The WNBA is so important, and so is WNBA free agency. In January 2020, the WNBA set the wheels in motion for players to move to new teams, as the league and the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) reached a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
The new CBA provides players with better travel accommodations, motherhood and family planning, and salary increases. Ultimately allowing for a total team salary cap of more than $1.3 million. Other changes that impact player movement include that a player can now only be “cored” three times, rather than four. And players must only finish five seasons prior to entering unrestricted free agency, down from six.
As a result, this off-season is shaping up to be an interesting one. While player movement is critical to growing the league, we might find that the new CBA makes it more difficult. And with the league still adjusting to the new rules, smart teams might snatch up promising talent from other rosters this year (hello Dallas Wings!). Which means it’s time to take a look at your favorite player. Because they could very well end up on a new team when WNBA free agency begins in February 2021.
So today, we reveal what’s potentially in store this year, why player movement is so beneficial, and how the team salary cap might impact it. Plus, we discuss upcoming unrestricted free agents, and share a few WNBA trade rumors that might keep you on the edge of your seat. So let’s get after it!
A free agent is a player who’s current contract with a team has just ended. During free agency, players have the ability to resign with their current team or sign with a new team. Free agency talks open up in mid-January every year, while deals are made during the first week in February.
In the NBA, teams traditionally entice free agents by offering more playing time and big money contracts, frequently paying players over their market value. But you might be surprised to learn that in the WNBA, player movement has not been much of a thing until 2020.
As a result, it’s anticipated that 2021 will bring a handful of shock and intrigue. Several All-Star players could end up on new teams, like Skylar Diggins-Smith, DeWanna Bonner, and Angel McCoughtry did during the 2020 offseason. So expect the unexpected!
Before 2020, the maximum any player could receive was around $120,000, regardless of whether they switched teams. When you pair the lack of financial incentive of signing with a new team with the core designation, player movement was essentially stifled in the WNBA.
Before the new CBA, teams could designate their stars as “core” players for four straight seasons. Which gave them the exclusive negotiating rights for nearly a decade, when using the core designation on a player after their four or five year rookie contract.
This meant historically, WNBA teams did not have an incentive to trade their marquee players, because if they wanted to play the WNBA, they had to play for the team that drafted them or held their contract rights. If you sat out, you did not get paid.
For example, Liz Cambage took a five year break from the WNBA. Liz left the Tulsa Shock and when she was ready to return to the league in 2018, she could only negotiate with the same franchise that had moved from Tulsa and changed to the Dallas Wings.
Player movement is good for any sports league, especially the WNBA. Marquee players want to be in control of their careers. As just one example, Skylar Diggins-Smith told the media after being traded by the Dallas Wings to the Phoenix Mercury in 2020, “I’m happy to be on the other side of things.” Skylar sat out the 2019 season while she recovered from giving birth to her son and battled postpartum depression.
“(I) got to learn a lot about my baby, getting used to the new normal,” Skylar told Jeff Metcalfe of the Arizona Republic. Skylar is the personification of a player that decided to do what she thought was best for herself and her family.
Ultimately, “control” can lead to more happiness and synergy between on and off the court goals. Recently, Skylar found herself back on the court inside the Wubble in 2020. Skylar had a successful season, earning 2020 All-WNBA Second Team honors, a recognition that marked her place as a top 10 player in the league.
As another example of how movement can benefit the league and the players, WNBA All-Star Chiney Ogwumike has been highlighted for making history on and off the court as the first Black woman to host a national radio show for ESPN. This may not have happened without Chiney being able to lean into her media career as an NBA Analyst, after being traded from the Connecticut Sun to Los Angeles Sparks in 2019.
Furthermore when you allow people who want to play together to play together, they’re likely to deliver better results. Ultimately, that can lead to more happiness and synergy between on and off the court goals. And presumably equitable distribution of talent makes for better, closer games for the fans. Plus, the fireworks of frenetic offseason movement can actually help grow awareness around the league.
However, the league’s new salary cap of approximately $1,339,000 in 2021, could actually make things more difficult for certain teams. That’s because from the outside looking in, star players in the WNBA deserve raises. Several of those players are seemingly worth maximum contracts. But anytime there’s a salary cap, there’s a potential that not everyone will be paid their utmost market value.
For example, All-Stars Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, and Chelsea Gray on the Los Angeles Sparks, all are unrestricted free agents. In an ideal world, all three All-WNBA level players would receive maximum on-court contracts of $215,000. Meanwhile, another All-Star on the Sparks, point guard Kristi Toliver is currently under contract at approximately $190,000.
However, all WNBA teams must carry at least 11 players on their roster. So hypothetically, if the Sparks paid Candace, Nneka, and Chelsea $215,000 a piece, and paid Toliver $190,000, the combined salary for just those four players would be $835,000. That would equate to 62 percent of the Sparks’ $1.339 million total team salary. And $494,000 dollars divided between seven players to fill out the rest of the roster, would leave an average salary of approximately $70,000 dollars.
Signing Candace, Nneka, Chelsea and Kristi at their maximum salaries could be harder than it seems. The required roster size combined with the team cap might frustrate these stars into looking elsewhere. Or it could go the other way and squeeze middle-tier contracts off of a team’s books. For many teams, and even many players, something will most likely have to give. And that something unfortunately may be salary.
More than 80 players are WNBA free agents, according to Her Hoops Stats. That’s a staggering number in a league that carries a maximum of 144 players (more than 55%!). And that’s not accounting for rookies either. WNBA franchises select 36 draft picks every spring, and almost half of those players could make the league in 2021 as well.
The WNBA is expected to release their official lists of free agents by January 2021. However, not every free agent will end up making a final roster spot in 2021.
Meanwhile, free agents are expected to be divided into four categories: core players, reserved players, restricted free agents, and unrestricted free agents.
These are player designations that give that team exclusive negotiating rights with the player. According to the WNBA, players can now receive a core designation only three times in their career.
Players with three or fewer years of service are considered to be reserved players. According to the WNBA, the player’s prior team has exclusive negotiating rights (like the core designation).
These are players with four or five years of service. According to the WNBA, restricted free agency gives the player’s prior team the right to keep the player by matching a contract offer the player signs with another team during free agency.
The WNBA goes on to explain that if the player signs a contract offer with another team, the player’s prior team has four days from the date it received the offer to determine whether it wishes to match. If the offer is matched, the player will remain with their prior team. If the offer is not matched within the four-day period, the player will be under contract with the new team.
Top 2021 WNBA restricted free agents include:
Unrestricted free agents are players who complete the playing services called for in their contract and have five or more years. They are free to sign with any team provided that they are not designated as a “Core Player” by their prior team, according to the WNBA CBA.
Because unrestricted free agents have the ability to sign with all 12 teams in the WNBA, they’re some of the most interesting players to watch. Some of the top unrestricted free agents right now in no particular order are:
Players such as Candace, Sue, and Diana have played their entire WNBA career with the Sparks, Storm, and Mercury respectively. As a result, it’s anticipated they’ll stay with the teams and fans that have invested so much in them.
However, in 2020, four-time WNBA Champion Seimone Augustus was an unrestricted free agent. It was expected and all but assumed Seimone would return to the Minnesota Lynx for her 15th season. Instead she shocked the league by signing with the LA Sparks.
Her example makes it clear just how unpredictable unrestricted free agency can be. As a result, it’s likely some difference-makers will move around this year.
In 2019 and 2020 respectively, star players such as Liz Cambage and Skylar Diggins-Smith requested and were granted trades from the Dallas Wings. Liz was traded to the Las Vegas Aces. Skylar was traded to the Phoenix Mercury. Similarly, All-Star DeWanna Bonner was also traded by the Phoenix Mercury to the Connecticut Sun.
In 2021, title contending teams like the Los Angeles Sparks, Chicago Sky, and Washington Mystics may be forced to make trades because of salary considerations. The Sparks, Sky, and Mystics may also want to make trades to balance their rotation. They are teams with veteran players, who do not want to be buried at the end of the bench because of an overabundance of rotational players.
On the other hand, the Dallas Wings and New York Liberty may end up being involved in multiple trades because both teams are stacked with young talented players and 2021 draft picks.
There’s no doubt 2021 WNBA free agency will be exciting. Stay tuned to the WNBA‘s free agency hub – including the player movement central page. After all, free agency last year taught us to expect the unexpected. Once the dust settles, we might find several top WNBA players sporting new jerseys next year. Up next, learn more about the league’s new branding and logo.
Written by John W. Davis, a multimedia journalist and Olympic sports commentator living in Los Angeles.
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