How is free agency changing the WNBA’s power structure?

Movement has been fast and furious in the early days of WNBA free agency. How will all these changes affect next year’s standings and playoff picture?

Maybe it’s the league’s new CBA. Maybe it’s the fact that last year’s abbreviated Wubble season had all the players in one place and enabled more discussions than usual about players teaming up. Maybe it’s something else. But whatever it is, WNBA free agency has been incredibly active in the early going.

Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray already left the Sparks. Kayla McBride left the Aces. Alysha Clark left Seattle. Things are different in the league but how different will the final standings and the playoff picture be? Let’s take a sweeping look at how the teams of the WNBA are stacking up.

Vegas, Chicago, and Washington look like the WNBA’s top teams, but Minnesota lurks

Howard Megdal already wrote about how Vegas, Chicago, and Minnesota made major free agency moves. The Aces let Kayla McBride leave for Minnesota, but will replace her with former Sparks point guard Chelsea Gray. Despite some shooting regression last year, Gray brings Vegas something they really need: shooting from the point guard position. The trio of Jackie Young, Danielle Robinson, and Lindsay Allen ran the point last year, and while Robinson and Allen had solid shooting seasons, neither were high-volume shooters. With Kelsey Plum set to return after missing 2020 with an Achilles injury, Vegas should be positioned to have their best backcourt of the Laimbeer era. And that isn’t even mentioning the possibility of having Liz Cambage back at the 5 after she sat out 2020.

The Chicago Sky signed Candace Parker, a move that should vault them into title contention. Last year’s Defensive Player of the Year will help shore up a Sky team that had the third-worst defensive rating among last year’s playoff teams. Parker’s addition also gives the Sky a playmaking big who can score in transition and can be a strong pick-and-roll complement to point guard Courtney Vandersloot.

Minnesota didn’t add a player with the star upside of Parker or Gray, but the team added some important complementary pieces, with Kayla McBride and Aerial Powers helping revamp the team’s wing group and Natalie Achonwa helping to shore up the frontcourt depth. That last point is vital, as Sylvia Fowles was limited to just seven games last season due to injury. Keeping Fowles — one of the league’s best traditional centers — healthy for the playoffs could be the difference between winning a title and not winning a title.

The Mystics take the final spot in the league’s top tier based on what’s happened so far in free agency. They lost the aforementioned Aerial Powers to the Lynx but replaced her with Alysha Clark, one of the WNBA’s best defensive wings. It’s not quite a one-for-one replacement as Clark is almost seven years older, but in the short term, the Mystics get an elite spot-up shooter who can defend multiple positions.

Washington still has lots of questions that could cause them to fall out of this tier. Will they get back the players who opted out of playing last season? Will Emma Meesseman come over from Europe? Will they look to trade Myisha Hines-Allen as she enters the final year of her contract? Washington could enter 2021 as the title favorites if the offseason goes the way they want, but there’s still a lot of time left.

The WNBA defending champs look poised for regression

The Seattle Storm did bring back veteran team-leader Sue Bird for another go at it, but the team also lost one of the WNBA’s best defensive players in forward Alysha Clark, who is heading to Washington. The situation with another one of the league’s best defenders, Natasha Howard, is still up in the air. The team has cored Howard, meaning they have exclusive negotiating rights with her, but no deal being announced yet has prompted some to wonder if a Howard trade could be on the table.

But in a league where the margins between being a title contender and sinking into the muck of the No. 4-8 seeds is razor-thin, even just the loss of Clark — regardless of what happens with Howard — puts the Storm in a precarious position.

Yes, they looked dominant last season, especially in their Finals win over Vegas. But other top teams are adding pieces while Seattle is staying relatively quiet.

WNBA teams that are taking a step back

When it comes to discussing which WNBA teams are currently worse off than when the offseason began, you have to start with the Los Angeles Sparks.

L.A. and recently-promoted GM (and head coach) Derek Fisher entered the offseason in the most precarious spot of any team, as their three best players — Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray, and Nneka Ogwumike — were unrestricted free agents.

Assuming you didn’t just skim the headers in this article and then scroll down to this section, you know how that’s gone for Fisher: Parker and Gray are gone. And while the Sparks are reportedly signing Erica Wheeler to fill some of the void left by Gray, they’re still clearly worse-off than they were a few weeks ago.

That’s not to dismiss the importance of Wheeler, as in 2019 she averaged 10.1 points and 5.0 assists per game while shooting 38.4 percent from 3. Wheeler’s definitely in the mix when talking about the second tier of point guards in the WNBA, but Gray’s someone who has been in the conversation with Courtney Vandersloot for the spot as the league’s top overall point guard. It’s a downgrade, and while Wheeler can help the Sparks make the postseason, it’s hard to see this team going very far.

One could also argue that the Phoenix Mercury find themselves in a worse position, mostly because last year’s fifth-seed hasn’t done much externally. They’re bringing back Diana Taurasi on a two-year deal, but unless something unexpected materializes, Phoenix is going to be running back their 2020 team. With a lot of other contenders getting better, where does that leave the Mercury? Like Los Angeles, they’re a playoff team, but not one with a very high ceiling.

Can any non-playoff break through?

The four teams that missed the postseason last year have all made moves in the early days of free agency, but have any of them done enough to make a postseason run?

The New York Liberty had the league’s worst record last season but took a significant step forward by reportedly signing 2020 Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney.

The Dallas Wings re-signed guard Allisha Gray, who took a step forward as a scorer last season.

The Indiana Fever have already lost Wheeler and Achonwa and Candice Dupree is reportedly planning to leave the team. They did work out a contract extension with Jantel Lavender.

The Atlanta Dream signed Cheyenne Parker, a skilled big who can shoot and defend. Parker has gotten better each season and will be a great pick-and-roll partner with Chennedy Carter. The Dream also lost Laney to New York, though.

With all this in mind, the question becomes this: will the WNBA have the same four non-playoff teams for the third year in a row? Based on what’s happened so far, the answer is probably yes.

Dallas is closest to breaking through based on their performance last season, but even though they finished just a game out of the playoffs, the team that beat them out was Washington, who finds themselves in a much better position than Dallas this year. Maybe Connecticut, who won’t have Alyssa Thomas because of an Achilles injury, could fall out, but they get Jonquel Jones back, who has the ability to be a top-five player in the league.

Barring some kind of unforeseen trade, it seems like we should expect that 2021 free agency isn’t going to foist a new team into the postseason picture. Three of the four teams are taking positive steps on paper, but the gap between New York/Atlanta/Dallas/Indiana and the rest of the WNBA remains too big for us to predict that any of those teams overcome that gap.

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