WNBA free agency 2023 predictions and biggest storylines to watch

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The 2023 WNBA free agency period is expected to be nothing short of seismic, with new head coaches and general managers settling into their roles, franchises' championship windows dwindling and several blockbuster names facing big decisions this offseason.

Most notably, Breanna Stewart, Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Courtney Vandersloot are among the elite free agents, with Stewart's choice arguably the most important domino to fall. All of their decisions will undoubtedly impact the league's landscape. The WNBA's most recent collective bargaining agreement, adopted in 2020, made possible meaningful movement in free agency, and it's likely we will see that take on a whole other level this winter.

Brittney Griner is also a free agent, but after returning from Russia, where she was detained for 10 months, the All-Star has indicated she wants to play again for the Phoenix Mercury, where she has spent her entire WNBA career.

How championship contenders -- former title winners or organizations that might be a few players away from reaching that level -- proceed will be of the utmost interest, while other franchises will enter rebuilds. How teams like the Minnesota Lynx, Atlanta Dream, Los Angeles Sparks and Indiana Fever -- the latter two of which have new head coaches -- operate over the next few weeks might not put them in the title race this year but could mark the necessary building blocks for future success.

Qualifying offers and core player designations will be delivered Jan. 11-20, while player negotiations begin on Jan. 21. Contracts may be signed Feb. 1.

Before then, ESPN's Kevin Pelton, Alexa Philippou and M.A. Voepel provide their predictions, analysis and insights into what to expect over the next few weeks.

Which teams are you most curious to watch?

Philippou: The Chicago Sky. They were close to back-to-back Finals appearances before being upset by the Sun in the semifinals. Now, the majority of their core players (setting aside Kahleah Copper) are free agents. Will Candace Parker -- who said in November she intends to play this season -- return to Chicago? Will Courtney Vandersloot be lured away? What's to come from Allie Quigley,Emma Meesseman and Azura Stevens? If the team looks mostly like it did in 2021 and 2022, then it'll be in championship contention once more. But that's definitely not a certainty.

Voepel: The Dream are in a building, not maintaining, stage, so this free agency period is just one step of that process. Still, the Dream have a lot of cap space, an engaged ownership and the desire to bring in a high-profile signing or two. It's probably not realistic to think of the Dream aiming for a 2023 championship, but what happens now could have an impact on their title hopes in future seasons.

Pelton: The Sparks. It's a new era in L.A. with Karen Bryant as GM and Curt Miller as head coach, and the Sparks have enough cap room to re-sign Nneka Ogwumike and add another max free agent. Could that player be Parker returning to L.A.? I'm sure the league took note of Bryant saying on the record last week that the Sparks would be interested in bringing her back.

Which team has the most at stake in free agency?

Voepel: There are so many dominoes that could fall that it's hard to pin down one team that has the most riding on this round of free agency. After two or three of the biggest free agents sign, this will be clearer. But for the time being, it might be the Sky. They had a chance to return to the WNBA Finals last season after winning it all in 2021, and it got away. Now, can they keep the core together or do they become a really different team?

Pelton: Since I've been writing about their offseason for six months, I have to say the Seattle Storm. We haven't seen Seattle plan for a future without Sue Bird since she was drafted in 2002, and there's no point guard on the roster with Briann January also retiring. Starting small forward and restricted free agentGabby Williamsis the player most likely to be affected this season by the WNBA's new prioritization rule. Add in Stewart's free agency and the Storm must have multiple contingency plans.

Philippou: I agree with Voepel and Pelton, but setting aside the Storm and Sky, the Mercury might have the most pivotal free agency and offseason more broadly. Re-signing Griner appears to be in the cards, but is there a way to revamp a team that appeared to be bogged down by personality clashes (between players, between coaches and players) this past season? What's Skylar Diggins-Smith's future in Phoenix? The so-called superteam the Mercury formed in last year's free agency didn't pan out, but with Diana Taurasi in the twilight of her career and a Finals appearance coming just two years ago, are the Mercury still able to build a team capable of competing for a championship?

Where will Breanna Stewart sign for the 2023 season?

Pelton: Look away first, Storm fans. I think Stewart is headed to the New York Liberty. We've seen something similar with Chelsea Gray, who took a meeting with the Las Vegas Aces in 2020 before re-signing on a one-year deal, much as Stewart did after meeting with the Liberty last offseason. Gray went on to join the Aces a year later, and my bet is Stewart will follow the same path.

Voepel: Stewart is in a different situation at this point in her career than Storm legend Sue Bird was at the same age. When Bird was 28, WNBA free agency was very stagnant, and far fewer top players moved around. Also, Bird wasn't married with a child at that age like Stewart is, so that could factor into the decision.

Bird, later in her career, did consider going to her native New York to play, but ultimately her heart couldn't leave the Storm. Fellow New Yorker Stewart also seems strongly attached to the Storm, who picked her No. 1 in the draft 14 years after taking Bird in that spot.

But because free agency and her life are different, Stewart might make a different choice. Having grown up in Syracuse, and with her wife, Marta, being from Spain, Stewart might see the Big Apple as a good spot for the rest of her WNBA career. Plus, there's the lure of trying to get the Liberty their first WNBA title, and the chance to play with a dynamic young guard like Sabrina Ionescu. It all might be too much for Stewart to resist.

Philippou: I feel like someone here has to give Seattle fans an inkling of hope Stewart stays with the Storm. Insider's Meredith Cash tweeted the upcoming Stewie 1 Reintroduce sneakers are supposed to "[evoke] the geological formations found at Washington State's stunning Mount Rainier," according to Puma. If Seattle folks want to read into things, they might want to take this design as an indication Stewart will be returning to Seattle.

Aside from Stewart, who might be the best player to change teams?

Pelton: To some extent, this is a matter of perspective on current player ability vs. career legacy. Since she's second in my projections for free agents in 2023, I'm going to say Brionna Jones, who can't currently re-sign with the Connecticut Sun for the max salary because of the team's cap issues.

Philippou: Realistically, I think Jones is gone. Otherwise, I'm super intrigued to see what happens with Vandersloot. The Chicago Sun-Times' Annie Costabile reported Vandersloot took meetings with the Sky, Storm and Lynx during free agency last year. Obviously the Storm connection has been well-documented (Vandersloot is from Washington and went to Gonzaga), but the idea of her teaming up with Cheryl Reeve is also fascinating. As Costabile indicated, Vandersloot's decision figures to, in large part, depend on what happens with Stewart and Parker, and so maybe she'll return to Chicago after all.

Voepel: Hindsight is often intriguing with drafts. How much would Chicago or theDallas Wings, who took Alaina Coates and Evelyn Akhator second and third in the 2017 draft, like a redo to take Brionna Jones? She ended up going No. 8 to Connecticut and has blossomed into a coveted free agent. As Kevin and Alexa said, Jones seems the most certain to move. We keep coming back to the Stewart-Parker-Vandersloot questions.

But what about Tina Charles? The 2012 MVP turned 34 in December but still has elite skills. What does she want at this point in her career? If she doesn't stay in Seattle, where she finished last season, what teams see her fitting in? Does her in-season exit from Phoenix last year make other teams wary?

Which team will improve the most?

Pelton: If we're talking most wins compared to 2022, the answer could be Los Angeles. But if Stewart really goes to New York, the Liberty will take the biggest leap in terms of title contention.

Philippou: Pelton took my predictions, so let's highlight another team. General manager Dan Padover and the Atlanta Dream -- who have a ton of cap space and return Rookie of the Year Rhyne Howard -- will make some meaningful additions in free agency, which, paired with the 2023 No. 3 overall pick, will have them comfortably back in the playoff race by the fall.

Voepel: When Parker left the Sparks for the Sky in 2021, it was the biggest free agency move in WNBA history. If Stewart leaves the Storm for the Liberty, it will be even bigger because she is in the prime of her career at 28. If Stewart stays put, the Sparks might well be the team that moves forward in 2023 the most based on free agency.

What's your bold prediction for WNBA free agency/the offseason?

Pelton: The Phoenix Mercury will trade Skylar Diggins-Smith.

Philippou: The Sun, entering a new era after Stephanie Whitetook over as head coach and Darius Taylor as GM, will look more different than expected come May. President Jen Rizzotti discussed needing to improve the team's 3-point shooting specifically, so there might be some big changes in the backcourt, ones that could have ramifications on the frontcourt as well. As already indicated, the Sun can't afford to pay Brionna Jones the regular maximum salary as it currently stands.

Voepel: The Dream, who traded to move up and get the No. 1 pick last year, will consider trading the No. 3 pick this year.