February 1 has arrived, meaning free agents can officially enter into new contracts with a team. Teams, agents and players have had more than two weeks now to negotiate. Those deals can now become official and will become easier to discuss and analyze as we learn about the terms of those contracts.
We’ve been tracking every bit of offseason and free agency news over on the 2021 Winsidr WNBA free agency tracker. In addition to links to every reported signing, you get cap projections, a list of the best remaining free agents, team-by-team depth charts, and instant analysis as we learn the actual terms of these deals throughout the offseason.
Taking what we’ve learned in the month of January, here are the biggest questions teams and players must answer in the coming days and weeks. All salary and free agent information has been derived from the tracker, the Her Hoop Stats salary database, and the WNBA’s official free agency list.
How does Seattle pivot without Alysha Clark?
Clark agreeing to a deal with the Mystics of all teams is my biggest surprise to date. One starter from the defending champs is now gone. We’ve already gotten word that Sue Bird has agreed to return. Eyes now must turn to Natasha Howard, who the team elected to core this offseason. Finding a new deal for Howard is the biggest item remaining on the to-do list by a landslide.
But with Clark out the door, who’s starting at the 3 for the Storm next season? With names like Betnijah Laney and Kayla McBride off the board, the remaining pool of wings consists more of aging veterans and some players with a few injuries that have piled up of late. There could be some trade frameworks at least worth discussing, especially if the Storm would be willing to put their 2022 first-round pick on the table. We proposed a deal with Dallas last week. Names like Kia Nurse and Jocelyn Willoughby in New York may also be worth tracking with the Liberty reportedly adding Laney.
One dynamic at play now is the bigger salary Seattle would have needed to commit to re-sign Clark. The odds they can re-sign Sami Whitcomb figure to increase at least a tad. Morgan Tuck’s chances of making the 2021 roster are probably the biggest winner in the wake of Clark’s departure. It’s early, yes, but many of the top replacement candidates via free agency have already found new homes. Washington and Las Vegas have already gotten better. Seattle, at least for now, has taken a step back.
How’s this all shaping up for Washington?
Speaking of Clark, how will this Mystics roster take form with the addition of Clark? Washington rebounded from the loss of Aerial Powers and signed a key player away from one of their biggest competitors. Assuming they work out a deal with Natasha Cloud, you’d figure the trio of Ariel Atkins, Clark and Cloud will start and close games together. Would it be a step too far to think that we might not see very many big lineups from Mike Thibault in 2021?
Tina Charles, Emma Meesseman, LaToya Sanders and Tianna Hawkins are still free agents. Will we see a starting front line of Elena Delle Donne and Tina Charles with Meesseman and Myisha Hines-Allen off the bench? What does that mean, then, for Hawkins and Sanders?
What’s Phoenix up to?
There’s only so much Phoenix can do if they re-sign Diana Taurasi at the upper maximum for 2021 of $221,450. Even a slight discount wouldn’t accomplish much in the grand scheme of things. This isn’t a knock against Taurasi or the Mercury. They just happen to be one of the early test cases of how difficult team building will become under this new collective bargaining agreement if you have four big salaries (Taurasi, Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Bria Hartley) on your books.
Including those four players, four minimum contracts and the No. 6 overall pick, here’s one way to frame the task at hand for Mercury general manager Jim Pitman: he has just north of $180,000 for his final two spots, which would bring the roster count to 11. Notable Mercury free agents, not to mention names they may want to pursue in trades or free agency, include Jessica Breland, Kia Vaughn, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Yvonne Turner. This is a numbers game both in terms of the salary cap and prioritization of players.
If Walker-Kimbrough remains a priority for Phoenix with one of their final spots, the events of the past week may be in their favor. How much money is still out there for a potential Walker-Kimbrough offer sheet? Accepting her restricted qualifying offer, as Nia Coffey did last month, could become more feasible.
Some of the same trade packages referenced earlier for Seattle may have some appeal to the Mercury. Same goes for the idea of Phoenix possibly putting their 2022 first-round pick on the table. But throwing out a name like Nurse becomes a bigger issue for teams like Phoenix or Seattle because you’d be talking about trading for a pending restricted free agent that you might not be able to afford with several big salaries already in the picture. Targeting players with multiple years remaining on a rookie contract would alleviate those concerns. From Phoenix’s perspective, though, you’d also want to feel good enough about that player’s chances to actually help you win games in 2021.
Simply re-signing Taurasi and filling those final spots represents one path. Another may lead to a trade or two for a younger player to address a need. A third option? Moving one of your bigger contracts. As Jeff Metcalfe addressed earlier this offseason in the Arizona Republic, Griner hasn’t spoken with the media this offseason addressing her midseason departure (personal reasons) from IMG Academy last summer or her future with the team. Regarding Griner’s future, Pitman told Metcalfe, “She’s under contract for two more years with us. We expect she’ll be a WNBA player and that we’ll look forward to getting the best group we can together to win. Hopefully she’ll be back and playing. I have no reason to doubt that.”
The ‘Are They Done?’ Teams
This designation could easily apply to the entire league, especially if we see a busy month on the trade front. That caveat aside, four teams really stand out. Atlanta is eyeing a return to the postseason after adding Cheyenne Parker. Are we already looking at the core of their 2021 team, or do they have a few tricks up their sleeve?
Chicago made a massive splash with the report that they’ll be adding Candace Parker. With four key players set to be unrestricted free agents in 2022 along with four more hitting restricted free agency, what’s the next priority for head coach and general manager James Wade as he balances current needs with the duty to build a perennial winner? How will they address the backup point guard spot? Even if Wade doesn’t add another likely rotation player in free agency or via trade, a contract extension or two for some of those notable pending free agents may help solidify a two- or three-year window to contend now that Parker is in the fold.
New York was already a natural team to include in mocking up some fake trades with so many young players on their roster. The addition of Laney knocks a few of those players down a rung or two. What will the fallout be from that signing? Similarly, Minnesota will be a team worth watching. After adding Powers, McBride and Natalie Achonwa, the Lynx have more WNBA players—including this year’s first-round pick—than they do roster spots.
The remaining restricted free agents
Four of the nine restricted free agents (Brittney Sykes, Allisha Gray, Brionna Jones, Coffey) are off the board. With all of the other news of the past week in mind, what’s in store for Whitcomb and Walker-Kimbrough? The incumbent teams will likely feel better about their chances to retain those players than they may have a month or two ago.
Kaela Davis and Blake Dietrick, both restricted free agents with the Dream, may get chances to compete for a spot right there in Atlanta, especially with the news that Laney has signed elsewhere. Erica McCall’s outlook in Minnesota surely took a hit with the Achonwa signing.
Where’s the big bet on potential or fit?
Will we see any of this offseason’s moves as big bets on a player’s potential relative to what they’ve shown on a WNBA court thus far? Or, will a team make a similar bet on a player looking better in their system and the role they envision for them?
Bria Hartley is obviously the name that comes to mind from last offseason, as does the trade by the Sparks to acquire Sykes. Even without knowing the terms of these reported deals yet, it’s tough to drop any of those names in one of those buckets. This likely leaves us with trades as the means to see a team or two bet big on a player in a different situation.
However, two veterans entering their age-30 season do stand out as candidates to really help a team off the bench. Shenise Johnson has been hampered by injuries in recent seasons. If Johnson is feeling good physically, she could give a team a solid defender on the wing in more of the role we saw her in with the Fever as opposed to the one she was in last season as a bit of a de facto point guard option for the Lynx.
And after being a starter for most of her career to date, Glory Johnson could be an interesting name for a team to target as a third big. The Dream appear to no longer have a need for a second season from Johnson after adding Cheyenne Parker. Atlanta also has Monique Billings, Kalani Brown and Elizabeth Williams in the mix up front.
We already got some free agency fireworks before the signings could become official. Now that February 1 is here, expect a few more as teams look to load up for what should be an incredibly competitive 2021 season.