WNBA free agency 2023: Key free agents, questions for all 12 teams

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Breanna Stewart is expected to be the top WNBA player available in free agency later this month. But now that we've ranked the top free agents, it's time to flip the perspective and look at what all 12 WNBA teams will try to accomplish this offseason.

For each WNBA team, we'll look at cap space (using salary figures from HerHoopStats.com) and key free agents as well as the most important needs to fill this offseason. Naturally, that won't just involve free agency. Teams also can add via the draft and trades. Since the start of the current WNBA collective bargaining agreement in 2020, however, free agency has become a more important tool for teams.

The last two champions, the Chicago Sky in 2021 and Las Vegas Aces in 2022, added key starters as free agents, coincidentally both from the Los Angeles Sparks. Chicago picked up Candace Parker just before winning the first WNBA title in franchise history, while Las Vegas signing Chelsea Gray in 2021 to join a core of recent No. 1 picks Kelsey Plum, A'ja Wilson and Jackie Young paid off when Gray was perhaps the best player of the group during the Aces' first title run.

Which teams have the best chance of making a move like that this offseason? ESPN's Kevin Pelton, M.A. Voepel and Alexa Philippou take a look.

Atlanta Dream

Cap space: $942,916

Key free agents:
Monique Billings, Nia Coffey, Erica Wheeler, Tiffany Hayes (suspended, expired contract)

With a young core including 2022 Rookie of the Year Rhyne Howard, Naz Hillmon and Aari McDonald, the Dream have a lot of cap space and decisions to make.

Pinning down two big things Atlanta needs: more scoring and veteran leadership. Kia Vaughn has retired after 13 years, and while she averaged just 13.8 minutes per game in her lone season with Atlanta in 2022, she was an important, respected presence in practice, on the bench and in the locker room.

The Dream are committed long term to coach Tanisha Wright and general manager Dan Padover, who feel Atlanta can be a top destination site for free agents. They also will have the Nos. 3 and 8 picks in the draft. In short, 2023 really could be a big year for the Dream and their future. -- Voepel

Chicago Sky

Cap space: $931,801

Key free agents:
Rebekah Gardner (reserved), Emma Meesseman, Candace Parker, Allie Quigley, Azura Stevens, Courtney Vandersloot

Of the Sky's top six players last season, only 2021 Finals MVP Kahleah Copper is under contract for 2023, occupying the team's core slot after re-signing on a multiyear contract last year. That means James Wade, the WNBA's lone remaining dual coach/GM, will be busy trying to keep this group together in free agency.

Doing that last year, while adding All-Star Meesseman, required players -- including Copper -- to take less than their maximum salary. Despite Chicago's massive cap space on paper, the math could get even trickier if Stevens gets a raise after making $140,000 in the final season of a rookie extension. If Quigley decides to retire at age 36, that would create flexibility but at the cost of adding shooting as a need. Quigley led the Sky with 1.5 3-pointers per game, and the team ranked eighth of 12 in 3s in 2022. -- Pelton

Connecticut Sun

Cap space: $436,313

Key free agents:
Brionna Jones, Courtney Williams, Natisha Hiedeman (restricted)

Another franchise with a new head coach (Stephanie White) and a new general manager (Darius Taylor), but one with a less flexible cap situation, the Sun have four players on protected veteran deals: three whom were part of their 2022 Finals run -- each being paid over $210,000, including DeWanna Bonner at roughly the supermax -- plus Jasmine Thomas, who missed the majority of the previous season due to an ACL tear. Their biggest free agent is Brionna Jones, who went from Most Improved Player of the Year to Sixth Player of the Year and is expected to garner a lot of outside interest; but as it currently stands, Connecticut can't afford to offer her the regular maximum salary.

What's even more compelling about the Sun's situation -- if a championship remains the expectation in Uncasville -- is that 2023 is the final year in which all their core players, aside from Alyssa Thomas, will be under contract.

Then there are the questions surrounding guard play: Sun president Jennifer Rizzotti indicated that under White the team might adopt a style of play that's more open-flow, featuring guards who can create shots and where the floor is spread through 3-point shooting, something that "hasn't particularly been a strength of ours," Rizzotti said in White's introductory news conference.

Connecticut thus will decide whether Williams and Hiedeman (the latter of whom would theoretically return to a reserve role with Jasmine Thomas healthy) fit into that vision, and if not, who else it can attract/afford to bring in. And if the team evolves away from a more frontcourt-centric style, what does that entail for its slew of All-Star bigs who are free agents or under contract? Taylor emphasized they "may have to maneuver" given the salary-cap situation they inherited from former GM Curt Miller, so it will be intriguing to see just how bold the front office gets and whether it pulls off some unexpected deals or trades. -- Philippou

Dallas Wings

Cap space: $363,696

Key free agents:
Isabelle Harrison, Marina Mabrey (restricted), Teaira McCowan (restricted)

Stability might be the biggest need for the Wings, who never seemed to settle on a consistent rotation during Vickie Johnson's two seasons as head coach despite a pair of playoff appearances. They used 13 different starting lineups in 2021 and 11 last year, numbers more typical for a lottery team. New coach Latricia Trammell will be Dallas' fourth in six years, not counting Taj McWilliams-Franklin's interim stint.

Fortunately, the Wings have the ability to largely retain their core in free agency. Unless Mabrey or McCowan get a max offer sheet from another team, Dallas should be able to match offers to both players. With Harrison more likely to move on, the Wings might need to add at center or have former No. 1 pick Charli Collier step up.

One lingering question: What to make of trade rumors involving Allisha Gray, who averaged a career-high 13.3 PPG last season? -- Pelton

Indiana Fever

Cap space: $527,552

Key free agents:
Tiffany Mitchell, Victoria Vivians (restricted)

The Fever went with a youth movement last season that included four players selected in the 2022 draft. The youngsters, including No. 2 pick NaLyssa Smith, showed some promise, but the Fever still finished last in the league with a 5-31 record. Christie Sides has taken over as head coach, with former 2012 Fever championship player Karima Christmas-Kelly on her staff.

South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston is expected to be the 2023 draft's No. 1 pick, which the Fever have for the first time. If so, she can make an immediate impact, but that's still more youth. Indiana needs some experience in the post but also someone with the personality to want to help younger players.

Because of the team's struggles now for the past half-dozen years, the Fever are not in great position to lure free agents who have multiple options. Finding a player or two who really want to be in Indiana is key. -- Voepel

Las Vegas Aces

Cap space: $138,804

Key free agents:
Kiah Stokes, Theresa Plaisance

It should be pretty quiet in free agency for the defending champion Aces. They aren't going to rest on their laurels; they will be eager to try to repeat. And they already have their key players -- A'ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young -- back to do it. The other standout, Dearica Hamby, announced during the Aces' championship parade in September that she is pregnant with her second child, so we will wait to see if/when she returns for the 2023 season. All but Wilson are signed through the 2024 season.

Stokes provided reliable, veteran depth in the post off the bench in the regular season. Then she started all 10 playoff games as Hamby was dealing with an injury that kept her out for part of the postseason. Stokes possibly could get a better offer outside of Las Vegas, but the Aces also might prioritize keeping her. And she might be happy to stay with a team that should be a contender for the foreseeable future. -- Voepel

Los Angeles Sparks

Cap space: $996,101

Key free agents:
Nneka Ogwumike, Chiney Ogwumike, Brittney Sykes, Kristi Toliver

With more cap space than most teams as well as a new coaching staff and management team, the Sparks arguably have the most question marks heading into free agency. Just Katie Lou Samuelson is on a protected veteran contract; the Ogwumikes are both unrestricted free agents, and Nneka -- the sole remaining player from L.A.'s 2016 championship squad -- spent the last two seasons under the core designation and is no longer able to be cored. Otherwise, L.A. has a lot of youth it can work with in former draftees on unprotected contracts, though the Sparks gave up their 2023 first-round pick in the trade forChennedy Carter (now on a protected rookie scale deal).

New head coach Curt Miller, new general manager Karen Bryant and the rest of the front office will have to decide how many players from last year's group they want to bring back or how much they ought to reset, which might make sense with a new coach and GM. Nneka Ogwumike indicated before the hirings of Miller and Bryant that she would like to stay in Los Angeles, which would be a huge boon for a franchise that has undergone so much tumult.

Still, there's not a ton the Sparks would want to replicate from 2022's underwhelming campaign: They missed the playoffs, struggled defensively and didn't have enough shooters from beyond the arc. Should L.A. seek to start fresh, it has a more convincing sell when trying to attract new, high-profile talent by bringing in a coach with a proven track record of success as well as one of the most respected executives in the league. This week, Bryant teased a "super active" and "really aggressive" free agency in L.A. they hope will result in a "transformation on the basketball side." -- Philippou

Minnesota Lynx

Cap space: $539,278

Key free agents:
Rachel Banham, Damiris Dantas, Bridget Carleton (restricted), Moriah Jefferson

It's a new era in Minnesota with Sylvia Fowles retiring. While there might be some growing pains along the way, the organization has made it clear it wants to build toward competing for championships again, with Napheesa Collier as its new cornerstone. The Lynx also lucked out by earning the No. 2 overall pick in the 2023 draft lottery.

Coach/president of basketball operations Cheryl Reeve and new GM Clare Duwelius have three veterans under protected contracts for 2023: Aerial Powers, Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa, although the latter recently announced she is pregnant, and her status for the 2023 season remains unclear. Collier and Jessica Shepard both signed unprotected deals, which gives the Lynx some flexibility in going after free agents who desire protected contracts.

A big question mark remains over what the Lynx will do at point guard: Do they seek to bring back Moriah Jefferson, who is an unrestricted free agent? In her introductory news conference, Duwelius mentioned wanting to push the pace like Team USA did at the 2022 World Cup, and that undoubtedly will be reliant upon whoever has the ball in their hands the most. What comes of reserves Rachel Banham and Bridget Carleton, who appeared in early games last year for the injury-riddled Lynx, or of Damiris Dantas, who missed time due to personal reasons and prior to that a foot injury? -- Philippou

New York Liberty

Cap space: $382,915

Key free agents:
Sami Whitcomb, Han Xu (reserved), Crystal Dangerfield (reserved), Marine Johannes (reserved)

The Liberty went 16-20 and made the playoffs in veteran coach Sandy Brondello's first season in New York. There were times the team looked really good with a lot to build on for 2023. Now the question is, will it get the biggest free agent, Breanna Stewart, to come back to her native state? If so, that will take up much of the remaining cap space. Obviously, though, Stewart is more than worth it.

If Seattle star Stewart doesn't opt to go to New York, the Liberty definitely can bring back Whitcomb and Han, the 6-foot-10 center from China who made a lot of progress last season. So this could be a big-splash free-agency period for the Liberty or it could be quieter before a very active 2024. -- Voepel

Phoenix Mercury

Cap space: $881,650

Key free agents:
Sophie Cunningham (restricted), Brittney Griner, Kia Nurse, Diana Taurasi

Phoenix begins free agency with just three players under contract: Skylar Diggins-Smith, Diamond DeShields and Brianna Turner. The good news is free agents Griner and Taurasi are certain to remain in the Valley, where they've played their entire WNBA careers. Taurasi will surely retire with the Mercury, and Griner specifically mentioned the organization when she declared her intent to return to the WNBA in 2023.

GM Jim Pitman said in August he expects Diggins-Smith to return this season after she left the team for personal reasons late in the 2022 campaign. When that might happen is uncertain with Diggins-Smith pregnant with her second child.

Aside from resolving Diggins-Smith's future, small forward is the Mercury's biggest question mark. Nurse should be back after missing all of 2022 following an ACL tear, but she is an unrestricted free agent. Phoenix might not be able to afford Nurse and restricted free agent Cunningham, who emerged as a key contributor last season. -- Pelton

Seattle Storm

Cap space: $1,025,564

Key free agents:
Tina Charles, Ezi Magbegor (reserved), Breanna Stewart, Stephanie Talbot, Gabby Williams.

Just two Storm players are under contract for 2023: All-Star guard Jewell Loyd and center Mercedes Russell, who was limited to five games last season after being diagnosed with recurrent low-pressure headaches.

First, Seattle must re-recruit Stewart, an unrestricted free agent for the second year in a row who no longer has Sue Bird's final season as a reason to re-sign.

Next, the Storm must figure out Bird's successor. With Bird and backup Briann January (recently announced as an assistant coach for the Connecticut Sun) both retiring, Seattle has no point guards under contract and will surely look for a veteran in free agency.

Then the Storm have to address small forward, where Williams might be unable to play in the WNBA this season due to the prioritization clause.

All of that makes Seattle potentially the most interesting team to watch this offseason. -- Pelton

Washington Mystics

Cap space: $572,466

Key free agents:
Alysha Clark, Elizabeth Williams, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough

Don't expect to see widespread change in D.C. The Mystics' core (Elena Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins) is signed through 2023, and they'll also bring back the No. 3 pick of 2022, Shakira Austin, plus, barring a trade, the No. 4 overall pick in 2023.

The biggest free-agency question is whether Clark will re-sign, although Mike Thibault (who recently assumed solely the general manager role) indicated in September the Mystics would like her to return to Washington. Still, the Mystics' championship window, at least with this group, isn't the most forgiving, with Clark in the twilight of her career at 35 and Delle Donne two years younger. Delle Donne, Cloud and Atkins will all be free agents in 2024.

Both Mike Thibault and new head coach Eric Thibault emphasized this offseason that while they don't want to totally retreat from the team's emergence on the defensive end, the Mystics need to improve offensively -- by sharing the ball, moving, spacing the floor and creating driving opportunities while returning closer to the identity they had when they won the 2019 championship. Delle Donne is expected to be healthier than this past year, but the Thibaults don't want her and Atkins to have to carry as much of the offensive load, so achieving more offensive balance (with one or two meaningful signings) will likely be a focus in free agency. -- Philippou