Everything you need to know about the WNBA offseason: Free agents, Sue Bird-Diana Taurasi decisions, more
The dust has settled on the Chicago Sky's unprecedented run to the championship, and the 25th anniversary season of the WNBA has come to a close.
Now, it's time to look at Year 26. There are plenty of questions heading into the long offseason before games tip off again in May. Some of the league's best are closing in on retirement — whether forced or of choice — while free agency has taken a heightened buzz under the new collective bargaining agreement.
Player movement will impact the Sky's chances at repeats and those aging superstars' chances at one final ring. There are five former MVPs hitting the free agency market and questions remain regarding the 2022 schedule and expansion.
Can the Chicago Sky repeat?
The Sky will be the team to beat in 2022, but can they go back-to-back? There are a few reasons for concern even if head coach James Wade told parade goers to make note of their seat because they'll be back in 2022.
The last team to repeat was the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001-02. That followed the Houston Comets' four titles in the first four years of the league. They're the only two teams to go back-to-back, though four franchises have won with a season in-between.
The Sky will have to deal with free agency first. Candace Parker, 36, and Azurá Stevens are the only players on guaranteed contracts totaling $335,000 of the approximately $1.3 million cap, per Her Hoop Stats. That leaves a lot of decisions.
Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, Stefanie Dolson, Kahleah Copper and Astou Ndour-Fall are all unrestricted free agents. Vandersloot holds the highest contract ($200,000), and she could get a little closer to the supermax if she wanted after a record-setting Finals performance. The 27-year-old Copper ($165,000) will see the highest boost after her Finals MVP.
Diamond DeShields and Lexie Brown are restricted free agents, while Ruthy Hebard and Dana Evans are on unprotected rookie deals.
But finally, and less important, the Sky's title proved again how deep this league is and how uncertain a title run can be even as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. The path to a repeat is challenging.
Will we see Elena Delle Donne on a court again?
Delle Donne’s health will again be a factor heading into another offseason as she has yet to fully return from two back surgeries in under a year. The 2019 WNBA MVP played 52 minutes over three games, and while she looked good in the first, she reinjured her back in the third. Delle Donne, 32, has largely been out of professional basketball since winning the 2019 title that October.
Both she and Mystics head coach Mike Thibault, based on her doctors’ analysis, seemed optimistic in the team’s exit interviews about her health, believing the issue to be “solvable.” The star forward dealt with nerve pain after the first surgery and some of that returned what was ultimately her final game of the season.
But this isn’t a small injury. Delle Donne dealt with herniated discs, and back surgery is no small feat. Certainly not for a professional athlete, who it should be noted also has Lyme disease and takes 64 pills a day.
Was that the final Bird-Taurasi matchup?
All eyes are on Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird, 41, and Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, 39, as their careers near the end.
Bird, who has played on one-year contracts recently, is seriously considering retirement for the first time in her career, the 18-year veteran said after the second-round loss to the Mercury. She’s been with the Storm since they drafted her No. 1 in 2002 ahead of the club’s third season and led them to four championships.
Taurasi said ahead of and after Game 4 of the WNBA Finals that she intends to return next season and complete her current contract that runs out after 2022. But she added, "You never know."
The Mercury return their core in Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith. A large concern for Taurasi seems to be health as she rehabs an ankle and foot injury she played through this postseason. The 17-year veteran has missed games each of the past three seasons.
Taurasi, the 2004 No. 1 overall pick by Phoenix, played in six games in 2019 because of a back injury and only 16 of 32 games this season with a fractured sternum and the ankle injury.
Official end of the Lynx core?
Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles is the lone player remaining from their dynasty of four titles in seven years. Former teammates Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson have all retired, and Maya Moore has been away from basketball for social justice pursuits and family.
The 6-foot-6 free agent will consider stepping away for similar reasons. She said in her exit interview she wants to have a family and is considering when to do it. There are also nagging injuries.
“My future is still unbright at the moment. We still have some things to talk about, [coach] Cheryl [Reeve] and I. I’m unsure at the moment,” Fowles, who turned 36 this month, said. “We’ll see. I’ll keep you posted in the next couple of months.”
Fowles is a two-time WNBA champion, winning Finals MVP in each, and earned her fourth Defensive Player of the Year award in 2021. In league history, she ranks first in rebounds (3,712), first in field goal percentage (59.7%), first in true shooting percentage (63.6%), third in win shares (69.8), fourth in blocks (685) and seventh in player efficiency (25.4).
When she does retire, she has an interesting second act awaiting her.
Will we see more on the expansion front?
Expansion is near, and while commissioner Cathy Engelbert is "data mining" with an aim of more details coming next summer, there are conversations happening on the city level.
Axios noted last week that the women's professional sports ad hoc committee in Nashville met again to hear an update from the city's consultant. CAA ICON, the consulting firm on the project, plans to have a completed report by the end of the year.
Three entities are looking to bring a team to the Bay Area, and Toronto has consistently been named as a landing spot for a Canadian presence. It's unlikely anything is announced this offseason, but there may be decisions made now that lead to official word.
Scheduling questions, impact on national TV broadcast
The WNBA will have to work around another international championship next year with the 2022 FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup scheduled for Sept. 22-Oct. 1 in Australia. That will force the league to move the Finals up, rather than break for the Olympics. Several teams also have to contend with sharing an arena with NBA teams and that league begins in mid-October.
The league is expected to go to a 36-game season, up from 32 this year, which makes that more difficult. Players are still going overseas for games and are often arriving late, meaning moving the season up might not be an option.
There should also be questions about the national TV schedule. The WNBA has a wide-ranging TV problem that is well-documented and won't be fixed this offseason as the multi-platform deal with ESPN runs through 2025.
Few games are shown on more largely available "proper" channels such as ABC or ESPN, even though they are commonly the most-viewed of the season. When we looked back, the company aired fewer and fewer games and Google had to underwrite eight additional games to "ensure that ESPN aired at least 25 regular-season games during the 25th anniversary season," per ESPN's own article.
What happens in 2022? Will ESPN drop the number of televised games back down to around 15 even as the league adds games to its schedule? Viewership numbers don't support it, but history does.
Biggest free agents in 2022
It's going to be a wild free agency period with five former league MVPs in the mix. (All free agency information via Her Hoop Stats.) The salary cap will bump up to $1,379,200 (from $1,339,000), and maximum salaries will rise about $6,000 to $196,267.
Jonquel Jones (2021, Connecticut Sun), A'ja Wilson ('20, Las Vegas Aces), Breanna Stewart ('18, Seattle Storm), Sylvia Fowles ('17, Minnesota Lynx) and Tina Charles ('12, Washington Mystics) could all move places this offseason.
Stewart and Fowles each have multiple championships, while Jones, Wilson and Charles are all chasing their first titles.
Only Wilson is a restricted free agent, giving the Aces the "right of first refusal." She'll have a big pay raise from her rookie deal of $70,040. Las Vegas also has center Liz Cambage, guard Angel McCoughtry and defensive power Riquna Williams as unrestricted free agents.
In Connecticut, Most Improved Player Briann January is also an unrestricted free agent. In Minnesota, Fowles is joined by midseason addition Layshia Clarendon at point guard.
Seattle joins Chicago as the teams with the most question marks for their key players. As well as Bird and Stewart, Jewell Loyd is also an unrestricted free agent and three players are restricted free agents.
In terms of a completely new roster ahead, that might belong to the Atlanta Dream after a chaotic 2021.