The WNBA is about to erupt into a sizzling blaze of player movement and chaotic commentary. Free agency begins tomorrow. Some fanbases sit on the precipice of giddiness; others, devastation. If last year is any indication, we’re in for a thrill ride.
In preparing for our dramatic annual alteration to the league landscape, it’s wise to take stock of where each franchise stands. The format is question and answer, but this is moreso a State of the WNBA, assessing strengths, weaknesses, needs, hopes, and dreams for fan bases and executives alike.
On Wednesday, we explored the Eastern Conference. Today, we discuss the Western Conference. Without further ado, six more questions and six ill-fated attempts at answering said questions:
How does Dallas evacuate the quicksand and enter stage two of its rebuild?
Rebuilds are fun … until they aren’t. When stakes are low and hope glides through the air like an inviting scent on Thanksgiving, positivity abounds. Arike Ogunbowale is a future MVP! Satou Sabally is the best player from her draft class! Marina Mabrey has the iciest jumper in the game! Directives are straightforward: develop young talent, nurture young talent, and accrue young talent. We call this asset aggregation.
The next step—one Dallas is staring down the barrel of—becomes far more complicated. Drafting an immediate superstar eases the transition from phase one to phase two. Dallas hasn’t lucked into that type of player. Both Ogunbowale and Sabally have sky-high ceilings; Awak Kuier, drafted second overall in 2021, may develop into an All-Star. Yet nobody on Dallas’ roster holds the gravitational pull of a Candace Parker, A’ja Wilson, or Breanna Stewart. The Wings must be shrewd to continue their “upward” trajectory.
I use quotation marks because Dallas and Indiana hold the distinct honor of being the league’s most maligned franchises. At least the Fever have a banner hanging from their rafters. The Wings have a 53-point game from Liz Cambage and a wad of trade requests. It’s easy to steward an upward trajectory when you set off from the basement.
Still, it’s not all gloom and doom down in Texas. Dallas finished seventh in net rating in 2021, well clear of teams eight through 12. Vickie Johnson’s bunch made the playoffs (losing to Chicago in the first round) after narrowly falling short in 2020. Snatching Mabrey from Los Angeles was a cause for celebration. Sabally improved her effective field goal percentage from 40 to 47 percent in year two. The Wings once again own two picks in the top half of the 2022 first round (fourth and sixth overall).
The 2022 draft picks are a net positive until you consider how crowded Dallas’ roster is, and how little playing time there is to go around. Chelsea Dungee, the fifth overall pick in 2021, hardly saw the floor as a rookie. Tyasha Harris, the seventh overall pick in 2020, never receives as much run as she deserves. (I will say this in every article until it happens, Harris is traded, or I am handed a lifetime banishment from the legion of Couch Coaches.)
To evacuate the quicksand, Dallas must determine who it wants to build around and who is expendable. Rather than giving a small piece of the pie to everyone, give larger chunks to those who figure into the long-term outlook.
Much focus swirls around the Wings’ early twenty-somethings, but perhaps their two best and most reliable players are entering their primes. The Wings were a shocking 16.2 points per 100 possessions better with Isabelle Harrison on the floor last season, per WNBA.com. At 28, Harrison is entering the final year of her deal. Securing her status is a priority. Allisha Gray is a bulwark who can shoot or take you off the dribble. She turned 27 this week and is under team control through 2023.
An honest conversation must be had about Ogunbowale. One of my favorite college players ever, Ogunbowale is an elite isolation scorer and not much else. Per WNBA.com, Dallas was better in 2021 with Ogunbowale on the bench—slightly worse on offense and vastly better on defense. She holds a career 39 percent mark from the field through three professional seasons (38 percent in 2021), and has never averaged more than 3.5 assists per game.
Ogunbowale is a supreme talent—one of the best bucket getters in the league—but must seriously improve her playmaking and defense to take the next step. Winning a title with Ogunbowale as your best player feels far-fetched, despite Notre Dame doing just that in 2018. Winsidr’s excellent Wings correspondent, Jasmine Harper, recently noted in the company Slack how Ogunbowale and Sabally at times appear out of sync. There’s plenty of time for the two to develop chemistry, but that’s a foreboding nugget.
Dallas is a playoff team. It must operate as such. Entering phase two of the rebuild requires letting go of rebuilding norms. No longer should the Wings solely pursue players whose potential outweighs their current output. Dial Derek Fisher and take his temperature on Nneka Ogwumike. A sturdy framework exists for a win-win deal. The best way to continue nurturing Ogunbowale, Sabally, Mabrey, and others is by easing their palette.
Las Vegas Aces
Will Becky Hammon bring a title to Las Vegas?
Coming up with a question for Las Vegas was easier than guessing how Diana Taurasi will react to an erroneous call. The expectation new head coach Becky Hammon faces is simple: title or bust. Can the former New York Liberty stalwart and longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant bring home the hardware? I say yes.
Hammon enters an enviable situation. Few were more critical of Bill Laimbeer than the fool whose article you’re reading, but the former WNBA and NBA champion left his team in a decent spot. Per WNBA.com, Las Vegas led the WNBA in Offensive Rating and finished second in Defensive Rating last season. The Aces turned the ball over less than any other team, posted the highest assist-to-turnover ratio and true shooting percentage in hoops, and trailed only Connecticut on the rebounding ladder.
Swell! Las Vegas’s issue under Laimbeer wasn’t regular season excellence, but postseason performance. The Aces fell to Washington and Phoenix in the 2019 and 2021 semifinals, and got smoked by Seattle in the 2020 Finals. These aren’t poor results in the aggregate, but losing to a weaker Mercury bunch crystallized the clunkiness of Laimbeer’s playoff strategy. Change was necessary.
Props to the Aces for being proactive and luring someone who instantly projects as one of the best coaches in the league. Props to Laimbeer for understanding and accepting that it was time to take a step back. Props to Mark Davis for facilitating this while proudly donning the worst haircut humankind has ever seen.
I’m not sure folks are fully prepared for the terror Hammon is about to unleash on the other 11 ballclubs. Las Vegas has played at the fastest pace in the league three of the last four seasons (2018, 2020, 2021), finishing second in 2019. Despite this sprightly offensive style, the Aces suffered a severe aversion to three-pointers. This so-called contradictory smoothie generally worked for the team, but seemed to stifle the Aces most promising young talents.
In her introductory press conference, Hammon indicated that Las Vegas will “probably shoot a few more 3s.” Pair a lightning-quick attack with a rainstorm of longballs, and the rest of the W may be left in shambles. The Aces may get fitted for rings.
What would A’ja Wilson be able to accomplish with a bevy of space and a squadron of shooters surrounding her, we asked. What would Kelsey Plum be able to accomplish in a spread pick-and-roll offense designed to seek the longball, we pondered. What would Dearica Hamby be able to accomplish if she was utilized as a starter and not a reserve, I screamed at my screen.
Hopefully, answers await. The Plum variable is particularly intriguing. Plum enjoyed the best season of her four-year professional career in 2021, averaging 15 points on 44/39/94 shooting splits in just over 25 minutes per game. She has slowly but surely improved her defense, averaging a steal per game for the first time last season. She feeds off electric energy from the crowd.
Hammon and Plum already have a rapport. The two worked together prior to Hammon’s hiring, focusing on moves around the rim and finishing over bigger players. Plum reaped the rewards of that partnership last summer. What will a full season of mentorship hold for the University of Washington graduate? She is the all-time NCAA scoring leader, and should flourish with more offensive wiggle room.
Wilson is a restricted free agent, the franchise cornerstone, and a former MVP. Losing her is out of the question. Plum, Hamby, Chelsea Gray, Jackie Young, and Destiny Slocum are the only five Aces currently under contract for 2022, per Her Hoop Stats. Add Wilson to the mix, and you’re already working with a dynamite core.
Liz Cambage, an unrestricted free agent, is the biggest question mark on the market. A transcendent individual talent, Cambage is a poor fit alongside Wilson and eats into Hamby’s playing time. Redistribute Cambage’s cap hit to a strong shooter and/or wing defender, and Las Vegas will have a juggernaut on its hands.
How Las Vegas handles the rest of free agency could be the difference between another disappointing playoff exit and a trophy celebration. Pressure will be suffocating at times, but Hammon is up to the challenge. The WNBA Finals await.
Los Angeles Sparks
Does Derek Fisher have the gumption to trade Nneka Ogwumike or Kristi Toliver?
I get why this is an unpopular suggestion. Sparks fans have watched their team gutted over the past year, and Ogwumike is the lone holdover from an era of triumph. Ogwumike hit a game-winner in Game 5 of the 2016 WNBA Finals, was named league MVP that same season, and is the president of the players’ union. It’s hard to imagine a more admired player. Also, she’s only 31 years old and remains incredibly good at basketball. Injuries are a factor, but when healthy, Ogwumike is a game-shifting presence on both ends.
Professional basketball, it is commonly noted, is a business, not an exercise in nostalgia or goodwill. If Fisher—the Los Angeles head coach and general manager—is honest with himself, he’ll seriously explore the trade market, testing the waters to see what LA’s veterans may yield.
The Sparks are nowhere close to contending for a title. In 2021, they finished last in offensive rating, last in assist-to-turnover ratio, last in offensive and defensive rebounding, and 11th in assist percentage, per WNBA.com. Watching Los Angeles try to put the ball in the basket was like watching a toddler attempt The New York Times Sunday crossword. The Sparks did lead the league in one category: snooze fests. Save for a few mind-bending crossovers authored by Erica Wheeler, the season was eminently forgettable.
2021 draft picks Jasmine Walker (seventh overall) and Arella Guirantes (22nd overall) are LA’s only players under contract past 2022, per Her Hoop Stats. That means veterans Kristi Toliver, Gabby Williams, Amanda Zahui B, Brittney Sykes, Chiney Ogwumike, Nneka Ogwumike, and Wheeler are all on expiring deals. This is the perfect position from which to go after future assets: young players under team control, and draft picks. Los Angeles owes Dallas its 2022 first-round pick (fourth overall).
Many of the veterans listed above would fetch an enticing return from teams looking to win in 2022. Fisher should hold onto Sykes, a dynamic scorer in transition and one of the league’s premier perimeter defenders. The Sparks finished third in defensive rating last season, and Sykes was the linchpin. Everyone else is tradeable.
Only (Nneka) Ogwumike brings back a potential franchise cornerstone. Would Seattle hang up if Fisher offered Ogwumike for Ezi Magbegor and Epiphanny Prince? Would Dallas make Awak Kuier available in an effort to return Ogwumike to her home state?
Los Angeles must avoid basketball purgatory—the no man’s land between a postseason berth and the top of the lottery. Tanking is often the wisest path forward, as unalluring as it sounds. It’s not too early to start dreaming of, let’s say, Aliyah Boston, while redistributing minutes to a young core. Get Walker, Guirantes, Te’a Cooper, and Lauren Cox as many reps as possible, and don’t worry about results. Chasing a playoff invite would be imprudent.
Does Fisher have gumption to make a risky move? I’m skeptical. He’s far from the most popular figure in the WNBA, often ridiculed, questioned, and teased on social media. Perhaps he feels pressure to win in the present and protect his job. If that’s the case, Los Angeles faithful better buckle up because rockier waters await.
How long can Sylvia Fowles sustain her elite level of play?
I’ve chosen overarching questions for the majority of teams, but I’m straying uber-specific here. Fowles is an unrestricted free agent, and one of the most fascinating players on the market. She’s 36 years old with no signs of attrition. She remains a dominant force on both ends and is arguably the greatest center in league history. What does the future hold?
Uncertainty, if we’re being frank. Playing professional basketball into your late thirties comes with increased injury risk. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. I will eat donuts after the writing is done. Abundantly obvious statements aside, it’s easier for guards to age gracefully on the basketball court. We must appreciate the magnitude of what Fowles continues to accomplish on a game-to-game basis, because there isn’t a blueprint for what she’s doing.
Just because there isn’t a blueprint doesn’t mean it won’t continue for at least another year or two. Per Basketball Reference, Fowles ranked third in player efficiency rating in 2021, trailing only Brittney Griner and Jonquel Jones. She posted the best true shooting percentage in the league among players with at least 100 minutes. She finished in the top five in total rebounding percentage, and top ten in block percentage. She was second in defensive win shares, sixth in offensive win shares, and fourth overall. Come on! Where’s the Fowles / Candace Parker GOAT-TALK episode I’ve been asking for???
I was lucky enough to see Fowles in person for the first time last season. A shorthanded Lynx team fell to New York in the third game of the season, as Sabrina Ionescu posted her first ever triple-double. Napheesa Collier was finishing a stint overseas, and Minnesota struggled to find a groove offensively, save for Fowles. Looking on in the plush Barclays Center seating, I was blown away by the ease in which Fowles toyed with her defenders. I’d like to see Fowles behind a drum set because her rhythm is impeccable. She dropped 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting and snared 11 rebounds. It was like observing a students-versus-teachers game; Fowles seemed to be saying, “give me the ball on the block and I’m scoring … we both know there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Fowles is beloved by all in Minnesota, and all on the Lynx. This matters. “Mama Syl,” as she’s affectionately referred to by teammates, is a steadying presence as there ever was. If Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve ever felt the risk of re-signing Fowles was too great, the team would be losing its rock, its heartbeat.
Reeve is as great a coach and decision maker as Fowles is a player, and the overwhelming odds point to the two sides reaching an agreement. So where does that leave Minnesota?
No one matters more than Collier. (You didn’t truly think I was going to limit myself to discussing only one player here, did you?) Collier is due to have a baby in May, meaning she will likely miss the start of the season. Fowles and Collier form a fearsome duo at the 4 and 5, with Damiris Dantas also in the mix should Reeve desire a bigger lineup. Fowles’ immense defensive presence helps keep Collier fresh on the other end. The two rely upon one another, increasing the urgency of getting Fowles to close out her career in Minnesota.
Kayla McBride had a sneakily strong season in her first campaign with the Lynx. Layshia Clarendon, an unrestricted free agent, was equally impactful, and Minnesota should do everything in its power to bring them back. At full strength, the Lynx are a contender.
If I had to guess, Fowles’ production dips slightly in 2022. How could she possibly maintain her 2021 level? Even so, nothing about Fowles’ game screams, “this will age poorly!” I envision at least another two years of All-Star level production from the greatest center ever.
The Lynx are very much still in the mix.
Did Phoenix’s title window shut at Wintrust Arena?
Against all odds (well, against some odds), Phoenix made the 2021 WNBA Finals. Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith played some of the best basketball of their sterling careers, Diana Taurasi battled the pain emanating from her ankle, and the Mercury nearly collected another banner.
Phoenix benefited from some good fortune to reach the final stage of the postseason. Las Vegas underperformed, Connecticut tapped out early, Seattle wasn’t healthy, and New York failed to put the finishing touches on a first-round upset. Still, luck is a part of every playoff run. The Mercury coalesced at the perfect time, and took advantage of circumstances. Mostly, Griner proved an unstoppable force.
Was that Phoenix’s best and final chance at reaching the mountaintop with its current core? I won’t make you wait for my answer—yes. This will likely be met with the old refrain, “doubt Diana at your own risk.” I get it. The three-time champion feeds off #haters and could’ve tapped out when her ankle flared up.
But can we be real for a minute? Taurasi was bad in the Finals against Chicago. Not “superstar on an off-night” bad. No, this was “Fergie singing the national anthem” bad. In Game 4—the clincher—Taurasi was the worst player on the floor. I’m not exaggerating for effect: her -22 was a game low, and no one else was particularly close. The UConn graduate spent more time complaining about calls than she did playing defense. Chicago attacked her mercilessly on that end, then watched with glee as she shot 4-for-16 on the other end. It wasn’t just the clincher; Taurasi went 1-for-10 in a Game 3 loss and managed but five assists the entire series (she averaged over four per game in the regular season). Her value came as a decoy and a spot-up threat. Anything involving strenuous movements was a no-go.
Taurasi is the greatest player in franchise history, and one of the league’s all-time best. Phoenix will let her play as long as she wants. But as her stretches of brilliance become more and more fleeting, one has to wonder whether Phoenix’s title window—at least with the current core—has slid shut. Taurasi and Griner are under contract through 2022; Diggins-Smith through 2023. Are the Mercury already eyeing a Taurasi replacement to re-bolster their Big 3?
The league will be stronger in 2022. The Aces upgraded at head coach. So did New York. Washington is once again among the mix of contenders. Free agency looms, but Seattle, Minnesota, Chicago, and Connecticut will all be chasing titles. Phoenix must wade through a surplus of good basketball teams to return where it went in 2021.
The Mercury have yet to name a new head coach after Sandy Brondello bolted to New York. Might it be wise to take care of that soon? Undoubtedly, Phoenix will appoint a new leader moments after this article is published. I’ll sigh, or maybe chuckle. It’s inconceivable to imagine the Mercury entering free agency without a head coach.
Phoenix was active yesterday, signing Shey Peddy to a training camp contract, extending a qualifying offer to restricted free agent, Kia Nurse, and waiving Megan Walker (rough!). Folks seem to think Sophie Cunningham may move on, though, if I was a fan of the team, I’d rather see her brought back in an expanded role.
If Griner maintains her MVP-level play, and Diggins-Smith maintains her All-WNBA level play, Phoenix will once again be in the conversation come playoff time. Who knows—maybe Taurasi turns back the clock, enjoys a patch of clean health, and the Mercury rip through their competition with a vengeance.
I see the pendulum swinging in the other direction. Regression is coming. Phoenix’s title window is no longer; you have Candace Parker, Kahleah Copper, Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, and James Wade to thank for that.
Is Jewell Loyd sold on being the No. 2 option?
We await imminent resolution to this final question, one which will be key in determining who wins the 2022 WNBA Finals. This section is shorter, not because the Storm don’t deserve a deep dive, but because the most pressing question facing the franchise is one that can’t be answered without speaking to Loyd herself. Also, haven’t you read enough of me already? I’m pushing it with the word totals this week.
Loyd is a player who isn’t widely discussed outside of women’s basketball circles but who is adored within them. She defends with verve and shoots with passion. Is there anyone you’d rather have hoisting an end-of-the-shot-clock heave than Loyd? Her handles, her moves, her skill unlock looks that the rest of the league will never see. She’s a fairly ideal 2-guard for the modern game.
Loyd could be the number one option on a number of teams. Does she care? Winning two titles in Seattle has established her as an all-time franchise great, and playing alongside the transcendent Breanna Stewart has its significant advantages. Barring a cow hopping over the moon, Stewart will re-up with the Storm.
Seattle cored Loyd earlier today, giving the team exclusive negotiating rights. If Loyd wanted out, she could force or request a sign-and-trade. Then again, Sue Bird recently announced that she’s running it back for a final campaign, and perhaps Loyd will happily accept a one-year offer before reassessing at the beginning of 2023.
Loyd’s third option would be to continue as a No. 2 in a different setting. That feels more far-fetched than a subdued Ryan Ruocco behind the mic, but perhaps returning home and joining the defending champs gives Loyd a better chance at her third ring. Making the money work in that scenario is incredibly unlikely.
The grass is always greener until you reach the other side. Natasha Howard found this out the hard way with New York in 2021. Loyd has everything she needs in Seattle, and playing second fiddle to Stewart doesn’t manifest in the traditional sense. The Storm have never struggled with juggling egos, for the only outsized ego on the team is Bird, and she’s one of the great distributors in league history. Seattle is the antithesis of a “my turn, your turn” environment. They share the ball and enjoy doing it. I’ve never once felt like Loyd was getting the short end of the stick, so far as shot attempts are concerned. In 2021, she averaged a career high 14.8 field goal attempts per game.
If it’s credit Loyd seeks, that’s a different story. Naturally, the national media treats Stewart and Bird as deities while sweeping Loyd under the rug. Loyd doesn’t strike me as a person who cares about stuff like that. Again, this is a guessing game unless you know Loyd personally.
It’s time to sit back and see where the free agency puzzle pieces fall.