The sweeping changes to the WNBA infrastructure outlined in its tentative collective bargaining agreement with the players association will affect every aspect of how the league operates, including its free agency period.
After the league and the WNBPA announced an extension from the Dec. 31 deadline, they maintained free agency would open Feb. 1 as projected. Typically, discussions were allowed to open up on Jan. 15, with deals becoming official on the first day of February. Assuming the same structure holds, WNBA player movement will begin this week, meaning the on-court shakeup will follow the off-court changes announced Tuesday.
On a conference call Tuesday morning, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert outlined many of the changes to the league’s financial model and how they will affect player compensation and team-building.
Increase in WNBA salaries, more player movement under new CBA
The two top-line changes to the structure of WNBA rosters are the increase to the maximum possible salary in the league as well as an increase in the overall salary cap for teams.
The new maximum salary will be $215,000, up from $117,500 under the prior collective bargaining agreement. Teams will be able to spend up to $1.3 million, up from $996,100 in 2019. Engelbert said the salary cap and maximum salary will both rise 3 percent per season going forward.
Players likely to sign this new maximum contract in the coming weeks could include Courtney Vandersloot of the Chicago Sky, Jonquel Jones of the Connecticut Sun, Skylar Diggins-Smith of the Dallas Wings, Liz Cambage of the Las Vegas Aces, Chelsea Gray of the Los Angeles Sparks, Tina Charles of the New York Liberty, Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury, Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm, and Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics.
The players’ association is hopeful it will move closer to a 50-50 split of the league’s basketball-related income, and the new CBA will allow for an equal split if the league hits certain benchmarks for licensing and corporate sponsorship deals.
Functionally for teams, this means a few things. Franchises like the Sun or Sky, coming off promising 2019 campaigns, could have an easier time keeping everyone in place. At the same time, high-performing players still on their rookie contracts such as 2019 Rookie of the Year Napheesa Collier, will hold immense value.
In terms of player movement, “coring,” a concept unique to WNBA rosters that borrows from ideas like the NFL’s franchise tag, will only be allowed three times during a player’s career beginning in the 2020 season. Previously, players could be “cored” four times. For example, DeWanna Bonner of the Mercury was an All-Star and MVP candidate in 2019 but has been cored three times already. With Phoenix looking at a new maximum contract for All-Star Brittney Griner, they may be forced to move on from Bonner if they cannot fit a new deal under the cap.
Additionally, players must only finish five seasons prior to entering unrestricted free agency, down from six under the old rules. This applies to a player like Isabelle Harrison, a starter for the Wings this season on an expiring contract, who will become an unrestricted free agent rather than restricted, meaning Dallas will not have the ability to match offers made to Harrison.
Possible star movement, including former MVP Tina Charles
Aside from Bonner, new rules as well as natural roster turnover could make 2020’s free agency period busier than in years past.
While many players will indeed sign maximum contracts as noted above, the writing is on the wall for several impactful veterans to change teams. That begins with Angel McCoughtry, whose injury situation and relationship with Atlanta Dream management was dicey throughout 2019 and who all but cemented her departure on social media last fall. McCoughtry will help any team in need of veteran play-making, such as the Liberty or Lynx.
Considering the precarious positions of the Sun and Sky, playoff teams looking to refigure their rosters and compete for another title in 2020, it would be easy to imagine a veteran starter or two shaking loose from either roster. Expect difference-makers such as Stephanie Dolson, Shekinna Stricklen and Layshia Clarendon to garner significant interest around the WNBA.
The situation with Charles cleared up significantly when New York hired a new head coach, longtime assistant Walt Hopkins. “Tina’s a legend in New York and I told Tina this a year ago when I was hired was that: Tina Charles is New York basketball men or women,” general manager Jonathan Kolb said at Hopkins’ introductory press conference. Expect Charles to sign a max deal early on, but if she doesn’t, that would spell the end of her time with the Liberty as they continue their rebuild.
Apart from Charles, the only player who could reasonably eschew the $215,000 max is Skylar Diggins-Smith, a PUMA brand ambassador whose off-court brand continues to grow. Amidst a rebuild of their own, perhaps the Wings prioritize building through youth, though losing Diggins-Smith for nothing would be painful. Diggins-Smith certainly would become one of the top free agents available if she cannot agree to a new contract with Dallas after missing 2019 recovering from childbirth.
Fellow Wings veteran Glory Johnson falls in the same boat and could be a victim of the Wings’ youth movement. Others around the league such as Alana Beard, Danielle Robinson and Essence Carson could really help a new team if the incumbent opts to move on. Beard is a possible candidate to retire and go into coaching, based on her comments over the years.
Finally, the crown jewel of the entire free agency period could be Kristi Toliver, one of the most exciting scorers in the WNBA. As Washington moves to an increasingly positionless style and after a year in which the Mystics’ guards developed greatly, Toliver may not be needed any longer. At times, her decision-making on offense has hurt the Mystics, though she’s improved as a passer in Washington.
Seeking the next breakout WNBA stud
With so much change this year and teams potentially caught off guard by the new rules, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see smart teams snag promising talent from another roster. This is the name of the WNBA transaction game every season with 12-player rosters keeping prolific players out of the league nearly every season, but it could be even more potent this year, as new maximum contracts potentially squeeze middle-tier contracts out of a team’s books.
To be more specific, take the circumstances around Kahleah Copper and the Sky. A candidate for Sixth Woman of the Year in 2019, Copper found her role under new head coach James Wade and blossomed into a consistent shot-creator for the fifth-seeded Sky. With big incoming contracts for Vandersloot and sharp-shooter Allie Quigley, a big offer in restricted free agency could be enough to steal Copper from Chicago.
From Connecticut’s side, the biggest potential loss would be Bria Holmes, vital frontcourt depth behind 2019 MVP runner-up Jones and veteran Alyssa Thomas. After a decent regular season, Holmes played 14 minutes per game in the playoffs and her physicality was much-needed for the Sun. With other young Connecticut role players such as Morgan Tuck and Rachel Banham hitting free agency at the same time, it’s unlikely everyone comes back for another run in 2020 following a five-game Finals loss.
With many of the league’s top teams in a period of transition, a stellar draft class on its way in April, and new rules allowing more money to flow, WNBA free agency will follow in the wake of the new CBA to further change the league.
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