It's unlikely the WNBA trade deadline will be active. Why that should change and how to fix it

Seattle Storm guard Jewell Loyd would be a likely trade target ... if the WNBA's strict salary cap rules allowed. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

It’s easy to blow on by the WNBA trade deadline date as if it were never there in the first place. It holds no pizzazz, no drama, and no blockbuster news pings because rarely does anything happen in relation to it.

Apologies if that spoiled your natural intrigue ahead of Monday’s deadline. We’ll save you the wasted time staring at your socials around the 8 p.m. ET cutoff.

Trades are limited because the hard salary cap makes it incredibly difficult to move pieces this time of year. Rumors and fan pleas are already bubbling up around talented stars on poorly performing teams being traded to ones with postseason potential, but making it a reality is a slim chance.

It’s something both team owners and the players’ union should consider changing in the next collective bargaining agreement. The WNBA has now experienced the benefits of player movement in free agency, which was also rare before the 2020 CBA introduced higher salaries that created more stratification.

The hubbub around high-caliber free agents has given the WNBA what every other professional league has in offseason headlines and a plethora of fresh storylines. Look no further than the New York Liberty superteam. To always have a quiet trade deadline is a missed opportunity in the league’s growth.

Why you’re unlikely to see trades this week

Fitting a roster under the hard salary cap is so tough that many teams carry the minimum 11 players to pay more to their top stars. The biggest reason for this is that when the maximum player salary rose 82% in the 2020 CBA, the cap increased only 30%.

The cap for 2023 is $1.42 million, and teams cannot exceed it unless using an exception as set forth in the CBA. Exceptions are for players signed to a hardship or emergency hardship contracts, which are used when a team loses a player to injury or falls below the 10 minimum players because of injuries/absences. Those do not count against the cap, but are counted on the cap sheet.

The supermax for a player is $234,000 and the player minimum is $62,285 for a player with up to two years of experience and $74,305 for a player with three or more years. Replacement contracts are signed for 75% of the applicable minimum base salary, which can be prorated. And they are commonplace in the WNBA because of the small roster size.

The major sticking point is that all teams involved in a trade must be under the salary cap when the moves are all completed. And teams can’t cut players to clear the rest of their salary from the cap because during All-Star weekend, non-guaranteed salaries turned into guaranteed ones.

As of Tuesday, five of the 12 teams are under the cap. And for most of them, it’s just barely. The Wings are $741 under, per Her Hoop Stats data. Only the Fever have significant money to spend at $106,844 under the cap because of the youth of their roster.

The rest are over due to replacement contracts, led by the Los Angeles Sparks ($130,576) and Minnesota Lynx ($95,798). They and the Phoenix Mercury have maternity cap exceptions that allow them to sign a replacement player at the applicable minimum while their rostered player is out on maternity leave.

By the time the deadline comes, the season is three-quarters of the way over. A player joining via trade would have to adjust and find their place, which takes more time. It makes more sense to start the season with the roster you want than to save money for a trade that other teams might not even be able to financially make.

So, WNBA teams can’t make trades?

Well, they can if certain conditions are right. The main thing they can do is make a swap for players earning almost exactly the same amount of money. It’s how the Washington Mystics acquired Queen Egbo ($67,634) from the Indiana Fever for Amanda Zahui B. ($74,305) in July.

The Mystics were only able to pull that off through a complicated math puzzle as detailed by Her Hoop Stats’ Richard Cohen. The Mystics had to release Abby Meyers and Linnae Harper from their hardship deals, which were counted as “rest-of-season contracts.” By releasing them, the players’ count against the cap dropped to actual earned salaries of $6,093 for Meyers and $2,031 for Harper, per Cohen.

Because they were shipping off Zahui B., whose salary was $6,671 more than Egbo’s, they ended the deal $118 under the cap. And then they could re-sign hardship players to reach the minimum 11-player roster number, which they did by re-adding Harper the following day when the books cleared.

Yeah. That’s why these in-season trades don’t happen often.

The Washington Mystics acquired forward Queen Egbo because her salary was nearly identical to Amanda Zahui B. (Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Washington Mystics acquired forward Queen Egbo because her salary was nearly identical to Amanda Zahui B.'s. (Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Who is rumored to move at the WNBA trade deadline?

There is a lot of talk around if the Seattle Storm should move star guard Jewell Loyd, their foundation for a rebuild after losing Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart. Loyd is averaging 24.3 points per game, a league-best mark that has at times this season put her on track to break the single-season record set by Diana Taurasi (25.29 ppg).

But the Storm collectively have struggled and sit at the bottom of the standings (6-19, 17.5 games back of the first-place Aces, who clinched a playoff berth Tuesday). Ezi Magbegor is the only other Storm player averaging double digits. And Loyd is an unrestricted free agent in the offseason. If there’s any chance Loyd is looking to leave in free agency, it would make sense for the franchise to receive what it can for her now rather than letting her walk.

She is one of the few players making the supermax of $234,936. Realistically, even if Loyd really wanted out and the Storm really wanted her gone (and neither seem realistic), that move isn’t happening. It would have to be for another supermax salary in all likelihood, and that’s an unnecessary swap with fewer than a dozen games before the postseason.

Connecticut Sun forward DeWanna Bonner, Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury, Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne and Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale are the only other players on the top salary line. None of them is moving as everyone but the Mercury sits in the top half of the standings. And Taurasi is almost certainly not going to be moved at this point in her career.

A team like the Fever might be able to make a package work with their $100K surplus, but it would take ingenuity. And since Loyd is an unrestricted free agent, it makes no sense for the franchise in the successful early stages of a rebuild to take part in that swap. The most likely landing spot is a team in contention, but it wouldn't have the money to add her without losing a key piece of the reason it's in contention in the first place.

It’s akin to what we saw last trade deadline with Mercury point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith. There were reports the Mercury were looking to deal the veteran amid a rocky relationship she seemed to have with former head coach Vanessa Nygaard and Taurasi. Diggins-Smith’s contract runs through 2023, so a team that brokered a deal would have had her for an additional year. But her salary was $227,900, near that season’s supermax, making a trade partner unlikely. There were no deals at the deadline.

Why the CBA should prioritize a more enticing trade deadline

The on-court Mercury drama last season was fun to track from a fan perspective. If you didn’t know all of the financial setbacks that go into a midseason WNBA trade, you could fully enjoy the what-ifs of it. What if Diggins-Smith joined the Aces? Went back to her Notre Dame roots and joined the Fever? What if the Mercury traded for a true center? Would former Sparks guard Chennedy Carter find a spot that fits her better?

It’s the same enjoyment WNBA fans are starting to experience in free agency. Player moves were rare under previous CBAs, but are more frequent now, thanks to that salary stratification and investment from certain team owners. More money from another team, versus a basic max of $117,000 in the old CBA, is more enticing to uproot their lives. Players care about how their team owners are approaching the charter flight issue and how they’re taking care of recovery, locker rooms, arenas and practice facilities. It’s why top free agents have flocked to Las Vegas and New York.

Breanna Stewart stirred up free agency with her emojis and a big decision to join the New York Liberty and form a super-team. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Breanna Stewart stirred up free agency with her emojis and a big decision to join the New York Liberty and form a superteam. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Stewart emojied her way through her free agency, raising the stakes and questions even higher for where she might land. Every social-media post was a must-see endeavor until she ripped off a jersey to show she was heading to New York.

It’s the same approach we’ve seen in the NBA and NFL. It creates offseason storylines that are discussed sometimes ad nauseam. Fans want to be the general manager and concoct their own scenarios. And it’s what needs to be injected into the trade deadline during the dog days of summer. Right now, teams are what they are, health notwithstanding. It would be fun to see some switching around as the postseason battle looms.

It will be tricky to change anything without the salary cap rising substantially, an issue at the forefront of players and general managers’ minds since this last CBA was codified. Roster sizes also need to be expanded, which might give GMs more options in one-for-one trades. Maybe pulling replacement contracts off of the cap sheet would help, or allowing teams to be over the cap because of those contracts after a trade is finished would help.

The bigger question at hand is easy. How does the WNBA lean into the biggest selling point of any sports league, the drama? The answer is more complicated, but should be addressed in coming years.