How the Natasha Howard trade alters the WNBA landscape

Natasha Howard is headed to the New York Liberty. Overall, five trades went down on Wednesday involving seven players and five draft picks. The No. 1 overall pick changed hands twice! Here’s an attempt to break it all down for the five teams involved. 

What this means for New York

New York is the natural starting point. They landed the best player. A former Defensive Player of the Year and All-WNBA selection wanted a change of scenery after winning two championships in three years with the Storm. Seattle will now look to defend that crown without two of their five starters. The Liberty will have a legitimate chance to be more competitive on a night-to-night basis and earn a playoff bid. New York has added Howard, Sami Whitcomb and Betnijah Laney—three proven pieces that fit right in with how they want to play. 

Acquiring Howard addresses a massive need in New York—adding a frontcourt piece that they can truly build around on both ends of the floor. Howard could spend a decent chunk of time at the 4 next to returners Kiah Stokes or Kylee Shook. Who will Walt Hopkins turn to if they want to see more of Howard at the 5? Jocelyn Willoughby, Leaonna Odom, Rebecca Allen or even Joyner Holmes may find some traction in that spot between Howard and Laney.  

Expect the scope of Howard’s role to be closer to the version we saw back in 2019 when the Storm featured her more offensively while Breanna Stewart was out due to injury. Howard’s 28.2 usage rate ranked in the top five and her 131 post-up possessions were the sixth-most used by a single player according to Synergy Sports. New York can add more wrinkles to play through her inside, out on the perimeter and as a pick and roll and handoff partner with their top perimeter options. 

New York is getting Howard on a four-year contract as part of this sign-and-trade deal according to Winsidr’s Rachel Galligan. The duration of that contract offers more stability as New York looks to aggressively build a sustainable winner. You don’t sign Laney and ship out the No. 1 overall pick to continue taking gradual steps as part of a cautious, drawn-out rebuilding process. That contract will take Howard through her age-32 season. By that point, Sabrina Ionescu and the 2020 rookie class will be on their second contracts. The Liberty will hope to have made some serious noise in the postseason in this four-year window. 

Should New York have been willing to include the No. 1 pick in the trade with Seattle in the first place, especially this early in the game? Saying you aren’t incredibly enthused about your potential options at No. 1 as New York is one thing. Perhaps that was a factor. New York could also argue that they secured the No. 6 overall pick on Wednesday, still giving them an opportunity to add a piece in the top half of the first round. 

This case with Howard did not have the element of a public trade request which certainly could have dialed the heat up on Seattle. As a designated core player, Howard could only negotiate with the Storm. Requesting a move would require Seattle’s participation in a sign-and-trade. We haven’t heard one way or another yet whether Howard narrowed her list of preferred destinations to one. More of this process playing out privately is at least a net neutral, likely even a slight positive, for the team that is losing the star player. Like the DeWanna Bonner and Skylar Diggins-Smith deals, this one materialized quickly relative to the official start of free agency. Simply getting it done now has plenty of advantages for New York. They can officially move forward in planning for training camp and with discussions on what they want to do on both sides of the ball with Howard on board. 

Analyzing the strength of these trade packages and their timelines will remain an important topic in the WNBA. Teams cannot use the core designations as many times on one player under this new collective bargaining agreement, but these types of deals will never go away entirely. Even a case like Bonner’s, a true unrestricted free agent, is sure to pop up again in some form because a player can get a bigger payday if they’re shipped out in a sign-and-trade as opposed to signing with a new team outright. 

New York’s trade with Phoenix is the one that got the ball rolling. Phoenix received Kia Nurse and Megan Walker, and New York got the No. 6 overall pick and Phoenix’s 2022 first-rounder in return. The Liberty still have the former, at least for now, but used that Phoenix pick in the package for Howard. 

One interesting component of the Howard package: Seattle must have preferred said Phoenix pick over any gettable player on New York’s roster. As we later found out, Seattle flipped each first-round pick for a player. New York’s willingness to move on from Nurse is understandable. The Liberty went over her head by signing Laney. Regarding Walker, the Liberty already have a few mouths to feed behind Laney in Willoughby and Odom. Something had to give in the numbers game with that crop of wings this offseason. 

New York also acquired Whitcomb in a sign-and-trade with Seattle in exchange for the rights to Stephanie Talbot. Whitcomb must have simply wanted a change, or perhaps Seattle just wasn’t willing to match the kind of contract she ended up getting from New York. It remains to be seen how much both Asia Durr and Marine Johannès will be available this season. But when all three players are suited up and available, finding minutes for the latter two must take priority. Whitcomb does fit their style, and this is sure to be a busy summer for Johannès with EuroBasket and the Olympics on the docket. 

What this means for Seattle

Moving on, it would probably require some serious mental gymnastics to take issue with the return that they got for Howard. You got the No. 1 pick…and another first-round pick! Not getting any players back is always an interesting outcome. Going through the thought exercise of what it might look like if Seattle tried to get a player from New York, you’d figure it would have to be a wing. That’s where New York had a surplus and where Seattle had a pressing need after losing starting small forward Alysha Clark in free agency. 

Did the Storm have any interest in Nurse? New York may have really wanted that No. 6 pick from Phoenix regardless. Seattle also may have weighed Nurse’s pending restricted free agent status against the options they ended up pursuing to land players with multiple years remaining on rookie-scale contracts. Those players are cheaper, yes, and that longer runway gives Seattle more of a chance to truly get a look at those players before having to make a bigger financial decision. 

Willoughby would be a very intriguing candidate to potentially fill Clark’s shoes. But because New York also did not include Willoughby in the Phoenix deal, that could signal that the Liberty were not interested in moving her at all. New York’s 2022 first-round pick also would have been an interesting piece in these talks. Seattle expecting to get that pick and No. 1 seems like a step too far. But what if it were a one-or-the-other proposition? 

Now let’s dive into the real stuff for Seattle. They got the two first-round picks but ended up moving each one for a wing. The Storm appear to have targeted two players with those picks that could join forces to fill that Clark-less void. 

Getting Mikiah Herbert Harrigan from Minnesota for the Phoenix pick is the easier move to digest. She was a mid-first-round selection last year, and you’d probably expect that pick to fall in a similar range at best barring a serious injury in Phoenix this season. Herbert Harrigan will deliver some real value if she’s able to seize legitimate minutes at both forward spots. The spot-up shooting is real, she’ll block some shots, and there’s reason to think she can be effective in their aggressive defensive scheme. 

The Samuelson trade was a stunner. Who else was banging down Greg Bibb’s door with a similar offer? Dallas probably had to make some kind of trade at some point this offseason. Did this one need to happen so quickly? The basketball fit for Samuelson in Seattle is wonderful. That isn’t the chief concern. The Storm will also get her for two seasons before having to make a decision on her second contract. 

One aspect of this for Seattle, which also generally applies to most WNBA trades, that at least must be acknowledged is the larger gap that usually exists between potential trade chips. At the same time, there’s likely to be a very small gap between a player that might come up in trade talks and somebody that’s already on your roster. Teams don’t have as many options to put more protections on future picks that get shipped out. Roster sizes are small with a very high concentration of the top talent. And as a result, even the slightest overlap can undercut a player’s theoretical trade value. Your Star X would be a bad fit with my Star Y. Your Prospect Z is too similar to my Prospect A. 

So, what else could Seattle have really thrown out there to get Dallas to budge? The Storm clearly targeted young players that could fill the hole left by the DeClarkture. This isn’t a scenario where they had much of a chance to mask their interest in Samuelson. Offering up No. 11 for her doesn’t seem interesting at all to Dallas as they sat going into Wednesday with multiple first-round picks and No. 13. How about Seattle’s 2022 first-rounder instead of No. 1? Does the what-if scenario where that becomes a mid-first-rounder have more value than No. 1? 

The Storm faithful would rightfully be aggrieved if Ezi Magbegor were on the table. What other players could Seattle have shopped? Would the Wings see Mercedes Russell as a solution at center? Seattle needs her! All that said, an honest critique of the deal probably has to call for Seattle to push to make it a much bigger trade in which Dallas is making some kind of additional concession. Swap No. 11 for Nos. 5 and/or 7. Hold out for another player. Get more teams involved. Something. 

Those two organizations are also at very different stages. Seattle needs actual basketball players. Dallas can afford to continue to play the asset game and even move some of their 2021 picks for future first-rounders. The Storm may see a scenario where the eventual 2021 No. 1 pick has an incredible career after needing a few years to figure things out. That won’t help them win during some of Breanna Stewart’s prime years. Samuelson sure does fit well offensively, but they’ll be missing an All-Defense stalwart. 

The actions teams don’t take can ultimately be just as impactful as the transactions themselves. Seattle lost two starters, flipped the No. 1 overall pick and gave Candice Dupree a big one-year contract. What they didn’t do: panic and commit to long-term deals that they would regret later. The Storm are sitting pretty to be a major player in free agency next year. Just ask the Lynx how that one-year wait panned out. 

See Also

Yes, Seattle will need to re-sign Stewart and Jewell Loyd next offseason. They’ll have their core designation available to use on one of them. But then they can really get aggressive to add multiple high-impact players. Essentially all of their direct competition will be plenty tied up with their top free agents or the contracts already on their books. Having real cap space as a contender in 2022 and 2023 will likely be even more valuable than it was these last two offseasons. 

Talbot could also factor into that wing rotation in Seattle. With Clark and Howard out the door, the Storm weren’t in the bind we initially may have expected. Simply carving out enough space to bring Whitcomb back wasn’t the issue. They only get to that point if they definitely prefer to have Dupree and at least one of Epiphanny Prince or Morgan Tuck still on the roster. Whitcomb got a protected contract; the latter two can be waived for nothing. That may have been a hang-up. 

What this means for Dallas, Phoenix and Minnesota

The Seattle-Dallas talks must not have taken very long or been too trying from Dallas’ perspective. Parting with a future second-round pick is easy knowing what you’re getting back. Now that they have Nos. 1 and 2, the Wings should have a much easier time pitching more trades. Let’s say they’re shopping No. 7. Why wouldn’t that team just ask for No. 5 instead? Parting with No. 5 should be much more palatable now.

Trying to consolidate Nos. 5 and 7 in a trade with Atlanta or Indiana would be worth the call for the Wings knowing you’re low on roster spots. Dallas also has more options to turn some of this draft capital into future first-round picks. Could they wait for somebody to bite on No. 5 for a 2022 first-rounder? Could they get another for Nos. 7 and 13? This would be a good way for them to alleviate the pressure to make some tough decisions right now. They shouldn’t be in a rush to feel like they have a final version of this team. 

Phoenix had to get a good player to even consider moving two picks. Nurse fits that bill. You can walk into the season knowing she can be on the floor late in games and in the playoffs in a role that they needed to fill. Re-signing her next offseason might be difficult with their current salary structure. But that’s a factor they were aware of in the first place. Like Seattle, they need actual basketball players right now. 

Nia Coffey ended up getting waived as part of the deal. How about Sophie Cunningham? How does she fit into the current hierarchy compared to Walker? Like her former UConn teammate in Seattle, this is a wonderful fit for Walker. She can excel working with the looks that Phoenix’s stars will generate for her. If Walker pans out as a top reserve that they can trust, this is a deal that the Mercury can feel good about. 

The outlook with Minnesota’s roster completely changed with the addition of Kayla McBride and the reported agreement between the Lynx and Aerial Powers. (The Lynx still need to get that one across the finish line.) It’s natural to wonder how much the trade with Seattle has to do with it. The Lynx simply have more of a crowd on the wing with Powers, McBride, Bridget Carleton, Lexie Brown and Cecilia Zandalasini. Cheryl Reeve also has tremendous lineup flexibility with this roster simply by having Napheesa Collier, who could start at the 3 or the 4, or play some of both. 

So, will that Phoenix pick be a piece that Minnesota intends to flip? Or is it simply an acknowledgement of the numbers game they’ll be dealing with in finalizing a 2021 roster? Even if you set Brown and Carleton aside and write Collier in primarily as their 4, there are only so many minutes to go around over the next few years. McBride and Powers are really good players. 

Some of these deals are easier to view totally independent of the others, but it really all points back to Howard’s desire to move on from Seattle. These moves will affect the entire league, not just the teams directly involved. Will the Storm defend their title? Did it help Minnesota and Phoenix get better? Is New York ready to get back to the playoffs? And how will things materialize for Dallas with all of those draft picks? One string of transactions just created dozens of angles to discuss and explore leading up to the season opener. What a whirlwind of a day.

Written by Ben Dull (@Ben_Dull on Twitter). Read more of his work at Floor Game and subscribe to the Floor Game podcast, part of the Winsidr podcast network.

View Comments (2)
  • The Liberty needs a true center asap and until they address that they need a true 5 for the frontcourt and backcourt, they’re not serious.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

© 2021 Winsidr. All Rights Reserved.

Scroll To Top