One free agent every WNBA team needs to re-sign

The first offseason step for every WNBA team is assessing the previous roster. Looking at each team’s own free agents, who is the one that must be kept?

As the Seattle Storm celebrated its second title in three years earlier this month, the vast majority of WNBA teams were already well into their offseason planning. What’s coming is nothing less than a free agency, with rules loosened by the most recent collective bargaining agreement signed this year, that offers some significant opportunities for player movement.

Then there’s the new need to prioritize. Maximum salaries jumped from $119,500 to $215,000, but with a cap increase of just a few hundred thousand dollars, the days of a WNBA team paying the max to half its roster are gone.

And we’re not even talking about — yet — the free agents who could look for a fresh start, or the players who could be traded.

First: when each team looks at its own free agents, who is the one that absolutely must be kept?

Let’s take a look:

Atlanta Dream — Blake Dietrick

At first glance, the answer here is WNBA Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney, who will be a hot commodity on the free-agent market. But it’s worth remembering that Tiffany Hayes is still under contract, and finding minutes and shots for Hayes, Courtney Williams and Chennedy Carter in the backcourt, alongside Laney on what is likely to approach a max deal, leaves relatively little room for the frontcourt in both financial and offensive senses. Dietrick, though, doesn’t need to get her own, but rather spaces the floor for all the aforementioned creators, and made 44.8 percent of her 3s in 2020. She’s loved by teammates and coaches alike, she loves it with the Dream: this is their first free-agent priority.

Chicago Sky — Cheyenne Parker

It’s somewhat difficult to see how the Sky get from here — playoff contention, but short of championship-caliber play — to the title aspirations they have, but it’s really hard to imagine it without Parker, their most valuable big. She can stretch the floor, with a top-five true shooting percentage in 2020, she rebounds and blocks shots, and she continues to improve. She’ll get a raise from the $110,000 she made in 2020, and Chicago needs to pay it.

Connecticut Sun — Alyssa Thomas

I’m not going to waste your time here: Alyssa Thomas does it all, she deserves to be cored, the Sun will core her unless something truly insane happens. It’s Alyssa Thomas.

Dallas Wings — Allisha Gray

Dallas is in an interesting spot, moving on from Brian Agler, and with 11 players under contract for 2021 already (though only three guaranteed). Allisha Gray is a rare unsigned holdover from 2020, and her two-way contribution is going to be important for a young group trying to learn a new system.

Indiana Fever — None

No, seriously. Natalie Achonwa is a talented frontcourt player, but Tamika Catchings needs to remove any impediments to Marianne Stanley using Teaira McCowan and Lauren Cox together as often as possible to see what they have. And Julie Allemand, who proved herself in her rookie season, should be starting at the point next to Kelsey Mitchell, so free-agent Erica Wheeler, rumored to be unhappy in Indiana, will head elsewhere as well. The Fever need to figure out who they are and let rookie-deal players tell them.

Los Angeles Sparks — Nneka Ogwumike

This is a tough one. Candace Parker is a generational talent. If you let WNBA GMs pick any point guard, they’d choose Chelsea Gray. But Ogwumike, the 2016 MVP, does everything. Parker’s defense was impressive, but consider that we saw the Sparks struggle defensively far more in games Ogwumike missed. She is central to everything that goes on in that locker room. Ogwumike must be kept.

Las Vegas Aces — Danielle Robinson

Liz Cambage? Great player. Kayla McBride? Steady and solid as they come. But here’s your list of Vegas players by net rating last year: Angel McCoughtry, then A’ja Wilson, and a close third is: Danielle Robinson. She’s a very Bill Laimbeer-type player, she provides flexibility in the backcourt with a returning Kelsey Plum — allowing Plum to play off the ball sometimes, taking on the harder defensive assignments — and she is also beloved inside that team. Robinson signed for $130,000 last season, and it’ll probably take something similar to keep her.

Minnesota Lynx — Bridget Carleton

Yes, if Maya Moore returns, you can put her in this category as well. But let’s not lose sight of the revelation Carleton was this season for Minnesota, making 57.1 percent of her 2s and 45.7 percent of her 3s, grabbing seemingly every 50-50 ball, with an assist percentage of 14.2 and an ability to fill any of three positions for Cheryl Reeve’s Lynx. On rosters where versatility is prized — that would be every WNBA team, where there are just 12 roster spots, max, and the new cap makes money tighter — Carleton is going to be valued for a long time.

New York Liberty — Amanda Zahui B.

Consider what the Liberty are under Walt Hopkins. This is a five-out team, and Amanda Zahui B. is a center with plus size at 6-foot-5 who finished fifth in the league in rebounding percentage and made 34.4 percent of her 3s. A lot of what happened in 2020 didn’t matter for New York, playing without many of their expected primary weapons due to COVID-19 concerns or in Sabrina Ionescu’s case, an injury. How right Zahui B. is for New York’s future plans did matter.

Phoenix Mercury — Diana Taurasi

She’s playing at the same elite level she always has, you keep her and build everything around what it means to have Diana Taurasi for as long as possible.

Seattle Storm — Alysha Clark

For too long pigeon-holed as a defense-only player, Alysha Clark followed a 48.1 percent mark from 3 in 2019 with a 52.2 percent mark from 3 in 2020, part of another championship team in Seattle. The Storm had a few bargains drive this title run — Sami Whitcomb made $68,000 as a critical guard off the bench, for instance — but Clark at $85,000, half of what she’ll make in 2021, is the biggest steal of all. After Bird, Stewart and possible Jewell Loyd, there’s no more important Storm player.

Washington Mystics — Natasha Cloud

Sure, retaining Tina Charles to finally see what the Mystics look like with her would be nice. Emma Meesseman is a top-15 WNBA player, too, and a return of Elena Delle Donne (allowing Mike Thibault to play Meesseman as a bench destroyer) would be a boon. But the Mystics were without their playmaker and best perimeter defender in 2020, and for all their overachieving, it showed. Natasha Cloud is critical to this team going forward, she’s a primary reason they won it all in 2019, and offseason plans must start with retaining her. She’s a vital figure in the American story, but let’s not forget she’s an extremely impressive player on the court, too.

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