock an offensive fluidity that’s practically invaluable. Pick-and-roll based actions become impossible to defend. Close out too hard on Parker and she’ll blow by you. Trap the ball-handler and she’ll launch a three-pointer (Parker shot nearly 40 percent from deep in 2020). Send help from the weak side and she’ll identify the open teammate with ease. There’s a reason the Sparks run so many pick-and-rolls. 

While we’re on the topic of pick-and-rolls, has there ever been a better “reverse screen-setter” than Parker? No one creatively sets picks with their backside like Parker. This is why the age demerit falls on deaf ears. Yes, Parker isn’t as spry as she once was, but the way she uses her body to fluster opponents improves year after year. It’s why many of her 2020 numbers exceeded her career marks. 

Argue with this ranking all you want. I’ve already prepared my response: 

Unbothered

Parker reigns supreme.

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