Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Imagine you’re back in grade school.
You’ve come down with a nasty cold. A few days of bedrest is the antidote. You call your friends to see what you’ve missed. They tell you that Ariel and Nelson broke up at lunch over five dollar footlongs. They tell you that Mr. Flaherty dozed off again during third period. They don’t mention any actual assignments, but that’s cool. All in due time.
Now you’re back at school, healthy and ready to learn. You’re sitting in math class. Perhaps it’s calculus. Perhaps it’s geometry. Perhaps it’s AP Abacus. You’re staring at the chalkboard. Or the whiteboard. Or your thumbs. You’re as lost as Scooby and Shaggy at a gluten-free eatery. Nothing is as it had been days prior. There are odd new symbols being written next to fractions. No one is asking any questions, and your teacher is moving through material faster than Kelsey Mitchell slices through defenders after snaring a miss. It’s hopeless.
Open your eyes.
If you’re a WNBA fan who had things to do in February other than scroll through Twitter and utter, “No way…” over and over, you know this feeling well. I mean, come on! Last year’s free-agency period was wild enough. This year’s free-agency period sized up February 2020 and scoffed in its face.
I’ve been in a daze the past handful of weeks, attempting to process this frenzied and fantastic stretch of WNBA news. How wonderful have the first two months of 2021 been for the growth of the league? Player movement begets chatter, and chatter brings new fans into the fold. I swear my eyes weren’t deceiving me when I saw the Natasha Howard sign-and-trade scroll by on an ESPN ticker. Multiple friends reached out to inquire about Candace Parker’s fit in Chicago. The momentum is palpable.
In an attempt to make sense of it all, I sifted through the cluttered areas of my brain until 12 takeaways emerged. It’s time to hop around the WNBA and assess what went down during perhaps the most chaotic free-agency period in league history.
1. Las Vegas is the clear, early title favorite
The Aces have assembled the most fearsome top six in the league.
A’ja Wilson did all she could to drag Las Vegas to the 2020 WNBA Finals, but the absence of Dearica Hamby, Kelsey Plum, and Liz Cambage proved too much to overcome against a loaded Seattle Storm roster. The assumed return of those three, combined with the signing of Chelsea Gray, vaults Bill Laimbeer’s bunch to the top of the 2021 pecking order.
Point guard was the missing piece for Vegas down in Bradenton, Florida, and Aces general manager Dan Padover addressed that glaring need by acquiring a top-three player at the position. Now, the Aces can trot out a starting five featuring Gray, Plum, Angel McCoughtry, Wilson, and Cambage with Sixth Woman Extraordinaire Hamby coming off the bench.
That’s not all. Riquna Williams, who shot 42 percent from three on nearly five attempts per game in 2020, has been welcomed into the fold. That means Jackie Young is now eighth on the Aces depth chart. Young took massive strides last regular season before regressing in the playoffs. With less responsibility on her shoulders, I expect her to thrive in year three.
I have plenty of fit-related questions that I’ll delve deeper into at a later date. I’ve long felt that playing Cambage at the 5 stifles Wilson’s growth. Wilson is already an MVP. Her continued ascension should be priority number one.
Sometimes, talent tosses fit-related questions down the drain. Plum is a sniper from deep. She’ll be unleashed as her time off the ball increases. The Aces have an embarrassment of frontcourt riches in Wilson, Hamby, Cambage, and McCoughtry.
There are six other teams (Washington, Chicago, Minnesota, Seattle, Connecticut, and Phoenix) who have legitimate to somewhat farfetched title aspirations. Vegas has the sturdiest case of the group.
2. Candace Parker’s homecoming is a win for the league
This is the type of move WNBA fans should be downright giddy about. And look, I get it. Parker has a wonderfully passionate fanbase. Many became Los Angeles Sparks fans due to Parker’s presence, her greatness. It’s not easy to shed 13 years of loyalty on a whim, switching allegiances. Mixed feelings are entirely understandable. Is deep dish even pizza?
But as far as the growth of the league is concerned, this is a massive win.
Firstly, things were getting stale in Los Angeles. Something tells me that even if the Sparks had been able to retain their Big Three and sprinkle Kristi Toliver into the mix, they would’ve fallen a step short. Chicago, meanwhile, is a near-perfect on-court fit, the type of team in need of a single star to nudge them over the hump.
There’s more to come on the specifics of this wonderful union, but here’s a tease: the Sky were fourth in PACE in 2020, and first in 2019. They love to run. Parker may be the best transition minded point-forward the league has ever seen. Having two elite passers on the floor in Parker and Courtney Vandersloot will allow Chicago head coach James Wade to deploy a myriad of different looks and sets. Which brings me to point number two …
… it’s a blessing that Parker will likely finish out her career playing for Wade, and not Derek Fisher. I’ll just leave it at that.
Finally, WNBA executives must be thrilled about Parker’s decision. Chicago breathes, eats, and adores basketball. The Sky were already one of the most electric teams in the league. Chicago versus Las Vegas has turned into a friendly sort of rivalry, every meeting seeming to produce some exhilarating basketball, some wacky and wild finishes. Now, the most important player in the history of the WNBA (yes, I said it, all disagreements can be directed @OwenPence on Twitter dot com) has been added to the mix. I’m beaming just thinking about it.
When free agency generates movement as seismic as this, the league is better off for it. There will always be superstars who stay put for the entirety of their careers. There’s value in that. There’s also value in the allure of the unknown, in the months preceding a season spent daydreaming about a future Hall of Famer returning home, playing in the city that shaped her star.
Do you hear that? WNBA chatter is getting louder and louder. Candace Parker is a huge reason why.
3. Minnesota is once again among the league’s elite
Doubt Cheryl Reeve at your own risk. The GOAT has done it once again.
Let’s waltz through the last decade in Lynx history real quick.
2011. 2013. 2015. 2017. Four rings. Two Finals MVPs for Sylvia Fowles; one each for Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus. Fantastic, dynastic.
2018 comes and a shift in power occurs. Seattle is the new top dog. Such is the ebb and flow of professional sports. Following the season, Moore shifts her focus to far more important matters. A rebuild feels inevitable. Teams don’t peel off four titles in eight years without encountering a digestion period. This isn’t EA Sports. What happens after Thanksgiving dinner? You conk out on the couch.
Reeve and the Lynx didn’t conk out—they took a power nap and went right back to the lab. Luck played a role. Minnesota drafted Napheesa Collier sixth overall in 2019, then nabbed Crystal Dangerfield at number 16 in 2020. Collier not being the ubiquitous top pick dumbfounded me harder than Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway attempting to navigate the Best Picture envelope at the 2017 Oscars. Dangerfield falling to the middle of the second round was as ludicrous in the moment as it is now. The Lynx made the playoffs in 2019 and the final four in 2020.
What’s that? This was supposed to be about 2021 free agency? Ah, right. Apologies.
To me, the Lynx are the biggest winner of the past month and change. They didn’t lose anyone super important. They signed Kayla McBride, a career 37 percent three-point shooter who approached 43 percent in 2019 before battling anxiety in the whirlwind that was 2020. They signed Aerial Powers, who appeared destined for a breakout before suffering an injury in Bradenton. Powers is exactly the type of slashing wing who can single handedly lift Minnesota’s ceiling to new heights. Both Powers and McBride are capable perimeter defenders. The Lynx brought back Bridget Carleton, who thrived in small-ball lineups when Fowles missed time last season. They added Natalie Achonwa to bolster an already loaded frontcourt.
Collier is a future MVP. Now she has the supporting cast to chase and potentially win a title.
Who is doing it as well as Cheryl Reeve?
4. Indiana is either playing 4D Chess or 2D Checkers
When I hopped on Ben Dull’s must-listen Floor Game podcast back in January to talk all things Indiana Fever, I made sure to mention one name: Rhyne Howard. Howard is a junior guard at Kentucky and perhaps the most exciting prospect in basketball. There’s still a chance she could declare for the 2021 WNBA Draft, but that feels unlikely. Landing at the top of the 2022 lottery could drastically alter the course of a franchise for the better. Indiana is in desperate need of a drastic alteration.
The Fever are owners of the longest active playoff drought in the WNBA. Somehow, they’ve been unable to procure the number one pick during that span. Being stuck between the playoffs and the top of the draft is basketball purgatory. Sometimes, you have to get worse to get better.
If Indiana’s intentions are to get worse in the short term and plant seeds for the future, well, kudos! Success. If not? Yikes. And this is where things get murky. Dissecting and/or questioning intentionality is a tricky game. Are the Fever teaching a master class in public relations, or do they actually believe that Danielle Robinson, Lindsay Allen, Jessica Breland, and Jantel Lavender are the missing pieces needed to vault them into the top eight?
Developing young talent and positioning yourself for a future number one is, in this case, not a mutually exclusive proposition. Indiana’s top goal must be to see what it has in Kelsey Mitchell, Teaira McCowan, Lauren Cox, Julie Allemand (who may not play in the States in 2021), Kennedy Burke, and Victoria Vivians. The Fever can do that and still lose a bunch of games.
Mitchell has already displayed All-Star potential. McCowan, too, before enduring a sophomore slump as she was yanked from the bench to the starting lineup and back again. Are McCowan and Cox a good fit at the 4 and the 5? Is Mitchell more comfortable on or off the ball? Can Burke stay afloat offensively if her minutes increase? Can Vivians stay healthy?
These questions need answers. Playing four newly signed veterans to chase the eighth seed in a remarkably competitive league is not the move. I have nothing against these signings if Indiana is acutely aware of its reality. The Fever had cap space to burn, and they added some solid, experienced players. That can be beneficial to the growth of youngsters. But if Indiana isn’t in on the joke … uh oh. The dispersal of playing time in Indiana will be one of the most intriguing storylines to follow this season.
Now, some “quick-hitters” because I know you don’t have all day. Or maybe you do. It’s a pandemic. Take care of yourself. Consume all the WNBA content your heart desires. Work can wait. Anyway …
5. New York improved drastically, but did it have to trade #1?
Let’s begin with the obvious: Natasha Howard and Betnijah Laney are exactly who the Liberty should’ve targeted this offseason. Defense, shooting, positional versatility—everything about those two players fits New York’s system to a t. With the assumed return of Sabrina Ionescu from injury, the Liberty go from a two-win 2020 to legitimate playoff contenders in 2021. The Ionescu/Howard pick-and-pop will be deadly. It’s an exciting time to be a hoops fan in New York.
With that said, was it necessary for Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb to ship the top pick in 2021 to Seattle, part of the sign-and-trade for Howard? Maybe. But it seems pretty clear Howard wanted to be in New York anyhow. As far as defending champions are concerned, Seattle didn’t have a whole lot of bargaining power. Sure, folks are lukewarm on the 2021 draft class. So what? A number one pick is a number one pick. (Rhyne) Howard could still declare early. The Liberty have no reason to hurry. That cap space isn’t going anywhere. Why not hold out and see if the Storm caved? If they didn’t, the trade as it went down would still be there.
I do love exchanging the rights to Stephanie Talbot for Sami Whitcomb. Whitcomb will be to New York’s offensive attack as Homer Simpson is to an all-you-can-eat buffet. A match made in heaven. Whitcomb’s presence further opens the floor for Ionescu to probe. This team will be a blast to watch.
6. Seattle has the long view in mind
Per Her Hoop Stats, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd will be unrestricted free agents following the 2021 season. Rarely do defending champions (in any sport) forego the chance at a repeat in favor of the long game. The Storm did, and they deserve credit for that. The team will still be plenty competitive in 2021, but they’ve fallen out of the elite tier of contenders.
Seattle doesn’t approach a league-best 93.3 defensive rating without Natasha Howard anchoring the paint and Alysha Clark locking up the opponent’s best perimeter threat. It’s clear those in the Storm front office prioritized Stewart and Loyd over the rest, and I think that’s wise. It’s also incredibly surprising considering Sue Bird’s age, and considering there was a feasible avenue to re-signing Howard and Clark. Seattle and Phoenix chose opposite paths this offseason. That’s the difference between winning two titles in three years and not having won since 2014.
Ezi Magbegor is not talked about nearly enough for my liking. She’s ready for a way bigger slice of the pie. Mikiah Herbert Harrigan is a 3-and-D big, exactly the type of player teams are chasing with more and more ferocity. Katie Lou Samuelson may thrive in her third professional stop, shooting until the cows come home.
Speaking of Samuelson, there was one part of Seattle’s offseason that made zero sense …
7. Dallas swindled Seattle out of the top pick in 2021
An absolute shocker. Still can’t believe it. A smart team traded the number one overall pick—a pick it had acquired earlier that day—for a player who has averaged 3.8 points on 30 percent from downtown in her first two WNBA seasons. Seattle: what was the rush?!? Even if you wanted to move the pick, that was the best you could do?
It shocked me that folks weren’t viewing this as a slam dunk victory for the Wings. Forget all the negative connotations the words “Dallas Wings” may elicit in you, just for a moment.
Value is value. You don’t pass up the chance at, say, Awak Kuier, because Megan Gustafson needs a spot on the end of the bench. I like Gustafson! She’s one of many players that reveal the need for expansion. But in a 144-player league, you don’t lose sleep over retaining Gustafson when the number one pick is in play.
Now, does this excuse the Azurá Stevens trade? Absolutely not. But it is undeniably a step in the right direction.
8. Phoenix is playing a dangerous game
The Mercury’s draft pick trunk is barren after Phoenix sent its 2021 first and 2022 first to New York for Kia Nurse and Megan Walker. The following is not an indictment of either Nurse or Walker. I expect Nurse to bounce back this season with better looks available to her. I liked Walker coming out of UConn and felt she just needed a change of scenery, plus some time to ease into the rhythms of WNBA basketball.
Still, acquisitions like Nurse and Walker aren’t bumping you from the cluttered middle of the WNBA hierarchy to the top. Teams who trade out of the first round in consecutive seasons better be damn sure they are among the league’s elite. Phoenix doesn’t even own its 2021 second-rounder. The plan for a post-Diana-Taurasi reality appears to be one massive shrug. That’s worrisome.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to maximize Taurasi’s window by chasing success in the here and now. Maybe Phoenix wanted to avoid the gap gymnastics and roster squeeze that comes with drafting multiple youngsters.
I just don’t see this roster as a legitimate title contender. The league is too hefty up top. Perhaps No. 3 will prove me wrong. She has a knack for turning doubt into fuel.
To me, Phoenix falls somewhere in the six-to-eight range. Best case scenario? Perhaps the fourth or fifth seed, a surprise berth in the semifinals, and one win in a four-game series. You don’t trade back-to-back first-round picks for a ceiling that falls short of the Finals. Just my two cents.
9. Brittney Sykes was the steal of the offseason
Look. You’re expecting scorched earth. I get it. The consensus seems to be that Derek Fisher is a fraud, the culprit in driving Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray from their longtime professional homes. Maybe that’s true. Maybe it isn’t. Impossible to know for sure from a couch in New York.
I don’t love what Fisher has done during his time with the Sparks, and I certainly don’t love naming him general manager. It’s hard enough to excel at one job; if you aren’t Cheryl Reeve, James Wade, Curt Miller, or Mike Thibault, it’s incredibly difficult to excel at two.
Guess what? It’s sunny out. Spring is in the air. There’s enough to feel rotten about in the world today. Let’s look on the bright side. Considering Los Angeles lost two of its three most important players, it did a pretty decent job salvaging the offseason.
One move in particular stands out, and it’s the deal inked by Brittney Sykes. What a steal for the Sparks! Two years at around $110,000 per for a player who will show no fear guarding the Taurasi’s and Ogunbowale’s of the league, an extremely versatile defender with some offensive punch to boot. Sykes owns a mean transition game, her long strides discouraging those in tow. She’s honed a deadly mid-range jumper, shooting well above league average from the spots on the floor deemed “inefficient.”
She just turned 27. This was the steal of the offseason.
10. Atlanta may top the 2021 League Pass Rankings
Will Atlanta make the playoffs? Unlikely. Will it be staggeringly fun to watch? I have high hopes.
Everything the Dream have done this offseason makes sense; nothing they’ve done jeopardizes their future. Tianna Hawkins and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough are nice, low-risk signings. Odyssey Sims is worth a flyer. Most importantly, Cheyenne Parker is one of the best two-way bigs in the WNBA, figuring to form a lethal pick-and-roll combination with Chennedy Carter.
Carter’s nickname is Hollywood. When Atlanta drafted her, Lil Wayne publicly expressed his desire for tickets. I don’t need to tell you how intoxicating her game is. Parker—in addition to having one of the most wonderful personalities in the league—shot 47 percent from three on high volume in 2020. Recently, she posted an Instagram video of herself shooting deep, transition treys in practice. If Parker starts nailing pull-ups in games, that’s deadly. Courtney Williams is a joy in every sense of the word.
The Dream will be must-watch TV for years to come.
11. Alysha Clark and Ariel Atkins on the same team? Unfair.
Per WNBA.com, Alysha Clark led the league in defensive win shares last season. Ariel Atkins, meanwhile, finished fourth in steals. Clark shot 52 percent on over three triples per game. Atkins shot 41 percent on nearly five triples per game. Here are two #elite 3-and-D wings who now play for the same squad.
If you’re an offensive minded guard or small forward with Washington looming as your next opponent, Wheaties will no longer be enough. Nor will a good night’s sleep. Prepare for the clamps, devastation, and a whole lot of heavy breathing. The Mystics will be a nightmare to oppose.
It’s too early to talk lineup specifics considering so much is still up in the air regarding player availability and the overall status of the 2021 season. Will that stop me? Absolutely not.
Natasha Cloud at the 1. Atkins and Clark on the wings. Myisha Hines-Allen and Elena Delle Donne down low. Like I said in boldface: unfair.
12. Kamiah Smalls deserves her shot in Connecticut
The Sun have quietly gone about their business this offseason, bringing back Alyssa Thomas, Jasmine Thomas, and Brionna Jones. Connecticut may be the only team that did what was expected during free agency—no more and no less. That’s a win. Retaining the core equals contention for years to come. It just doesn’t make for spicy write-ups.
Lack of fanfare be damned, I loved Curt Miller’s decision to bring in Kamiah Smalls. Drafted 28th overall out of James Madison in 2020, Smalls was released by Indiana prior to the season, then brought back after it became clear Erica Wheeler would not be making it to Bradenton. She played just 100 minutes in the bubble, hitting 7-of-12 three-pointers and dishing 14 assists. The sample was miniscule, but Smalls made it abundantly clear she could hang.
Connecticut needs shooting off the bench. Most teams do. But due to their expensive top four, the Sun are thinner than most. Smalls is exactly the type of player Miller should be targeting.
It’s never a bad idea to bet on Philadelphia hoopers.