A new era: Why building WNBA super-teams through free agency is becoming more common
Two-time champion and former MVP Breanna Stewart, the active leader in career points per game, ripped off a jersey that changed the trajectory of the WNBA and potentially the lone original franchise without a championship. Champion and six-time peak assists performer Courtney Vandersloot, the active leader in career assists per game, jumped in a day later to further upset the apple cart of those outside the Big Apple.
Everybody better get in, because we’re building super-teams in the WNBA.
The New York Liberty are undoubtedly favorites to win their first WNBA championship in 2023 after a massive first two days of free agency that followed a trade for 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones. The trio of added players have a combined 13 All-WNBA selections, a dozen more than their roster had heading into the year.
It is not the first ultra-loaded team in WNBA history — a mere three years ago Skylar Diggins-Smith joining the Phoenix Mercury was viewed as a monster Big 3 — nor is it the only one of the week. The Las Vegas Aces, who won their first title last fall and were already favorites, added two-time champion Candace Parker to their already sweat-inducing roster. In the vision of equality, each coast needs a super-team.
The Aces’ situation is slightly different than the Liberty in that three of their projected starting five were No. 1 picks of the franchise whereas New York has one. The Aces built this championship house from piles of lumber, a few finished pieces added to the bunch. The Liberty are doing it via modular building. Either way, it’s officially the era of creating super-teams using player empowerment. And that makes it an exciting one for the WNBA that will accelerate its upward growth and entice more casual fans.
Prior to the 2020 collective bargaining agreement that nearly doubled player salaries, creating greater differentiation in salary levels, there was barely any movement. There were also rarely free agents. Players like Sylvia Fowles, Elena Delle Donne, Chiney Ogwumike or Diggins-Smith forced trades that created splashy power-shifting moves. There are 10 players on “The W25,” the 2021 selection of the 25 best players, who stayed with one team their entire careers. Seimone Augustus is included, though she spent one final season coming off the bench in Los Angeles, and three players are active and likely to re-sign with their clubs (Nneka Ogwumike, Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi).
Stewart and Parker are on “The W25” list and ushering in this new world that’s creating more offseason drama than ever seen before. (Insert performing arts emoji, insert basketball emoji, insert painting nails emoji, insert tea kettle emoji.)
It was the two-time MVP Parker who became one of the first to send free agency ripple effects in 2021 when she left the Los Angeles Sparks, where she spent 13 seasons and won a championship, to head home to the Chicago Sky, where she won another title that first year.
But two MVPs in their prime moving in one period, and to a single frontcourt? The W is in new territory. Six of the 10 2022 All-WNBA selections are on two teams. It is the first time in WNBA history that multiple teams have three All-WNBA players from the previous year, according to Elias.
Heading into its inaugural season, the league worked hard to distribute players and avoid super-teams. Val Ackerman, the league’s first president, told Andscape in 2016 the league “blew it” by not realizing the talent of Cynthia Cooper. If it had, she said, it would have spread the talent around.
The Houston Comets won the first four WNBA championships with a core of Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson. The Sparks are viewed as the league’s second dynasty and acquired their talent via the inaugural allocation and the first few drafts. The Minnesota Lynx, who won four titles in seven years in the 2010s, were similar, with two No. 1 overall picks (Augustus, Maya Moore), a dispersal draft grab (Rebekkah Brunson), a trade for Lindsay Whalen in 2010 and for Fowles in ’13.
Though the Storm were never a dynasty, the two championships they won in 2018 and 2020 were fueled by three franchise No. 1 picks in Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird. For the longest time, there was no real reason for a player to move. Not money, not marketing opportunities, not chasing rings with old teammates.
The stratification of salaries helped create the much-needed free agency juggernaut, but it also created difficulty fitting all the best players under the cap. The Aces front office re-signed their young stars over the years and many took lower salaries than they could garner elsewhere. A’ja Wilson, a two-time MVP, could make the supermax, but instead is around the regular max. Parker signed at $100,000 for her one-year contract, approximately half of her 2022 salary with the Sky, per Her Hoop Stats.
It will take even more tinkering for the Liberty to fit everyone in since Jones and Betnijah Laney are each making around the maximum, as did Stewart and Vandersloot last year. The reason it works is not everything is about salary anymore.
Stewart is one of the most marketed WNBA stars and has a shoe deal with Puma as additional income. Parker also has big outside deals as well as her offseason gig with “NBA on TNT.” Bird, still an elite point guard, played at $72K her final season to fit everyone for the same reasons.
And in each current super-team’s case, there is a rich team owner providing amenities never once dreamed of in women’s sports. Aces team owner Mark Davis had an 80,000-square-foot training facility built for the team that not only pulls them out of using their shared arena, but provides amenities such as hydrotherapy space, physical therapy space and more. The Liberty created lavish new Liberty-centric locker rooms at Barclays Center in Brooklyn they used to recruit Sky champion Stefanie Dolson last year.
And both team owners are pushing the envelope of the CBA in favor of their players. Liberty owner Joseph Tsai was fined for flying his team on charters and Davis has been open about finding loopholes to support his players the way they should be supported. He hired Becky Hammon as head coach for $1 million a season, unheard of in the WNBA, and won the title in year one.
Players want to be a part of an organization that will support them and provide what’s necessary to use one’s body to make a living. And if creating super-teams or using their free agency choice as collateral is what propels franchises to step up and properly invest in the business that will in turn make them money, so be it.
Already the chatter around WNBA free agency has been bigger than ever before. There are plenty of easy storylines for casual fans to latch on to or new fans to consider until the season tips off in three months. There isn’t even enough time in this 1,600-word article to mention all of them in passing. UConn pals Stewart and Dolson are on a team again. Vandersloot and Sabrina Ionescu, both great guards who played for college coach Kelly Graves. Parker reuniting with her point gawd Chelsea Gray. The Aces-Liberty matchups will be big draws in ticket sales and TV viewership, if the league and its broadcast partners properly air and discuss it.
Whether you hate super-teams or love them, it’s about to be quite the ride.
Meet the super-team: New York
Starting five: Breanna Stewart, F; Jonquel Jones, F; Sabrina Ionescu, G; Courtney Vandersloot, PG; Betnijah Laney, G/F
No. 1 picks: 2 (Stewart in 2016, Ionescu in 2020)
MVPs: 2 (Stewart, Jones)
All-WNBA: 14, led by Stewart’s five. Vandersloot and Jones have four each and Ionescu has one.
2022 results: Stewart’s 21.8 ppg led the league last year and Ionescu ranked eighth with 17.4. Jones ranked fourth in rebounds (8.6) and Stewart was seventh (7.6), while Ionescu is one of the best rebounding guards in the game at No. 12 overall (7.1). Vandersloot (6.5 apg) and Ionescu (6.3 apg) ranked second and third in assists, respectively.
Active career rankings: The Liberty have the two best passers in the game in Vandersloot (6.7 career apg ranks first) and Ionescu (6.1 apg). Stewart’s 20.3 ppg career average is first of all active players. Her 8.6 rpg is second behind Tina Charles, a free agent who is not yet signed. Jones ranks fifth in rebounds (8.3) and Ionescu is 16th (6.4).
Meet the super-team: Las Vegas
Starting five: A’ja Wilson, F; Candace Parker, F; Chelsea Gray, PG; Jackie Young, G; Kelsey Plum, G
No. 1 picks: 4 (Parker in 2008, Plum 2017, Wilson 2018, Young 2019. Gray was the No. 11 pick in 2014)
MVPs: 4 (Parker 2, Wilson 2)
All-WNBA: 16, led by Parker’s 10. Wilson has three, Gray has two and Plum has one. Parker, Wilson and Plum were all first-teamers last year.
2022 results: Plum ranked second in ppg (20.2) and Wilson ranked fifth (19.5). All five players are in the top-30. Wilson (9.4 rpg) and Parker (8.6 rpg) ranked second and third in the category. Gray (6.1 apg) ranked fourth in passing.
Active career rankings: Wilson is fifth in active scoring (19.1 ppg) and fourth in rebounding (8.4 rpg). Parker is 10th in active ppg (16.4) and third in rebounding (8.6). The Aces are led by Gray’s fifth-most 4.7 apg, joined in the top-13 by Parker (10th, 4 apg), Plum (11th, 3.9 apg) and Young (3.8 apg).