Free Agency Preview — Eastern Conference

With free agency just around the corner, the WNBA offseason is heating up. Half a dozen coaches have traded team-branded polos and shuffled around, so there’s even more potential for chaos than even initially anticipated. Tantalizing talents twinkle atop mock draft boards, adding further intrigue as cap-strapped GMs attempt to piece together a roster that can compete with the defending champs in Las Vegas. It’s a twelve-way game of chess, where each team can only see their own board. 

In order to help keep track of it all, our Winsidr staff has previewed each franchise: where they stand, what decisions they’ve already made, and what they might do in the coming weeks. Part one, the Eastern Conference, is here; part two—the Western Conference—will drop tomorrow.

 

Atlanta Dream – Matt Cohen

Free Agents: Monique Billings (UFA), Maite Cazorla (Suspended/Expired Contract), Nia Coffey (UFA), AD (Reserved), Tiffany Hayes (Suspended/Expired Contract), Beatrice Mompremier (Reserved), Kia Vaughn (Retired), Erica Wheeler (UFA)

In my season review, I mentioned the Dream’s impressive start in 2022; that success begins and ends with Rhyne Howard. What a phenomenal year Howard had, leading to an unanimous Rookie of the Year selection (one likely decided several months earlier). The Dream were also buoyed by several key veterans—Vaughn, Wheeler, Billings, and Hayes—who kept the team moving in the Wright direction, despite their second-half struggles.

Speaking of struggles, the Dream were a sieve defensively for much of the second half of the season. Paired with a poor offensive showing, their 4-11 record after July 6 was something to be praised, all things considered. 

Entering this season, the Dream have decisions to make, as a number of players, particularly veterans, could bolt for greener pastures. Additionally, they have the third overall pick in this April’s draft, so getting a high-caliber player—someone who can score and take pressure off Howard, as well as play defense—will be greatly appreciated. That talent could come in the form of Haley Jones, Elizabeth Kitley, Diamond Miller, or Stephanie Soares (who recently tore her ACL and is out for the remainder of the season). This team also needs size behind perennially underrated Cheyenne Parker, so look for them to explore options like Azurá Stevens or Brionna Jones in free agency.

 

Chicago Sky – Jasmine Harper

Free agents: Courtney Vandersloot (UFA), Allie Quigley (UFA), Candace Parker (UFA), Emma Meesseman (UFA), Azurá Stevens (UFA)

After the Sky’s 2022 season ended at the hands of the Connecticut Sun in the semifinals, the hope of creating an empire in Chicago became painfully grim. A lot was at stake for the Sky last season, with Quigley’s retirement lurking in the background, Vandersloot’s future unclear, and Parker returning to free agency in 2023. Though back-to-back titles may have banded the 2021 championship core together for one to two more seasons, the Sky’s inability to overcome a scrappy Sun team seemingly sent three of the league’s most influential players into retirement. There was no surprise that Quigley was ready to step away from the game, yet Parker and Vandersloot’s next steps were to be determined. To end the season, Parker said she didn’t want to cheat the game, and that her future as a WNBA player was undecided. In addition, rumors swarmed Vandersloot on possibly rejoining the Seattle Storm. Where does that leave Chicago?

The Sky only have five players locked in for next season: Kahleah Copper, Ruthy Hebard, Julie Allemand, and Rebekah Gardner. Since Parker’s 2021 arrival in Chicago, the team remains in the championship conversation. If the Sky are looking to further their title aspirations, their first order of business is re-signing Parker and Vandersloot. Likely, both players would prefer to return together, and, if they do, signing Parker and Vandersloot to a vet minimum (or something less than their 2022 salaries) would be very beneficial to Chicago’s $931,801 cap space. In return, the team can invest in more assets for a win-now squad. 

Additionally, the Sky are in need of a frontcourt. Locking in Meesseman and Stevens again would be ideal for Chicago based on chemistry and previous success. However, with prioritization being an impeding factor for Meesseman, there’s no definitive confirmation that she will return from overseas to play in 2023. On top of that, both player’s contracts would be hefty, as Meesseman ($185,000 in 2022) and Stevens ($140,000 in 2022) would likely negotiate for max contracts. Should Wade and the front office want new talent, unrestricted free agents Cheyenne Parker, Isabelle Harrison, and Brionna Jones have the bounce to thrive beside Parker. 

Should Vandersloot not return, the Sky need to exercise their team option for Dana Evans’ 2024 rookie scale contract. Having played behind the prolific Sloot at the point, Evans already knows the team’s system, is reliable for clutch shots, and has exemplified poise as a facilitator in tense situations. If Chicago seeks experience in free agency, Moriah Jefferson would be a solid pickup, with her consistency and clutch-time performances.

 

Connecticut Sun – Kevin Forch

Free Agents: Natisha Hiedeman (RFA), Joyner Holmes (Reserved), Brionna Jones (UFA), Bria Hartley (UFA), Courtney Williams (UFA)

The 2022 WNBA runner-ups are in a curious position heading into free agency. They have six players under contract, including franchise stalwarts Jonquel Jones, Alyssa Thomas, and DeWanna Bonner—each who helped lead the team to a 25-11 record and a top-half finish in almost every team stats category, including points, rebounds, and field goal percentage. This is a team that did almost everything well. However, they are now a franchise looking for a fresh start after longtime head coach Curt Miller left for Los Angeles, leaving holes to fill both on the coaching bench and the front office.

A top priority for Connecticut figures to be bringing back 2022 Sixth Player of the Year Brionna Jones. The six-year veteran averaged 13.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.2 steals, and led the team in win shares, according to Basketball Reference. The problem is that Connecticut cannot give Jones the max contract that other teams are sure to offer. According to Her Hoops Stats, the Sun have just over $436,000 to spend this free agency on five players, meaning at most they could sign four minimum contracts and offer Jones around $187,000, much less than she could make elsewhere.

If the team isn’t able to bring her back in 2023, they could use part of their cap space to re-sign Hiedeman and Williams, who provided backcourt stability after Jasmine Thomas went down last year with injury. Supplementing their backup big spot with someone like Monique Billings, Isabelle Harrison, or Nikolina Milić would also put the Sun in a position to shine.

 

Indiana Fever – Tristan Tucker

Free Agents: Tiffany Mitchell (UFA), Victoria Vivians (RFA), Emma Cannon (RFA), Khayla Pointer (Reserved), Rennia Davis (Reserved), Bernadett Határ (Suspended/Expired Contract), Chelsey Perry (Suspended/Expired Contract), Temi Fagbenle (Reserved)

The Indiana Fever plunged into the deep end of a full-scale youth movement last season, giving big minutes to a historically large rookie class. Five of the Fever’s top nine players in total minutes last season were rookies, per Basketball Reference. Barring something unforeseen, South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston will join Indiana’s young corps as the No. 1 overall selection in the 2023 draft. That, along with the presence of Kelsey Mitchell, as well as picks 7, 13, 17, and 25 means that general manager Lin Dunn has no shortage of options in fleshing out this young roster.

While the Fever only mustered five wins last season, the shifting culture, along with new head coach Christie Sides, might make the Fever an enticing, up-and-coming free-agent destination. At the end of the 2022 season, Dunn stated that she would ideally like to bring in two veteran players to help launch this team from a rebuild to a playoff contender. Dunn and the Fever are armed with over $500,000  in cap space, per Her Hoops Stats, to make such a vision come to fruition.

When looking at the roster’s current construction, rookie sensation NaLyssa Smith and surprise star Queen Egbo make up the frontcourt. Assuming Boston is added to the equation, and Emily Engstler progresses in the offseason, the Fever’s bigs look stacked. Destanni Henderson and Lexie Hull are prime candidates to break out next year after promising rookie seasons, which doesn’t leave the Fever with much work to do with this section of the roster.

Where the Fever need to improve is on the wings, where they have virtually no depth. Hull and Engstler are two options to plug in here, but the Fever will likely make veteran acquisitions at this position. The club could opt to bring back Vivians to help with depth, though it would make sense to look to upgrade.

The Next’s Tony East mentioned Nia Coffey as an option for Indiana to explore—someone who could fill in as a stopgap while the Fever draft another young wing to develop under Coffey. Coffey, who is coming off her sixth season, played under Sides last season and is a logical fit for this roster’s current construction. If the Fever decide to take a wing in the draft with the seventh overall pick, they will have a plethora of options. Baylor’s Aijha Blackwell and Tennessee’s Jordan Horston and Rickea Jackson could be developmental options on the wing.

After the wing is sorted, the Fever can decide who of their free agents to keep. I expect Tiffany Mitchell to be on the move, as she was slowly phased out of the rotation last year and played her lowest minute-per-game average in her career. Outside of that, Vivians, Cannon, Pointer, Davis, Határ, and Perry all provide some intrigue.

See Also

 

New York Liberty – Myles Ehrlich

Free Agents: Crystal Dangerfield (Reserved), Marine Johannès (Reserved), Sami Whitcomb (UFA), Han Xu (Reserved)

Last season was another step in the right direction for the New York Liberty, who hosted their first home playoff game since relocating to the Barclays Center. Sabrina Ionescu finally experienced a healthy campaign and, with that, showed the sustained success we’d only seen in glimpses at the pro level. Natasha Howard notched her second All-Star campaign and became a leader in the huddle. Johannès, through dazzling passes and otherworldly shotmaking, took the W by storm.

Heading into 2023, the primary focus for this Liberty team needs to be consistency. It was quite simple: when the team took care of the ball, they competed. It’s no coincidence that their season turnaround came when Dangerfield entered the lineup as a steadying point guard. Still, on the year, the turnover discrepancy explains why this team finished four games below .500. The Liberty coughed it up 15.5 times a night (eighth in the league), while forcing only 12.6 miscues per game from opponents (the second-worst mark in the W). Something that promises to help with that: having Betnijah Laney back to 100 percent. In Laney, New York returns its best two-way player and the ultimate lead-by-example player. Still, it feels like this team is one major piece away…

When you look at free agency targets, you need to address the elephant in the room, and I’m not talking about Ellie

Last winter, Liberty brass courted Breanna Stewart. Ultimately, after Sue Bird delayed her retirement for a final season, Stewart returned to the Seattle Storm on a one-year deal. With lots of question marks outside of Jewell Loyd on that roster, perhaps Stewart exchanges the Emerald City for the Empire State. The fit as a stretch-four is perfect. Sure, I say that even knowing that Stewie can slot into any lineup and make it better, but think about how dynamic this offensive five would be: Howard, Stewart, Laney, Ionescu, Johannès. Adding a perennial MVP candidate like Stewart would elevate this roster to a championship contender overnight.

If New York is unable to land Stewart, another target, if the team opted not to bring back Dangerfield, would be a point guard to keep Ionescu off the ball. There are some names that would make sense here, but a defensive-minded guard like Erica Wheeler stands out to me. In Atlanta last season, the veteran guard held opponents to just 38 percent shooting and ranked ninth among players with 100 or more possessions at defensive turnover rate, with a mark of 15.8 percent, per Synergy. There’s a good amount of depth on this roster, from Han Xu to DiDi Richards to 2022 lottery pick Nyara Sabally. Can New York fit all the pieces together to make a legitimate title run?

 

Washington Mystics – Matt Cohen

Free Agents: Alysha Clark (UFA), Tianna Hawkins (UFA), Jazmine Jones (Reserved), Kiara Lundquist (Suspended/Expired Contract), Rui Machida (Reserved), Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (UFA), Evina Westbrook (Reserved), Elizabeth Williams (UFA)

As mentioned in my season review, the Washington Mystics were a measuring stick for consistent, defensive prowess, with several players finishing in the upper quarter of defensive rating, points allowed per game, and other telling statistics.

However, during their post-season media availability, players lamented the team’s offensive struggles. Much to Mike Thibault’s chagrin, the team played at a snail’s pace the whole season, often highlighting the lack of creativity and ability to get into their offensive sets. 

The Mystics, notoriously, have one of the better cap situations in the W, with both the fourth overall pick in the draft and plenty of cap room to boot. In addition to the draft, the Mystics can likely snag a top-tier free agent or two to help fill out the roster. If Williams leaves, look for the team to add some size to back up Shakira Austin, either in free agency or via the draft. The team also needs offensive wing play and scoring punch. While Natasha Cloud is a strong facilitator, surrounding her with more offensive options will aid Eric Thibault during his first year at the helm.

In my first mock draft in November, I pegged Ashley Joens as the Mystics pick, but now I could see them making a play for Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist, who just so happens to be leading the country in scoring. In my season review, I mentioned Brittney Sykes as a target in free agency, as she fits this team’s defensive mold, and her offensive bag includes dynamic ways to score. Look for the Mystics to get creative in finding ways to help their stagnant offense without sacrificing their defense.

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