WNBA free agency has become almost a season of its own for a few weeks every February since salary changes in the collective bargaining agreement in 2020 enhanced player movement.
Most of the moves have been made now, with one major exception: Free agent guard Courtney Vandersloot of the 2021 champion Chicago Sky has yet to indicate her plans for 2022. Will she return to the only team that she has played for in the WNBA after being drafted third overall in 2011? Will she go elsewhere? Or will she sit out the season after overseas play?
With a hard salary cap, teams sometimes have to be creative and/or hope that certain players might take less than their market value in order to have a chance at a championship or to play somewhere they just want to be. Planning ahead, gambling with draft picks and figuring out how best to build a culture takes a lot of skill, and it can all be undone by injuries.
But for where things stand now, we grade each franchise based on its moves so far in the offseason, with both signings and trades.
The Mercury were very disappointed after coming close to the franchise's fourth title last season but losing in the WNBA Finals to Chicago. Diana Taurasi turns 40 in June and is under contract for this season. Presuming that Taurasi is coming back, Phoenix wanted to give her as good a chance as possible to get another championship. The Mercury have done that.
They signed free agent center Tina Charles -- reportedly for well under her market value -- who is coming off an outstanding season at Washington (23.4 PPG, 9.6 RPG). At 33, Charles is seeking her first WNBA championship. Phoenix traded guard Bria Hartley and draft picks to get guard Diamond DeShields in a three-way deal with Chicago and Indiana.
DeShields has had her ups and downs, but when she's on, she's a strong acquisition. And she brings championship experience from last year with the Sky. The Mercury also brought back guards Sophie Cunningham, Kia Nurse and Shey Peddy.
Phoenix still has center Brittney Griner and guard Skylar Diggins-Smith as star-level players, and the Mercury have seen great growth from forward Brianna Turner, too.
New Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard has all the talent she could hope for.
With the news that guard Sue Bird was returning for a 19th WNBA season, it was just a matter of who was going to stay with her. It turned out all the key Storm free agents did: forward Breanna Stewart, guard Jewell Loyd and center Mercedes Russell. The Storm also signed veteran guard Briann January, who helped Connecticut get the best record in the league last season, and obtained forward Gabby Williams in a trade with Los Angeles.
The Storm looked last year like they could make a run at defending their 2020 WNBA title. Then Stewart suffered a foot injury and did not play in the final two regular-season games or Seattle's playoff game, which it lost in overtime to Phoenix.
It wasn't certain then whether Bird would return. But after that news came in January, the other pieces started to fall into place. As is the case with Taurasi in Phoenix, Bird has the team around her to win another championship.
As disappointing as last season was for the Sparks as they missed the playoffs for just the fifth time in franchise history, this offseason has been pretty invigorating. Los Angeles hasn't announced it yet, but sources told ESPN's Ramona Shelburne that free agent center Liz Cambage will sign with the Sparks. The 6-foot-8 center averaged 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds last season with Las Vegas. Cambage has played just five seasons in the WNBA since being drafted in 2011, but when she has been in the league, she has produced.
Los Angeles signed free agent guard Jordin Canada, who won two titles in Seattle and returns to Southern California where she grew up and went to UCLA.
The Sparks also made trades to get Chennedy Carter, a talented guard who is looking for a fresh start after a difficult time with Atlanta last season, and forward Katie Lou Samuelson, who might finally find the right home on her fourth team since being drafted No. 4 in 2019.
We wrote Sunday about how the Sparks could be back in business this season with these additions and healthy seasons from sisters Nneka Ogwumike and Chiney Ogwumike -- or how they might face chemistry issues. But after what happened last season, a roll of the dice was necessary this year for Los Angeles.
The Sun won the regular season last year with a 26-6 record but fell in the semifinals to Chicago. There wasn't necessarily a lot that needed to be changed in the offseason. The right formula was there in 2021, even if it didn't work out for the franchise's first title.
Step one was signing core player and reigning MVP Jonquel Jones, which the Sun did. She averaged 19.4 points and 11.2 rebounds last season. Connecticut didn't re-sign guard January (who went to Seattle) but brought back guard Courtney Williams, who previously played for the Sun from 2016-19.
She spent the past two years in Atlanta, but the Dream moved on after Williams' involvement in a fight and subsequent video she made detailing the incident. Williams apologized, and Sun coach/GM Curt Miller said he is confident that she understands the expectations Connecticut has for her. He also said her former Sun teammates were eager to get her back.
Again, there wasn't going to be a lot of movement by Connecticut this offseason, but the Sun earn their A because they don't seem to have lost any ground after such a good 2021.
In 2022, the Lynx will celebrate the final season of center Sylvia Fowles, who signed on for another year, and they brought in Fowles' former Olympic teammate, Angel McCoughtry, to help. McCoughtry had a very solid 2020 season with Las Vegas, but missed last year with an ACL injury.
No one is expecting McCoughtry at 35 to be at the peak of her scoring powers as she was a decade ago, but she's still capable of being a major offensive threat. And like Charles in Phoenix, McCoughtry would really like to get her first WNBA title.
The Lynx also brought back guard Layshia Clarendon, who brought energy to Minnesota last season, averaging 10.4 PPG.
Minnesota star forward Napheesa Collier is pregnant and due in May, when the WNBA season starts. If and how much she will play this season remains to be seen.
The Mystics missed the playoffs last year despite Charles' stellar season, and they had to decide about bringing her back. Washington chose to commit to keeping restricted free-agent forward Myisha Hines-Allen, and bringing in free-agent center/forward Elizabeth Williams, who spent the last six seasons in Atlanta. Washington is also keeping another unrestricted free agent, guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough.
The Mystics are expecting forward Elena Delle Donne back at full health this season after she missed 2020 and all but three games last year. And they should have forward Alysha Clark, who signed as a free agent last year but was hurt overseas and didn't play.
At one point, Washington hoped to have Charles, Delle Donne and forward Emma Meesseman on the court together, but it never happened. Meesseman, the 2019 WNBA Finals MVP when the Mystics won their first title, is reportedly going to Chicago, although her signing hasn't been announced by the Sky yet.
Still, the Mystics get a B grade because they seem to have a good plan in place to become a better defensive team, something coach/GM Mike Thibault said was necessary to try to win another title.
Some of new GM Dan Padover's decisions stemmed from things that happened before he came to the Dream, such as the choice to move on from Courtney Williams and Crystal Bradford, who was also involved in the same fight as Williams.
Further, the relationship between Carter and the Dream in her second season seemed to deteriorate, as she was suspended on July 5 and never returned to the court. In dealing Carter to Los Angeles for guard Erica Wheeler, Atlanta is banking on a veteran who turns 31 just before the season starts and had the best scoring performance of her career (13.6 PPG) last year.
The Dream are bringing back unrestricted free agent Tiffany Hayes and restricted free agent Monique Billings, both of whom have spent their entire WNBA careers with Atlanta. They are also bringing in forward Nia Coffey, who has played with a different team each of her previous five seasons. Now, she's returning to Atlanta, where she spent 2019.
It's hard to tell if the Dream will be better than last year's 8-24 record. But with new coach Tanisha Wright and a re-made front office, the Dream are trying to re-establish themselves for the long haul.
The defending champions' ultimate grade, of course, will depend on whether Vandersloot returns. She wasn't the MVP of the WNBA Finals last season -- that went to Kahleah Copper -- but Vandersloot's value was tremendous. She has played her entire 11-season career with Chicago.
The Sky have made some good moves: obtaining point guard Julie Allemand via trade, reportedly adding Meesseman and hiring a third Belgian, former WNBA No. 1 pick and longtime player Ann Wauters, as an assistant coach.
But they lost DeShields and Stefanie Dolson to free agency, and both Vandersloot and wife Allie Quigley have yet to say they will be back. Chicago was the biggest winner of free agency last year, bringing in Candace Parker, which led to the franchise's first title.
This year's grade will improve if Vandersloot returns. And if all the pieces come together this season, the Sky could defend their championship.
This grade doesn't reflect re-signing restricted free-agent forward A'ja Wilson, a no-brainer move. And bringing back guard Riquna Willliams and center Kiah Stokes, both unrestricted free agents, made sense, too. But we'll see how the loss of Cambage to Los Angeles and McCoughtry to Minnesota affects the Aces.
On one hand, they made the WNBA Finals without Cambage in 2020, and lost in the semifinals with her last season. But she's still one of the league's most dominating players at her best, and might be especially motivated to prove something with a new team.
The same could be said for McCoughtry, who was a very good addition to the Aces in 2020 but missed last season with a knee injury.
Even if this grade is a bit low, it doesn't necessarily reflect how the Aces will do this year under new coach Becky Hammon, because they still have a lot of the players who helped them go 63-25 over the past three seasons.
It was expected to be a pretty quiet offseason regarding personnel, after big moves like acquiring center Natasha Howard and forward Betnijah Laney before last season. They helped take the Liberty from last place in 2020 to the playoffs in 2021, although New York still had a losing record (12-20).
The biggest change is in coaching, as Walt Hopkins is out after two years and longtime Mercury coach Sandy Brondello takes over. Rebecca Allen returns to the Liberty and Dolson, who won a title with Chicago last season, joins the team; both were unrestricted free agents.
This doesn't seem like a team that is going to contend for a WNBA title this season, but hopes to be building toward that.
Not a whole lot changed with the Fever, and that is not necessarily a good thing considering they are 12-42 over the past two seasons. Indiana re-signed unrestricted free agent Emma Cannon, along with restricted free agent Lindsay Allen and reserved player Victoria Vivians.
The biggest addition is guard Bria Hartley, whom the Fever acquired in their three-way trade with Phoenix and Chicago. She was having the best season of her career in 2020 with the Mercury before it was cut short by a knee injury. She returned for six regular-season games and the playoffs last season, and is no doubt eager to prove herself with the Fever.
Indiana has the No. 2 pick in the upcoming draft, but that is also a bit of a sore subject. Their lottery picks in 2020 (Lauren Cox at No. 3) and 2021 (Kysre Gondrezick at No. 4) both were released, bringing Indiana nothing in return. Cox was picked up by Los Angeles last season, and Gondrezick signed a training camp contract with the Sky on Wednesday.
The Wings had by far the least cap space going into free agency, and they had no key free agents on their roster to sign. They also have two first-round draft picks after having three in both 2020 and 2021. The Wings might still look to make a deal or two before or during the draft, but free agency wasn't going to be their thing this year.
That said, the Wings made a power move in coming to an agreement with Arike Ogunbowale on extending her contract through the 2025 season. It was a sign of commitment from both parties. Ogunbowale has averaged 19.9 PPG in her three-season WNBA career.
WNBA free agency 2022 grades: Phoenix Mercury, Seattle Storm, Los Angeles Sparks score high marks
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