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The Free Agency Moves That Could Change The WNBA Title Race

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Well, as we promised, it’s been an epic WNBA offseason. 

We already covered the massive shift that took place in Los Angeles, with Liz Cambage, Chennedy Carter, Katie Lou Samuelson and Jordin Canada reshaping the look of the near-miss playoff team from 2021. But there was plenty of movement among the other WNBA contenders, too — some teams electing to put all their chips on winning in 2022, others setting themselves up for future seasons.

Let’s start with the win-now group. As mentioned back in January, the Seattle Storm took a calculated gamble by coring Jewell Loyd but not Breanna Stewart, planning to bring back that duo plus Sue Bird. The results were ideal for the Storm for the upcoming season, with Loyd signing a two-year deal and Stewart and Bird on one-year pacts — but they bring with them some uncertainty that extends beyond the likely final season of Bird’s career.

Bird helped ensure 2022 could be as fruitful as possible for Storm general manager Talisa Rhea by agreeing to play for the veteran minimum of $72,141, or less than teammate Mikiah Herbert Harrigan will make this season. 

“To me, winning championships and being a part of teams that go on that journey — that’s everything,” Bird said in a press conference earlier this month of her decision to take so much less than she could have earned from other teams. “That’s why I play, that’s the motivator — always. And I think nothing really matters outside of that.”

The resulting breathing room under the salary cap allowed the Storm to add Gabby Williams, a versatile wing defender and rebounder, and Briann January, a capable 3-point shooter whose defense on opposing guards is among the best of anyone in the league.

But there’s still a lack of long-term commitment from Stewart — she pointedly refused in her contract press conference to even say she hoped to be in Seattle beyond 2022, with the New York native a clear potential target by the New York Liberty (who met with her this offseason) again next winter. That will be a problem for Rhea and company once they’ve taken a run at title No. 5 for Bird.

Not that winning that championship will be easy. The Chicago Sky, after all, are the defending champions, not the Storm, and Chicago managed to keep their top-six players in win shares from that title run, while adding significant talent with playoff experience in the process.

Emma Meesseman, acquired as a free agent on a one-year, $185,000 deal, combines many of the best elements of two key contributors from last year that were lost, Diamond DeShields and Stefanie Dolson. Meesseman is a rim protector, 6-foot-4 but capable of stretching the floor, with a career 37.6 percent mark from beyond the arc. And she’s at her best in the postseason, winning WNBA Finals MVP honors in 2019 after scoring in double figures in all five Finals games against the Connecticut Sun.

As Team USA head coach Cheryl Reeve told Jenn Hatfield of The Next about Meesseman after a recent game between USA and Belgium, “Emma’s always got your full attention. … You’re hopeful just to make things difficult. You know she’s going to score.”

Meesseman is signed to a one-year deal, as are America’s Backcourt Sweethearts, Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, and even Candace Parker, who many think could retire after the season to spend more time with her growing family and create more making-faces-at-Shaq memes. 

As for DeShields, she was sent to the Phoenix Mercury in a sign-and-trade, part of what has been the Mercury’s MO for the past decade or so: Count on Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner, and build the team around them. 

This version has more star power than ever, though, between DeShields, the returning Skylar Diggins-Smith and free-agent acquisition Tina Charles, who followed a version of the Sue Bird path by taking just $108,000 for what she sees as her best chance to win a title, a year after leading the WNBA in scoring with the Washington Mystics.

“You get to find ways, different ways, to impact the team,” Charles said of her role in Phoenix during her introductory press conference. “Not in the same scoring capacity that I would always. Maybe it’s making the extra pass, being a great high-low passer for BG. It’s all those little things and little details of the game that’s going to help our process to be able to win and be on a championship run.”

It is hard to argue that the Connecticut Sun or the Las Vegas Aces aren’t in win-now mode, either. The Sun, after finishing 26-6 and earning the top seed in last year’s playoffs, retained their most important player, 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones, on a two-year deal, while the minutes January played will be taken by helium-powered guard Courtney Williams, who’s back in Connecticut after two seasons in Atlanta. And while the Aces will be without Cambage, that opens up more opportunities in the middle for 2020 WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson, who signed a two-year deal as well.

And do not forget the Minnesota Lynx, who retain the core of their 22-10 team from last season around all-world center Sylvia Fowles while adding Angel McCoughtry to help navigate the loss of Napheesa Collier, who is pregnant. (Collier is due in May and will miss at least the beginning of the 2022 season.) Both Collier and McCoughtry are versatile enough to offer a range of tantalizing lineup options to head coach Reeve once Collier returns, however.

And this is all before the April draft, the primary place the Indiana Fever plan to build their roster this offseason, with three of the top-10 picks.

As for New York, the Liberty have added more at the margins this offseason, retaining two-way wing Rebecca Allen while signing Dolson as the prototype stretch-five, allowing Natasha Howard to slip into her more comfortable slot as a power forward. They’ll be counting on a return to health of Sabrina Ionescu, along with the continued ascension of Betnijah Laney and 2021 Rookie of the Year Michaela Onyenwere, to contend this season.

But they’ll also have more than $300,000 in cap room next offseason, right when Stewart hits the open market once again, and this dance starts anew.

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