WNBA Free Agency is Underway, and Thus, a Renaissance of Player Movement

Credit to @Timi_093

About a month ago, the players’ association of the WNBA signed a new collective bargaining agreement. In doing so, the new arrangement came with paid maternity leave, new benefits and accommodation for travel, and best of all, significant increases for player contracts. 

To break it down, before the new CBA, players were basically tied to their teams for almost a decade. Essentially, after a player would get drafted, teams would have either 4-5 years of team control. After that, they become restricted free agents, where the team they are with currently can match any offer sheet from any team around the league if they choose to. Once those contracts run out, the player would then become an unrestricted free agent, except for this one condition that has helped teams: the Core Player Designation, which can be used four times in a player’s career and is like a franchise tag from the NFL. 

This would give organizations over a decade of team control, and as a result, had severely hindered player movement and made the free agency period of the WNBA basically useless. We’ve seen players try to circumvent this, like when Liz Cambage and Chiney Ogwumike requested trades before last season or when reigning MVP Elena Delle Donne forced her way out of Chicago in 2017, but the new CBA has resuscitated life into the previously dead stage of the off-season. Last year, out of all the players that switched teams, you could make the argument that the only notable players to move around the league were Essence Carson, who signed with the Phoenix Mercury, and Shavonte Zellous, who signed with the Seattle Storm. Even then, those players hadn’t been All-Stars since the 2011 and 2013 seasons, respectively. 

The free agency period started off with a bang on Monday, as Angel McCoughtry, who recently missed this past season with the Atlanta Dream due to injury and whose relationship with the team’s front office had soured, tweeted this:

Within hours, a multi-time All-Star and one of the league’s best players of the last decade tweeted out her own phone number, asking fans of the league what team she should sign with. Even if she knew where she would sign, this created fan engagement and some press for a burgeoning league that has room to grow even more. Also, the tweet was a move that we would not have seen from a WNBA player five years ago, showing how the league is transforming in this age of social media. 

Now, with the free agency phase mostly dying down, we’ve seen some outright league-altering moves. Here are the highlights, with a quick note on how the change affects the outlook of the team, and the league as a whole:

The aforementioned McCoughtry signs with the Aces

The first domino fell just before noon on February 10th, as five-time All-Star, seven-time All-Defense, six-time All-WNBA, two-time scoring champ Angel McCoughtry left the only team she’s ever known. After selecting her 1st overall in 2009, she had led the Atlanta Dream to the Finals three times and in 2018, had them with the second-best record in the league before a devastating knee injury would knock her out of the playoffs and all but one game of this past season. She now departs to Las Vegas, to team up with the All-Star frontcourt duo of Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson and form another powerhouse team in the WNBA. Along with other stars like Kelsey Plum and Kayla McBride, the Aces have gone from a lottery team to a perennial playoff squad, and with the best coach in the league in Bill Laimbeer, they’ve now gotten even better.

Kristi Toliver returns to her old stomping grounds, and the Sparks grow even stronger

Toliver, fresh off winning her second WNBA championship last fall, made a huge decision on the first day of free agency, resulting in a huge power shift from the nation’s capital to the sunny streets of LA. After a strong regular season that ended with a disappointing conference finals sweep at the hands of the Connecticut Sun and the firing of their GM Penny Toler, the Sparks went out and poached one of the best point guards and most reliable players in the league in Toliver. 

Not only does this move weaken the champion Mystics, who retained Elena Delle Donne and their Finals MVP Emma Meesseman, but now the Sparks have one of the best rosters in the league, with virtually no weaknesses. Not only do they have a deep frontcourt, with the trade acquisition of former All-Star Brittney Sykes in addition to Candace Parker and the Ogwumike sisters, but now their backcourt depth has been strengthened tenfold, with the signings of Kristi Toliver and stunningly, Minnesota Lynx legend Seimone Augustus. After the events of free agency, it seems like the path to the 2020 WNBA championship runs through LA.

The Connecticut Sun and Phoenix Mercury both execute flawless pivots

The Sun improved on their 2018 record and playoff result by making it all the way to the WNBA Finals, unfortunately falling to the Mystics in a five-game tightly contested series. The Mercury, on the other hand, dealt with endless injuries and snuck into the playoffs with a below-.500 record, losing in the first round to the Chicago Sky. Both teams entered free agency with massive moves to make, as for the Sun, they had multiple important contributors on the market, including Shekinna Stricklen, Layshia Clarendon, and several other restricted free agents, including superstar Jonquel Jones and fan-favorite Courtney Williams, among others. 

For the Mercury, the situation wasn’t much better, with two-thirds of their big three, Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner both unrestricted free agents, along with other players that made starts in Essence Carson and Leilani Mitchell. The Sun knew there would be a mass exodus from their team (Stricklen and Clarendon went to Atlanta and NY, respectively), and Mitchell already left Phoenix for Washington, so both of these teams had needs to be addressed; what followed next was another power-shifting move that sent shockwaves across the league.

The Sun, after resigning Jonquel Jones flipped restricted free agent Morgan Tuck to the Seattle Storm along with the 11th pick to move up four spots in the draft, then sent the #7 and #10 pick, along with their 2021 first-round pick, to Phoenix for the aforementioned Bonner. The Mercury couldn’t resign Bonner and couldn’t use their core designation on her anymore since she had been cored the last four of the last five seasons, so they executed a sign-and-trade to at least recoup some assets for their All-WNBA talent. Just like that, the Sun added a dominant piece to their frontcourt and the Mercury were able to acquire a ton of assets for a great player.

The Mercury wasn’t finished, however, as they then traded their 5th overall pick, along with the newly acquired #7 pick and 2021 first-rounder, to the Dallas Wings for disgruntled star guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, who wanted out from an organization she thought mistreated her. With this acquisition, they shored up a ton of backcourt depth, since Diana Taurasi isn’t exactly getting any younger and dealt with some injuries last year In the span of three days, these teams executed flawless pivots as the Sun reloaded for next season and the Mercury made a move for next year and beyond.

Credit to Matt Sanoian | @SanoianDesigns

The New York Liberty hit the reset button and pass on a tantalizing pairing

On April 15th, the New York Liberty went and shipped out franchise superstar Tina Charles to the Washington Mystics, passing up the chance to pair her with future #1 overall pick Sabrina Ionescu from Oregon. Rather than giving their New York-bound ball handler a veteran star and a sure option in the pick-and-roll, the new residents at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn decided to embrace the youth movement and trade their cornerstone.

The Liberty used their core designation on Tina Charles a couple months ago, but it was apparent that she wouldn’t be resigning with the team, so credit to them for at least managing to get a ton of draft assets. However, it’s clear the Mystics were the clear winners of this deal, also involving the Dallas Wings. The Mystics get a player familiar with head coach Mike Thibault (Charles played for him in Connecticut), they add another formidable piece to their frontcourt of Elena Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman, and the team remains in win-now mode as they managed to replace Kristi Toliver with reigning Most Improved Player Leilani Mitchell. This is still a dangerous squad, and with the addition of former MVP Tina Charles for what will basically be late first-round picks and other assets, this is a huge fleecing.

All of these moves, including the ones not mentioned like Courtney Williams’ trade to Atlanta or the Chicago Sky shipping out Astou Ndour for a 2021 first-rounder, would have been extremely unlikely about five years ago. Now, players have even more freedom and teams are more active than ever in free agency. All in all, even though the new collective bargaining agreement hasn’t officially gone into effect yet, the players of the league, and its fans, are already beginning to reap the benefits.