Two weeks into the WNBA’s free agency period, we’ve seen big moves by all 12 teams. Signings, star relocation, massive trades — on Feb. 10 we essentially had a five-team trade. Five! That’s 41.667 percent of the league involved in one trade.
Players regularly outgrow more limited roles on their original teams, particularly since the WNBA has so few roster spots to go around. Under previous collective bargaining agreements, that didn’t mean very much. The salary max was low enough that around 40 percent of the league could be paid at that level, giving other teams little to lure players away financially. And because of “coring” and other anti-movement rules, players who wished to leave could only threaten to sit out in order to force their teams to make a deal.
That’s all changed. And, accordingly, what last offseason brought was less a defined set of winners and losers and more a Rubik’s Cube ceaselessly turning to get a more effective fit among players and roles.
So it has gone here in 2021, where virtually every team has gotten better, with the notable exception of the Seattle Storm, who you might remember a) already possess the greatest player on the planet in Breanna Stewart and b) won the WNBA title convincingly last season.
We’re moving inexorably toward a more efficient league, eventually getting to a point where all 12 teams are filled with stars from top to bottom, and those stars play one another to the final possession of every game, the 12 teams finishing the season 18-18 apiece and forcing the league to devise unimaginably complicated tiebreakers every year until they finally add a team in, say, the Bay Area.
In the meantime, these are the teams that have improved the most so far in this wildest of WNBA offseasons.
After some Odyssey Sims-related delays, the reported deal bringing Aerial Powers to Minnesota is now complete, as the Lynx dealt Sims and opened a final protected contract slot for Powers.
Which means that the Lynx have added no fewer than three big-time contributors to a team that already featured enough talent to finish top-five in both offensive and defensive rating in 2020.
Last season, injuries and depth charts finally ceased conspiring against Powers, and we saw how great she could be, with a true shooting percentage of .596. Her strong 5-foot-9 frame should be a delightfully versatile match on the wing opposite Napheesa Collier, with Sylvia Fowles, the best five in the history of the WNBA, at center.
Yet it could be that Kayla McBride is an even bigger impact player for Minnesota, given the uncertainty the team had at shooting guard. McBride is as steady a performer as the league has, a 3-point specialist with strength to get to the rim, an ability to guard anyone 1-3 and a work ethic that somehow stands out even among WNBA players.
Add to that Natalie Achonwa — a smart, passing big who gives Fowles a chance to rest and offers yet another look up front along with prototype stretch 4/5 Damiris Dantas — and what coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve has built isn’t so much a team of stars as a team of puzzle pieces that fit together.
New York Liberty
OK, fine: Of course the Liberty got better — they had nowhere to go but up. But this is quite a rise.
At the bottom of the league in offensive efficiency last year (and by quite a bit!), New York has added pieces that complement the players planning to return from overseas, making a group that, on paper, seems perfect for coach Walt Hopkins’s five-out offensive scheme.
Without overcomplicating this, on offense alone they’ve added players in Natasha Howard, Sami Whitcomb and Betnijah Laney, who last year shot 35 percent, 38.1 percent and 40.5 percent from three, respectively. As a team, the Liberty shot 27.7 percent from deep.
So, this would be better.
But the true 2021 Liberty is likely to be better still. Sabrina Ionescu, both for passing and shooting purposes, will affect the offensive capacity after playing just three games last season. The two best 3-point shooters New York had in 2019 — Marine Johannès and Rebecca Allen — are expected back as well.
And that’s before we get to the defensive side: Howard is a former league Defensive Player of the Year, Laney has made her living for years as a pick-and-roll defender, and Whitcomb, possibly the most underrated player in the league, once again ranked near the top of Synergy’s defensive points per possession leaderboard, 16th of 75 players with at least 100 possessions logged in 2020.
Bringing Amanda Zahui B. back and pushing Kiah Stokes into a defensive stopper off the bench would have been ideal, but Zahui B. is headed to Los Angeles. Still, Layshia Clarendon is around to mentor the guard group and provide some two-PG setups with Ionescu as well.
This is not a 2-20 team. This is a playoff contender.
Of course, maybe it’s all moot since the 2019 Mystics, who set offensive records and couldn’t be stopped, are back in 2021 with some new superpowers.
Again, this doesn’t require a lot of overthinking. Elena Delle Donne, the 2019 MVP, is expected to return. Tina Charles, a former MVP who won the award playing for then-Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault, is the new center, eager to win a championship. And Alysha Clark, who just completed a season in Seattle where she shot 52.2 percent from three and finished fifth in the league in win shares, is D.C.’s replacement for Powers. Most players would struggle to fill Powers’s production, but the Mystics may have gotten the one free agent who could match or exceed her.
One critical order of business left: The Mystics haven’t yet secured Natasha Cloud, the engine of that offense and a critical piece in the locker room as well. They also could use 2019 finals MVP Emma Meesseman, who is going to miss some time in 2021 for overseas commitments. But they have plausible answers for a lack of Meesseman on the roster. They absolutely need Cloud.
Coach and general manager James Wade came to Chicago and promptly turned the Sky, a talented roster, into a playoff team. The real puzzle was how to go from good to great. The pieces in place didn’t necessarily need exchanging — not with Courtney Vandersloot setting assist records, her wife Allie Quigley as sharp as ever from beyond the arc, and Diamond DeShields with one of the most intriguing collections of skills at both ends in the league today.
The real question was how to find a combination of leadership and two-way skill at the five that would allow Chicago to continue making some tradeoffs at the defensive end, knowing the rim would be protected, adding rebounding prowess and, in a perfect world, the kind of signature star who would bring people to Wintrust Arena. Maybe someone with a huge offseason TV role who brings the kind of stardom the Sky could use to raise its profile in a crowded sports market.
Yeah, Candace Parker was the obvious fit here, coming home after 17 years away from Naperville, Illinois. But she’s no mere publicity stunt, with a reigning Defensive Player of the Year trophy and the most efficient shooting season she’s had since 2011 on her resume. She remains that fascinating duality, a skillset more common than when she first entered the league because she was so transcendent that a generation since has consciously tried to emulate her.
But let’s just isolate a pair of stats. Chicago dropped from first in 2019 to fourth in pace last season, in part thanks to a decline from sixth to eighth in defensive rebounds. Running after missed shots is a whole lot easier than taking the ball out of the bottom of the basket, and so it is no small thing that the 2020 leader in defensive rebounds was … Candace Parker.
Chicago has gone from good to great.