Restricted Free Agency: Deal or No Deal?

For most teams, restricted free agents are a risky deal. Unrestricted free agents who are out of contract can sign with anyone without any restrictions because they have spent five or more years in the league or have less than five years but have been released by their teams and cleared waivers. In contrast, restricted free agents typically have four years of service and are coming off their rookie contracts, giving their teams the “right of first refusal” to match whatever offer they sign with another team.

Similar to the “core” designation, which is often applied to teams’ top unrestricted free agents—like Jewell Loyd—to prevent them from being signed by other teams, restricted free agency ensures that teams have an opportunity to retain their draft talent coming off their rookie contract while also giving the player the flexibility to sign elsewhere if their team deems them surplus to the roster.

Learn more about which WNBA free agents are restricted and unrestricted on Winsidr’s Free Agency Tracker.

In the case of courting a restricted free agent, the current team’s ability to match offers means that any outside bidders have to pay higher than the player’s nominal value on the free-agent market or provide a significantly better basketball situation in order to snag them away. Furthermore, teams can offer their restricted free agents longer contracts with bigger compensation packages, providing the current team with an advantage to retain the services of the best restricted free agents.

In the past few days, teams have been reported to be finalizing deals to retain two key restricted free agents, A’ja Wilson and Myisha Hines-Allen, highlighting the quality present in the restricted free agent market and how much priority their teams place on retaining that quality. Those two may be the best options in 2022’s restricted free agency market, but they’re not the only good buys that teams could aim for.

Former All-Stars Diamond DeShields and Kia Nurse are also restricted free agents alongside WNBA champions Mercedes Russell and Jordin Canada. DeShields has already earned an All-WNBA Second Team selection in her young career, and Canada’s defensive ability has landed her on the All-Defensive First Team. There are still many unanswered questions about this group, but it’s pretty clear that there’s a lot of talent there.

Thus, the allure of the restricted free agency market is in the margins between the current team’s evaluation of their player and the future team’s evaluation of the player based on team needs, fit, player development, salary cap space and contract negotiation. Attempting to acquire a restricted free agent is a risky deal, and it’s up to the front office to navigate it in a way that positions the organization for the best possible outcome.

Here’s Why Teams Should Shop in Restricted Free Agency

The most obvious reason to pursue restricted free agents is that teams would be getting young, talented players about to enter the prime of their careers. Five of the top 10 selections in the 2018 draft are included in this current group of restricted free agents. The draft is not a one-to-one proof of talent, but it’s still a good predictor of future ability or potential peaks. The median age of the group is also 26 years old, which is the cusp of the projected period when most athletes peak. Overall, teams hoping to buy into the best years of promising players should do so now. Potential can be a fraught thing when you’re dealing with projected stars and superstars, but it’s worth the risk to see them break out and have their best years in the team’s colors.

Additionally, most of these players have fluid situations with their current teams. Aside from Wilson, Hines-Allen and Russell, who have been reported to be nearing finalized deals with their current teams, all other restricted free agents have remained seemingly outside the picture with regards to their team’s early priorities. It can be erroneous to glean who’s been prioritized from what isn’t reported or what moves teams make early in the offseason, but this year it fits with the players’ positions in their teams’ pecking orders that they are mid-level priorities, which the teams likely hope to resolve later into the offseason.

DeShields has already stated that she’s unlikely to return to Chicago, as reported by Annie Costabile of the Chicago Sun-Times, and it shouldn’t be a surprise if borderline star players—like Nurse—also want to explore their options and find the best situation. Five of the 10 restricted free agents have already changed teams at least once, and the prospect of moving on to a situation where they’ll be able to find bigger roles, more money or both is something that should appeal to fringe contributors, such as Lindsay Allen and Lexie Brown, and even key role players, like Stephanie Talbot.

Finally, this restricted free agent group contains “wings” with size and shooting tailor-made for the modern game. Four of the players in this group—Talbot, Hines-Allen, DeShields and Nurse—swing between small forward and shooting guard and can even bump up to power forward in small-ball lineups by virtue of being at least 6’0”. They’re also theoretically shooters—two of these four have at least one season above 36.0 percent from the perimeter (which is above league average) on at least 2.0 attempts per game, and a third player comes in at just under 36.0 percent but on much higher volume. They’ve not been entirely consistent with their shooting, but there’s enough there to buy into a versatile, lengthy player with the shooting that allows a team to play a couple of different ways.

There’s a case to be made for trying to find a major contributor in this group, whether as a second or third star or even as a high-level role player. However, that doesn’t mean it’s as straightforward as putting up the cash.

Here’s What Teams Should Avoid When Shopping in Restricted Free Agency

The most obvious pitfall of shopping in restricted free agency is committing too much cap space to try and ensnare someone away when there might be other options on the overall free agent market that provide similar impact at a much lower cost. Teams have to be absolutely certain that they’re upgrading their team before paying a premium.

However, discerning whether or not a particular player will be an upgrade isn’t an easy task. The gap between the future team’s estimation and the current team’s estimation of a player’s abilities is the potential payoff for the future team, but there’s common wisdom in trusting that the current team—which has seen a player up close in training and on the floor for at least a season—has a good grasp of what the player is capable of. Teams should certainly be conducting their own evaluation based on film, scouting reports and whatever other primary sources they can find, but they should take care not to eschew the player’s current team’s evaluation of them. The current team could just as easily know that the player will never develop their shooting as they could simply want someone who fits a new style better. In the first case, it’s a bad bet on a potentially average player; in the second, it’s a good bet on a potentially better fit.

DeShields has faced the most scrutiny among this group about what’s a good figure for signing her on, but Canada’s offense, Russell’s limited role, Nurse’s health and defense, and Brown’s ability to contribute at a high level also warrant consideration when figuring out how much cap space they should command. Most of these players should likely get signed for over $100,000, but with the WNBA’s incredibly tight cap, the difference between $150,000 and $120,000 for a borderline star player could be critical.

Winsidr has details on each WNBA team’s cap situations and how much they’ll have to spend on these free agents.

The last CBA increased the max and supermax contracts that players could earn and provided some great non-monetary benefits, but it also did little to expand the cap in a way that allows teams to put together a roster of quality players without giving anything up. There’s no way to pay the team’s best two or three superstars like they’re worth and still have enough to sign borderline stars for roster spots four through six. The hard cap, the abundance of affordable talent outside the league and the small margin of error for contenders make the financial risk of signing a borderline star at a relatively high cost great enough to complicate restricted free agency play.

Finally, fit and need are nonnegotiable parts of shopping in restricted free agency. Teams should not be getting in on restricted free agency if it doesn’t make sense for their team’s needs and there’s no fit with the available players.  For example, DeShields is a player who thrives off cuts and attacking closeouts; she might find some joy in Las Vegas with an elite playmaker like Chelsea Gray, but is she what they need to get over the top?

With fewer restricted free agent options, unclear projected ability and inconclusive salary situations, getting the best out of restricted free agency requires a solid plan that puts the team in the best position a few years down the line.

Amaka’s Restricted Free Agency Playbook

Wilson, Hines-Allen and Russell might be close to finalized deals, but until you’re certain the ink is dry on their contracts, it’s a no-brainer to reach out to their agents and inquire about their services with a max offer. They may not bite, but you absolutely must check them off your list.

See Also

Seattle is in a pretty tight spot with its contracts. The Storm have reportedly agreed to terms with Briann January, Mercedes Russell, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd at pretty sizable figures. There’s potential that Talbot, Canada or both may be headed out. Talbot is a high-value role player who can complement stars without the ball in her hands. That’s absolutely necessary for any contender or team with multiple ball-handlers. She may likely re-sign with Seattle for between $90,000 and $100,000, but the Connecticut Sun, who need some guard/wing depth, should be trying to steal her for between $100,000 and $120,000.

January’s signing almost assures Canada is out. Canada is a proven defender who can run a backup offense at the point. She was poised to take over for Sue Bird, but that plan seems to have been shunted this offseason. Are her offense and playmaking sufficient to make her a starting point guard? Does her defense make up for it à la Jasmine Thomas? Watching her overseas during this offseason should provide answers. I think Canada will sign with Phoenix in a reunion with former head coach Vanessa Nygaard. She just doesn’t have a lot of options.

Nurse is perhaps the one on the list with the highest priority by her own team. Phoenix Mercury signed her to be the borderline star to their Big Three, but I wouldn’t say she lived up to that role before missing their storied run to the Finals after tearing her ACL. Phoenix will likely double down on this project, but it’s worth a shot to try and pry her away. She’s a high-volume three-point shooter who can stretch the floor for a quality big or slashing guards. Nurse likely re-signs in Phoenix—it’s good for both.

DeShields has the biggest gap between her potential and her proven quality, which is why she’s lower down my priority list than others, but there’s enough there for any team willing to take the risk. DeShields already confirmed her exit from Chicago, so she will be on the move this offseason. Could this be a key piece for Atlanta? Or even a franchise resetting one for Indiana? Would she be willing to take less than what has been speculated she wants? I don’t have answers there. But the answers would determine where she ends up—contender or rebuilder. I hope to see DeShields in Indiana. They need a potential star to build around, and she could be it.

Brown is a player I’m higher on than most. Brown was a fringe player for the Sky who isn’t a priority for them. However, she flashed real shooting chops in college and her second season in the WNBA—she shot 38.5 percent from three on 4.1 attempts per game—and has shown to be defensively sound enough to be a high-level contributor. It just hasn’t materialized. She’s currently playing well in the Athletes Unlimited tournament, but I don’t think it will translate into a contract with Chicago. They just signed 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman and will need to cut Brown to retain the rest of their stars and stay under the cap. I think she stays outside of the league due to a lack of interest.

Beyond the eight above, there’s no one else that excites at more than the minimum. Allen proved to be a solid backup pass-first guard in Indiana, but her defensive flaws might make other options more appealing. Meanwhile, Monique Billings’ ability to run the floor and hoover up offensive boards is appealing, but her player archetype is a little behind the modern game, and she’s undersized on defense. Both could make good backups with small roles elsewhere, but their bigger roles on their current teams make the prospect of moving somewhere else less likely. Teams can find serviceable backups at the veteran minimum up and down the league and outside of it, and there’s no significant gain to trying to pry one away in restricted free agency.

One Last Note…

Overall, I think restricted free agents offer a good mix of proven stars, borderline stars with the potential to break out and high-value role players that can shore up contenders. Whatever teams need this offseason, there’s an opportunity to try and get a quality player that teams aren’t paying attention to right now.

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