WNBA free agency preview: Aces, Liberty face questions and a number of former MVP's could be on the move

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 18: Jonquel Jones #35 of the New York Liberty warms up before Game Four of the 2023 WNBA Finals against the Las Vegas Aces at Barclays Center on October 18, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Jonquel Jones is the most recent league MVP who could land a new address. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

The story of the 2023 WNBA season was that of the superteams. Will 2024 be more of the same?

An initial answer will emerge when the 2024 free agency period opens. Teams can begin negotiating with free agents Sunday and contracts can be signed beginning Feb. 1.

Five former WNBA MVPs could be on the move: Breanna Stewart (2018, 2023), Jonquel Jones (2021), Candace Parker (2008, 2013), Elena Delle Donne (2015, 2019) and Nneka Ogwumike (2016).

Stewart and Jones starred for the New York Liberty superteam created in last year’s free agency period. Parker joined the Las Vegas Aces, who built their team through three consecutive No. 1 picks, in another major 2023 move. All except Jones have won at least one championship.

Skylar Diggins-Smith, Brittney Griner, Satou Sabally, Brionna Jones, DeWanna Bonner and Natasha Cloud also highlight the top tier that could make for another splashy offseason.

Here is the nitty-gritty on how WNBA free agency works, and the top storylines to watch.

2024 WNBA free agency: How it works

The 2024 salary cap is $1,463,200 and teams have to carry between 11 and 12 players. Many teams stay at 11. Players signing rookie extensions or who have at least five years of service and sign with their current teams can make a supermax of $241,984. The player max is $208,219. All salary data is via Her Hoop Stats.

Teams can use a core designation on one player, usually an unrestricted free agent, to retain the player’s rights. A player can only be designated twice in a career and has the right to veto trades. The deal is a one-year, guaranteed supermax contract that can be negotiated for a longer period by the two sides.

Teams will occasionally use the core designation on a free agent to work with the player on a sign-and-trade so the former team receives something in return. This could be the case with Delle Donne, who was extended a core offer by the Washington Mystics but is expected to move to another team, The Next reported.

Highly sought after free agents have been signing team-friendly deals over the past few years, opening up room for the front office to add more talent to compete for championships. Stewart and Parker each did this last year.

Player experience and team practice facilities and resources have played larger roles for free agents than just contract numbers. There is more money in marketing deals from teams, the league and businesses that players use to offset their WNBA playing salaries.

Prioritization, a controversial clause in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement, will play a larger role this offseason and may lead to some players not playing. In its second year, it requires players to arrive by the start of training camp or at least by May 1, or else be suspended for the entire season. Previously, players showed up late to camp or even missed considerable regular-season time while with their overseas clubs for the postseason. Last year, they had to arrive before the first game.

Many players continue to speak out about the clause and have cited it as a reason they plan to opt out of the CBA this year. Seattle forward Gabby Williams, whose French league team plays until deep into the WNBA season, already said she will not play in 2024 because of the clause. Players often make significant money overseas compared to their WNBA salaries.

It’s also an Olympic year, so international players are expected to stay with their national teams, rather than head to their W teams, in the lead-up to the annual summer event. The WNBA will take a month-long break during the Olympics to allow players to compete.

Las Vegas Aces forward Candace Parker gestures to forward A'ja Wilson, out of frame at right, in a timeout before the final moments of Game 4 of the WNBA basketball final series against the New York Liberty at Barclays Center on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Brooklyn, New York. (Ellen Schmidt/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Candace Parker played just 18 games for the Aces last season. (Ellen Schmidt/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Who can Aces sign around core four?

Las Vegas is after a third consecutive title in 2024, which would place them in elite company along with the Houston Comets. There isn’t much they have to do in free agency.

The Aces’ core four (A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum, Chelsea Gray, Jackie Young) and reigning Sixth Player of the Year Alysha Clark are signed through 2024. Gray, who missed the Finals clincher with an injury, said on “The Real Ones” podcast in November she broke her fifth metatarsal in her left foot and should be ready for the season.

The question mark is at center, where Parker is again a free agent after playing only 18 games for Vegas because of injury. She indicated she is considering retirement, but if healthy would want to play. She played at a team-friendly $100,000, half of her salary with Chicago in 2022. Parker wasn’t a huge impact in the box score, but her defense was key in making the Aces even better on that side of the ball.

Kiah Stokes, who stepped into the starting center role in both Finals series, is an unrestricted free agent and will likely see a pay raise from her $81,000 salary. She also sustained a foot injury in the 2023 Finals and her status has not been made public. Stokes embraced her defensive rim protector role and stepped up offensively when needed, though she isn’t a significant producer on that end.

The Aces, unlike last season, actually have decent cap space ($512,585) and want to re-sign both Parker and Stokes. Assuming Parker, who wants to remain close to her family in Los Angeles, and Stokes each sign for around $100,000, it leaves about $300,000 to pay three or four players to bolster the rarely used bench.

The two reserve stars of the Game 4 Finals clincher are both heading to free agency. Guard Sydney Colson ($74,000) is a UFA and forward Cayla George ($74,000) is restricted. The Aces did not extend qualifying offers to anyone last week, per the WNBA transactions page.

The front office knows how difficult it is to win back-to-back titles and could pull off another big trade to open room for a star signing, as it did for Parker last year. Ogwumike might want to join former Sparks championship teammates Parker and Gray, but either Ogwumike or Parker would come off the bench. Or perhaps Jonquel Jones or Brionna Jones could be lured west to fill the 5 spot if Parker and Stokes are no longer rostered.

Will Liberty maintain superteam status?

The Liberty ($703,803) roster is more in flux with both frontcourt pieces entering free agency.

Jonquel Jones, the 6-6 center who became the centerpiece of the offense, is an unrestricted free agent. She is focused on winning an WNBA championship after three empty trips to the Finals and indicated she’s “trending” toward re-signing in New York, where she’d be around the supermax. She could also go to the Aces, who have cap room to pair her with Wilson in the frontcourt. If she’s seeking the best chance at a title, anywhere else would be improbable.

The team extended a core qualifying offer to Stewart to keep her in town at least one more season. Stewart, who played at a discount last year, might wait to sign the contract so the team can add higher priced reserves. Starting guards Courtney Vandersloot, Betnijah Laney and Sabrina Ionescu are signed.

The bench will be the conundrum for Executive of the Year Jonathan Kolb. Marine Johannès, a sharpshooter known for deep, off-balance 3s and magical passes, is most likely not available in 2023 while with her French national team ahead of the Olympics.

Reserve center Stefanie Dolson is an unrestricted free agent at a costly contract that might not fit. Ionescu’s first deal following her rookie contract kicks in this year and pushes her salary from $86,000 to $202,000.

The Liberty, if they retain Jones, likely won’t make another splashy free agent entry, but will go for strategic additions on defense — particularly on the perimeter. They could also wait to fill in Dolson’s role and defensive talent through the draft with minimum salaries.

One add could be shooter Allie Quigley, who sat out last season but has not officially retired. The idea of Quigley joining New York’s roster is “definitely a conversation that’s happened in our household,” Vandersloot, Quigley’s wife, told reporters at exit interviews.

The positive is if they keep their starters, those five will have another year of chemistry together and that was a large differentiator between the Liberty and Aces. But missing out on Jonquel Jones, the best player of their postseason run, will be a huge hit to their superteam status and title chances.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 29: Forward Nneka Ogwumike #30 of the Los Angeles Sparks looks on during the first half against the Chicago Sky at Arena on August 29, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)
Forward Nneka Ogwumike is a priority for the Sparks. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Will there be other superteams?

The Liberty provided a proof of concept that building a superteam in the truest sense of the word can work. But it didn’t happen in one offseason; it was years in the making. There are a few teams with the star talent and cap space that could make splashy signings to immediately compete with the top teams.

The Sun ($811,190) have significant room and four unprotected contracts. But their free agency focus should be a slight reinvention of the 2023 roster that nearly upset the Liberty.

MVP candidate Alyssa Thomas is signed through 2024, and they’ll look to re-sign veteran wing Bonner, Thomas’ fiancée, and center Brionna Jones, who missed the majority of the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Jones is expected back for training camp. Both played near the supermax, eating up more than half the cap space, but Bonner will likely be offered less.

The Sparks ($759,799) need to re-sign Ogwumike, who has stayed in L.A. her entire career, and have space to bring in more high-level talent around her. Maybe that’s free agent point guard Diggins-Smith or Cloud. And the young Storm ($423,924) might opt for trades to bolster the offense around All-WNBA guard Jewell Loyd, who led the league in scoring. They could also use a point guard.

It seems unlikely, given front-office comments, that either franchise would throw away steady rebuilds for multiple win-now signings. Los Angeles is entering its second year under longtime head coach Curt Miller and hired a general manager this month. Seattle is adjusting to its post-Sue Bird era.

The Sparks have the second pick in the WNBA Draft and the Storm are No. 4.

Where will Skylar Diggins-Smith sign?

Of all the unrestricted free agents, Diggins-Smith’s case holds the most intrigue, and she is the most likely of any player listed above to change teams. Minnesota, Atlanta, Seattle, Los Angeles and Washington, which could lose Cloud could, are potential landing spots. Minnesota and Los Angeles are each in need of a point guard and feature players with young children, a potential indication of a family-friendly organization.

Diggins-Smith, 33, last played in 2022 with the Phoenix Mercury, earning first-team All-WNBA honors after averaging 19.7 points and 5.5 assists. She did not play the final four games of the season, later announced her pregnancy and opted not to return to the team in 2023. In August, she said on social media the team had barred her from its practice facilities and resources.

The veteran point guard’s relationship with Phoenix was already frayed after the bench altercation with Diana Taurasi, the clown emoji incident and limited discussion by team personnel that Diggins-Smith was under contract and on maternity leave. She is almost surely not re-signing in The Valley.

The Mercury acquired Diggins-Smith in a 2020 trade with the Dallas Wings after she said she didn’t want to play for that franchise. She said on social media at the time that she did not feel supported by the organization during her first pregnancy and received “limited resources” from them while pregnant in 2019. Dallas could use a veteran point guard, but probably not Diggins-Smith.