12 Blistering Questions Entering WNBA Free Agency: Part 1

Had enough of twiddling your thumbs? Tired of streaming EuroLeague games on YouTube as your annoying coworker peppers you with unnecessary Slack messages? (No, I haven’t seen last night’s episode of Euphoria yet! And how does this have anything to do with our quarterly budget?) Unsure how to stomach another day in which Erica Wheeler doesn’t drain the lifeblood from someone’s ankles?

You aren’t alone! And you’ve come to the right place. We’re simmering with excitement over dreams of the 2022 WNBA offseason. The league is growing at a rapid rate, highlighting the importance of around-the-calendar coverage—roster speculation, free agency predictions, mock draft analysis, overseas rumblings, LeagueFits gripes, and much more. 

Here at Winsidr, we’re kicking things off by hopping around the league and asking the most pressing question facing each franchise. There are no rules, and hardly any definitive answers. This exercise is about pondering the current state of the 12 WNBA teams, about grappling with the thoughts and concerns of fan bases and team executives alike. 

Let’s dive right in with the Eastern Conference. Circle back around for Western Conference questions later this week. 

 

Atlanta Dream

Can Tanisha Wright and Dan Padover establish even an iota of stability in Atlanta, and does Chennedy Carter factor into their plans? 

Immediately I’m cheating, disguising two questions as one. How generous! I could’ve packed ten questions into a single sentence here. Atlanta may want to consider dropping it’s new, dull logo (What happened to the old art? It was ten times better!) and replacing it with a bulky, fluorescent question mark. No symbol better encapsulates where this organization currently sits.

It’s hard to overstate just how messy and dysfunctional the Dream were in 2021. Former head coach Nicki Collen wiggled up the chimney, boarded her sleigh, and bolted from Georgia to Waco during training camp, leaving a leaderless professional basketball team in her opulent wake. This set the tone for the entire season. There were fights, both verbal and physical. Suspensions. Losses. Tweets. More losses. More Tweets. So, so many Tweets. 

The Dream finished 10th in Net Rating, per WNBA.com. They refused to share the rock and failed to generate efficient looks, posting both the worst assist percentage and true shooting percentage in the league. Their best stretch of basketball came at the beginning of the season, the only chunk of games in which Carter was with the team. Though details of the altercation that spurred her suspension were murky, one thing was abundantly clear: the team kicked its best and most promising young player to the curb with minimal explanation. 

Atlanta’s entire 2021 season was a disaster-class in public relations. Now, Renee Montgomery and Co. are taking early stabs at reviving the brand. They brought in Wright to operate the sidelines, a highly respected former player who laced up her kicks for 14 seasons in the WNBA before joining Las Vegas as an assistant coach in 2020. They brought in Padover, the back-to-back WNBA Executive of the Year, to reconstruct the roster. They have been noncommittal about Carter’s future with the team. (The Dream Twitter account recently posting Carter’s overseas stats is a good sign!) 

These are small steps in the right direction. The heavy legwork remains. Padover would be foolish to unload Carter for below market value. She is a potential superstar, the perfect mix of talent and pizzaz. Does anyone have factual evidence that folks don’t enjoy playing with her, or that she’s a poor leader? I’m still waiting on anything beyond conjecture. 

Carter uniquely toes the line between volume scorer and advanced pick-and-roll distributor, one whose handles unlock a bevy of offensive opportunities unavailable to the majority of players in the league. Carter consistently rises to the occasion, playing her best in the biggest moments. Trading her for cents on the dollar would negate the most fortuitous event in recent Dream history. Everyone but James Wade should be flooding Padover’s line with inquiries on what it would take to pry Carter from Atlanta. 

Whether or not Padover wants Carter on the Dream in 2022, he’s staring at an unusually blank slate. Per Her Hoop Stats, Carter, Aari McDonald, and Cheyenne Parker are Atlanta’s only players under contract for 2023. Those three plus Tianna Hawkins, Maite Cazorla, and now Jaylyn Agnew round out the group under contract for the upcoming season. Whatever Padover envisions for the franchise’s future, he has plenty of flexibility to make it happen. 

Atlanta will undoubtedly be active in free agency. The team has a bevy of cap space. Landing a star at shooting guard to play alongside Carter—ideally Jewell Loyd or Kahleah Copper—is the Dream’s dream. It’s also bordering on a pipe dream. 

I’m optimistic in Wright’s ability to establish that iota of stability. Atlanta must reach a point where players share the ball willingly, where free agents are attracted to the idea of playing for the Dream. If Padover can’t hit the Loyd or Copper home run, he’d be smart to target players who will help return Atlanta to competency (Angel McCoughtry reunion anyone?), because for the past few years, incompetency has been the Dream’s defining characteristic. 

 

Chicago Sky

Will Chicago have enough depth to make an honest run at a repeat? 

Sky head coach and general manager James Wade knew this day was coming. Salary cap jail is an unavoidable reality in the WNBA, and the 2022 offseason marked a major turning point for Chicago. Only Candace Parker, Azurá Stevens, Ruthy Hebard, and Dana Evans are under contract for the upcoming season. There is no way Wade will be able to bring back everyone he wants. Something must give. 

The pressure is significantly lower given what transpired last October, the Sky decimating everything in their path en route to a triumphant 2021 WNBA Finals. 2021 was likely Chicago’s best chance at winning it all, and things actually worked out. The whole run was very neat, if you’re into storybook endings and tears of joy. Now the joyride is over and decisions loom. 

Three of Chicago’s free agents top the priority list: Kahleah Copper, Courtney Vandersloot, and Allie Quigley. 

Copper won Finals MVP, building on her breakout 2020 and erupting into a superstar. She led the team in scoring and minutes, was the most tenacious and impactful rebounding guard in the league, improved upon her already above-average defense, and generally served as the heartbeat of the team alongside Parker and Vandersloot. She deserves and will likely receive the max. 

The case for Vandersloot is equally obvious. She is the best point guard in the league, and the Sky would crater without her. Vandersloot perfectly toes the line between getting everyone involved and seeking her own offense. Her preference is to pass, but the 32-year-old has an uncanny sense of when the Sky need a bucket from their floor general. She dished 18 assists and logged a triple-double against Connecticut in the semifinals, scored or assisted Chicago’s final 11 points of the clincher against Phoenix, and hit one of the coldest daggers in WNBA Finals history to cap it all off. 

The Sky wouldn’t have won Game 4 without Quigley. When it seemed all-but-confirmed that Chicago and Phoenix would head back to Arizona for a deciding game, the 35-year-old sharpshooter struck. Quigley’s offense re-awakened the Sky attack, shot after shot helping Chicago claw back into the game. Quigley is way more than just a shooter, but it’s her dead-eye accuracy from deep that opens the floor for Chicago’s entire offense. Things will be way more difficult for everyone on the Sky if Quigley isn’t re-signed. 

This leaves Diamond DeShields and Stefanie Dolson as the odd players out. DeShields is a restricted free agent, and it’s unclear where she falls on the “potential superstar or bust?” spectrum in the eyes of general managers across the league. If an enticing offer sheet is thrown her way, Chicago won’t want to match. Dolson is another player viewed differently depending on the eyes of the beholder. At times during Chicago’s 2021 playoff run, she appeared unplayable, plodding on defense and careless on offense. Then she would wake, such as in Game 4 against Phoenix, making a few key plays down the stretch to secure the title. 

Has winning begot loyalty? Will anyone take a pay cut to bring more than just three members of the band back to Chicago? I think the pendulum swings in the other direction. Sky players have already been fitted for rings, and now it’s time to secure the bag. 

Chicago will once again be a title contender if it enters 2022 with the Parker-Vandersloot-Copper-Quigley-Stevens-Hebard core. But the Sky won’t repeat unless they snare a few key role players on the free agency market at a discount. 

I’d like to see Wade roll the dice on a Shekinna Stricklen revival, adding to the team’s shooting and buying low on a player with playoff experience. Is everyone so sure Kalani Brown isn’t a WNBA player? Brown doesn’t shoot threes like Dolson, but could she approximate the rest of Dolson’s skillset, setting hard screens and rolling to the rim without mercy? 

I’d be remiss if I omitted the fact that Jewell Loyd is from Illinois. Could the Sky engineer a homecoming in back-to-back seasons? Wade would have to perform a more difficult gymnastics routine than Simone Biles at the Olympics to get this done, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. 

How Chicago handles free agency will be one of the most interesting subplots of the 2022 season.

 

Connecticut Sun

Are Connecticut’s four best players compatible? 

The two 2021 semifinal losers—Connecticut and Las Vegas—faced a similar conundrum that prompted their downfalls: the talent was there, but the fit was lacking. For the Sun, Alyssa Thomas’s return hurt more than it helped despite stretches of stellar individual play from the bruising power forward. League MVP Jonquel Jones took a backseat in four games against Chicago, the rhythms that propelled Connecticut to the best overall record were disrupted, and Curt Miller’s squad managed but a single playoff win before tapping out. 

Are Jonquel Jones, Alyssa Thomas, DeWanna Bonner, and Brionna Jones compatible? Connecticut’s four best players play forward and/or center. Guards Jasmine Thomas and Briann January (an unrestricted free agent) were great all season, both deserving of their All-Defensive nods. Offensively, the two simply don’t provide enough shot creation when the going gets tough late in playoff games. Playing an ultra-big lineup with the top four plus (Jasmine) Thomas is intriguing, but the floor becomes way too cluttered. Benching one of your four best players every night down the stretch is not ideal. 

Jonquel Jones is the top unrestricted free agent on the market this winter. Connecticut has already extended her the core qualifying offer. Where there wasn’t any doubt on the two sides re-upping last year, microscopic seeds of doubt were sowed during the playoffs as Miller let Thomas hijack the DisrespeCTmobile. It was a rare example of poor coaching from one of the best in the league. 

Connecticut was the top team in the W with Brionna Jones, Jonquel Jones, and Bonner filling the frontcourt. Might it be worth exploring the Alyssa Thomas trade market? Teams would clamor at the chance to pry one of the league’s best two-way talents from Connecticut’s grasp. The alternative is a “my turn, your turn” offense that stifles the league MVP. New York is but a car ride away, and the Liberty could easily maneuver their way into clearing cap space for a super max contract. Jones’ star would flourish in the league’s biggest market. She holds the leverage in negotiations with the Sun. 

What about trading Brionna Jones? She is coming off back-to-back career years and will be an unrestricted free agent in a year. Alyssa Thomas is a great passer, and the Alyssa Thomas / Jonquel Jones pairing is way more viable long-term if the MVP is playing center. The last time said pairing played extended minutes together came in 2019 when Thomas and Jones shared the floor for 819 minutes and posted an 11.2 Net Rating, per WNBA.com. Those two can coexist, and they double as Connecticut’s best players. Suddenly, selling high on Brionna Jones seems like the wisest move. 

You can’t discuss the compatibility (or lack thereof) of Jones, Jones, Thomas, and Bonner without discussing what Connecticut so desperately lacks: shooting and scoring in the backcourt. A flyer on, say, Riquna Williams would help ease the stress levels of Connecticut’s stars late in playoff games. Stella Johnson is a smart guard who can shoot, exactly what the Sun bench needs more of. 

Regardless, the verdict is clear: one of Connecticut’s big four must go. Otherwise, you risk losing Jonquel Jones—the only true disaster scenario Miller is facing. 

 

Indiana Fever

Is there any sort of long-term plan in place, or is Indiana throwing things at the wall in hopes they stick? 

No one wants the job of questioning Tamika Catchings’ tenure as general manager of the Fever. Catchings is one of the greatest players of all time (you can make a convincing case she’s the greatest), and one of the nicest people in and around the league. Because of this reality, folks tiptoe around the elephant in the room: Catchings has suffered a rocky tenure running the team she once led to a championship. 

It’s not just the losing records, which produced the longest active playoff drought in the league—it’s the aimlessness of these campaigns, the putrid product spinning its wheels with no yellow brick road in sight. 

Drafting is a good place to start. Indiana spent the third overall pick in 2020 on Lauren Cox, then drafted Kysre Gondrezick fourth overall in 2021. Cox was unable to carve out a role with the Fever despite dreams of a dynamic hi-low pairing alongside 2019 lottery pick, Teaira McCowan. Indiana waived Cox, who now plays for Los Angeles, during the regular season. Gondrezick appeared in 19 games as a rookie before leaving the team midseason citing personal reasons. She played around 9 minutes per game and was a relative non-factor. 

Drafting in hyndsight is like doing homework with the teacher’s edition textbook—you’re in possession of cheat codes. Still, these felt like specious selections at the time. Passing on Chennedy Carter was an especially egregious misstep, and Gondrezick felt like a reach. Though the jury is still out on Gondrezick—young players need time to adapt to WNBA life—it’s appearing more and more likely that Indiana came away from back-to-back lottery trips empty handed. That’s unacceptable. 

The Fever’s 2021 free agency signings were even more baffling. Indiana went from swimming in cap space to locking in two mediocre veterans on three-year deals. Danielle Robinson and Jantel Lavender are great locker room presences, but neither move the needle as far as Indiana’s long-term prospects are concerned. Would you rather have inked those two at an average of $165,000 per year, or forced Derek Fisher’s hand by lofting something in the range of a $140,000 offer sheet at Brittney Sykes? Catchings chose the former route, one that significantly limits Indiana’s ceiling. 

The Fever have two players that truly matter: Kelsey Mitchell and McCowan. As solid as Tiffany Mitchell is, and as useful as she would be on a contender, the roster outside of Kelsey Mitchell and McCowan is expendable. Mitchell is under contract at hefty figures through 2024; McCowan will become a restricted free agent in the 2023 offseason. That’s not a bad duo to boast considering how wretched the past few seasons have been in Indiana. 

Are Mitchell and McCowan the best fit? Defensively, both leave much to be desired. Offensively, both excel in certain areas but have trouble making music together. Per Synergy, Mitchell ran the seventh most pick-and-rolls per game as a ball-handler, trailing only Skylar Diggins-Smith in efficiency among her high-volume counterparts. McCowan hardly ever ran pick-and-rolls alongside Mitchell, ceding the screening and rolling duties to Lavender, who was rather inefficient converting such looks. If McCowan continues her trajectory as a paint-bound big, Indiana must add someone who moves well in space and can effectively run fundamental actions with Mitchell.

To end the playoff drought, Catchings can’t keep putting defense on the back-burner. One of the deadliest defenders in her playing days, she has targeted more offensive-minded players at the expense of Indiana’s defense. In two seasons under head coach Marianne Stanley, the Fever have finished dead last in defensive rating. This leaves two options: Indiana either wins a shootout or goes cold and suffers a rout. The margin for error is way too thin. 

The last few years indicate the lack of any coherent long-term team-building strategy. If Catchings addresses some of the needs outlined above and skews younger in her signings, Fever fans can exhale. If this offseason brings more of the same stale decision making, it may be time to discuss a change at the helm of Indiana’s basketball operations. 

See Also

 

New York Liberty

Is Liberty ownership living in a fantasy world? 

The term, “hybrid rebuild” is a public relations concoction for the ages. Sell the fan base on intense, concentrated misery in service of a quick and fruitful turnaround; or, in simpler terms, convince season ticket holders that a boatload of losses will beget a fleet of wins. Brilliant! Just not entirely grounded in reality. 

A hybrid rebuild is easy to sell in its infancy. Ingredients include a number one pick, a bundle of additional draft picks, and a clearly outlined vision that figures to attract prospective free agents. New York checked all three boxes, selecting Sabrina Ionescu atop the 2020 WNBA Draft, packing the roster with rookies, and rallying around a three-point battalion headed by Walt Hopkins Jr. 

Now, two years into the hybrid rebuild, foggier fronts have emerged. On the surface, New York remains on schedule. A two-win season in 2020 netted another number one pick, which was flipped for—in essence—Natasha Howard, a two-way force and former Defensive Player of the Year. Liberty brass lured in 2020’s Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney and traded for sniper Sami Whitcomb. New York snuck into the 2021 playoffs, then nearly knocked off eventual runner-up Phoenix in a thrilling, single-elimination barn burner. 

So what’s the issue, Mister Grinch? Peel the onion and frostier truths are revealed. Per WNBA.com, New York was outscored by 8.2 points per 100 possessions in 2021. Only Indiana played worse. The Liberty finished 10th in both offensive and defensive rating. Sure, Howard missed time battling injuries, and Ionescu wasn’t always at 100 percent, but no WNBA team enjoys perfect health amid a taxing schedule.

New York greatly benefited from good fortune in close games. The Liberty went 6-4 in contests decided by five points or less, banking half their wins in wire-to-wire affairs. They won just three games by double digits: an 11-point victory early in the year over a Napheesa Collier-less Lynx squad, a rout of the Atlanta Dream (10th in Net Rating), and another 11-point win over Washington on the last day of the regular season. The goal here isn’t to humble Liberty faithful; it’s to be honest about where the team stands. Excelling in close games is less an indicator of the proverbial “clutch gene” and moreso a sign of randomness, bound to even out over time. 

Then there’s the elephant in the room: coaching. New York general manager Jonathan Kolb felt Hopkins wasn’t fit to continue as conductor of the Liberty Express. Kolb made a wise choice. Hopkins certainly got the most out of youngsters like Jazmine Jones, Michaela Onyenwere, and DiDi Richards during his Liberty tenure, but how about the rest of the roster? New York lacked a coherent defensive philosophy under Hopkins and should’ve been more dynamic offensively given their shot distribution. There were murmurs of tension between Hopkins and some of the veteran players. Full buy-in on the head coaching front is essential in a rebuild of this nature. 

Sandy Brondello is the perfect replacement. Just months ago she led the Mercury—a No. 5 seed—to the Finals. In 2014, she won it all. Widely respected, Brondello gets the most out of her players. 

Is a head coaching swap enough to lift New York into contention? No. But it’s a start. 

Names like Jonquel Jones and Liz Cambage will be tossed around as potentially landing in New York. The Jones-to-NY fit makes tons of sense, but luring the league MVP away from Connecticut is unlikely. The Liberty should focus on bringing back Rebecca Allen, a key two-way wing who complements New York’s core like peanut butter does jelly. 

Let’s loop back around—is Liberty ownership living in a fantasy world? Sort of. Yes, it’s unrealistic to expect the Liberty to make any sort of significant playoff run this season, barring a Jones-in-free-agency-type grand slam. A hybrid rebuild only works if you draft Candace Parker or A’ja Wilson. Ionescu is neither of those players. That said, New York has been operating astutely for a few years now, making smart decisions and laying a sturdy foundation. 

The “hybrid rebuild” is nothing but PR; New York is rebuilding in the traditional sense, and doing a darn good job. 

 

Washington Mystics 

Can the number one pick push Washington back into title contention?

2019 feels like another era. What was life even like back then? We traveled to class by horseback and solved equations on an abacus. Oh, also—that was the year the Mystics had it humming, boasting the best offense in league history. Elena Delle Donne was MVP, Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins made All-Defensive Second Team, and Washington strode to its first ever WNBA title. 

The league landscape has shifted dramatically since Washington’s celebratory autumn, but Mike Thibault’s bunch once again finds itself in the thick of … well, everything. The Mystics will select first in the 2022 WNBA Draft after swooping ahead of Indiana and Atlanta in the lottery. A full season of good health for Delle Donne and a full season of availability for Emma Meesseman (she may choose FIBA and her home country of Belgium over the WNBA) lifts Washington right back into title contention. 

That’s the short answer—Washington’s title chances rely less on the number one pick and more on the number of games Delle Donne, Meesseman, and Alysha Clark (remember her?) can play. 

Still, I’m excited to see what the Mystics can do with Rhyne Howard in the rotation, should they decide to keep the top pick and choose the consensus No. 1. Howard is unlike anyone else on the Mystics roster, and the thought of adding her to an elite offensive core is downright terrifying. 

Howard is one of those players who appears entirely at ease on the basketball court, never in a hurry and rarely overwhelmed. In 12 games with Kentucky this season, Howard’s three-point shooting has dipped (I’m not worried), but she’s averaging more assists and fewer turnovers than ever before. As a Wildcat, Howard must pry open slivers of space by her lonesome. Plop her alongside, let’s say, Cloud, Atkins, Clark, and Delle Donne, and Howard would suddenly enjoy acres of floor upon which to do business. 

Thibault has many decisions to make. Meesseman is a priority. Tina Charles shouldn’t be, but did she play well enough in 2021 to fool Washington into offering an ill-advised contract? If Meesseman opts out of the 2022 season, Charles will likely return. 

Where does that leave Myisha Hines-Allen? A restricted free agent, Hines-Allen has been the subject of many fake trades since her breakout in 2020. Prioritizing her over Charles does more for Washington’s title chances than any rookie, in the eyes of this haggard writer. 

Placing as many two-way players around Delle Donne mitigates Washington’s risk should the 2019 MVP be unable to approximate her 50/40/90 level of production. Charles isn’t a two-way player, and she doesn’t do much to make her teammates better (not a knock, just a byproduct of her style). Thibault should embrace the small-ball revolution (in some senses, he already has) and get funky with lineups that feature Clark and Atkins whirring around screens, destroying opponents morale. 

There are more variables at play for the Mystics than many other teams, but here’s the bottom line: their title window appears to have been wedged open once again. Trade the top pick or keep it—either way the Mystics will be a problem.

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