WNBA free agency 2023: Which players are on the market?
Courtney Vandersloot and Breanna Stewart lead a stacked class.
The WNBA playoffs and end-of-season awards are right around the corner. With five playoff spots secured, and five other teams vying for the final two slots, it’s time to address some of the biggest debates in our anonymous poll.
We contacted 20 league personnel consisting of general managers, head coaches, assistant coaches and PR representatives from all 12 franchises to get their take on 11 important questions.
A’ja Wilson, LV: 8
Kelsey Plum, LV: 6
Breanna Stewart, SEA: 3
Candace Parker, CHI: 1
Courtney Vandersloot, CHI: 1
Sylvia Fowles, MIN: 1
While this year’s MVP race does not feel as clear as those in recent memory, the results at the top were somewhat definitive, with Las Vegas Aces teammates A’ja Wilson and Kelsey Plum making up 70 percent of the vote.
Wilson, drawing eight of the twenty votes in our poll, is second on the Aces in scoring at 19.6 points per game, the third-highest mark of her career. The 2020 WNBA MVP has also shown off her expanded game this season, shooting a career-high 50.1 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from 3.
Plum leads the second-place Aces in scoring at 19.9 points per game this season. Her efficiency from beyond the 3-point line and ability to create for her teammates, evident in her career-high 5.1 assists per game, makes Plum a true MVP contender.
There is also a clear MVP case for Stewart, who accounts for 27 percent of the Storm’s points per game and leads the WNBA in win shares, though she received only three votes here. The overall lack of votes for players on the reigning champion Chicago Sky is also surprising given how much Candace Parker and Courtney Vandersloot have contributed to the team’s league-leading 25-9 record.
Sylvia Fowles is having a memorable farewell season, but she doesn’t stack up with the rest of the top contenders, mainly due to the Minnesota Lynx’s middling record.
Jackie Young, LV: 5
Kelsey Plum, LV: 5
AD Durr, ATL: 2
Natisha Heideman, CON: 2
Aari McDonald, ATL: 2
Azurá Stevens, CHI: 1
Natasha Howard, NY: 1
Teaira McCowan, DAL: 1
Victoria Vivians, IND: 1
You can make a strong case for all nine of the players who received votes for Most Improved Player, but it’s still clearly a two-person race between Plum and Jackie Young. Let’s take a look at some of their side-by-side statistics from last season to this one.
The most glaring difference to me is the increase in Plum’s minutes from 2021 to ‘22. The guard is playing an additional seven minutes per game this season, and with the ball in her hands more thanks to first-year coach Becky Hammon’s offensive system, it’s less of a surprise that her numbers have increased as a result.
Meanwhile, in just 2.6 more minutes per game, Young has made her biggest improvement in 3-point shooting, averaging 44.1 percent in 2022 compared to 25 percent last year. That level of efficiency, combined with her overall production for the 24-10 Aces, gives her the slight edge in my book.
James Wade, CHI: 7
Becky Hammon, LV: 6
Tanisha Wright, ATL: 5
Mike Thibault, WSH: 1
Curt Miller, CON: 1
Three years after winning his first and only Coach of the Year award, James Wade leads our anonymous poll with seven total votes. Hammon, in her first year coaching Las Vegas, follows closely behind with six. Tanisha Wright rounds out the majority with five, while reigning Coach of the Year Curt Miller and Mike Thibault each received one vote.
It’s hard to argue against the coach who has led his team to a 25-9 record and the top of the league standings, one game ahead of the Aces. Wade and the Sky won the championship last year after a below-average regular season, and they have maintained that dominance consistently in 2022.
Beyond Wade, Tanisha Wright deserves major consideration for the way she has turned a young Atlanta Dream team from a league bottom-dweller into a playoff hopeful in her first season at the helm.
Alyssa Thomas, CON: 9
Breanna Stewart, SEA: 3
A’ja Wilson, LV: 2
Natasha Cloud, WSH: 2
Emma Meesseman, CHI: 1
Jonquel Jones, CON: 1
Skylar Diggins-Smith, PHX: 1
Brittney Sykes, LA: 1
I was surprised by these results because I personally do not see the DPOY race as clear-cut as this list indicates, but our respondents sure did.
Leading vote-getter Alyssa Thomas has been a force in her first full WNBA season since 2019 after dealing with multiple injuries. She’s contributed in every area for the third-place Connecticut Sun, even recording her first two triple-doubles this season.
The forward is averaging 1.7 steals and 8.2 rebounds per game, with 6.1 of those coming on the defensive glass. Her 93.4 defensive rating is seventh in the league and has helped pace the Sun, who lead the league with 8.9 steals per game and are allowing a third-best 77.9 points per game. As a team, Connecticut has maintained a 94.8 defensive rating, the third-highest in the league.
Phoenix Mercury: 6
Minnesota Lynx: 6
Los Angeles Sparks: 3
Dallas Wings: 2
New York Liberty: 2
Indiana Fever: 1
It’s hard to argue against the Phoenix Mercury and Minnesota Lynx being at the top of this list. Both teams finished in the top five of the league standings last year, with the Mercury making it all the way to the WNBA Finals.
The Lynx dealt with a revolving door of injuries and signings early on in the season that dug them a hole so deep, it didn’t look like they’d even have a shot at returning to the playoffs for the 12th straight year. They’ve rebounded in the second half of the season, and with Napheesa Collier returning to team up for one final run with Fowles, they could surprise some people if they secure one of the final two spots. They inched ever closer Wednesday night with an 86-77 win over Phoenix, and now sit tied for seventh with four other teams.
The saga of the Mercury started with a coaching change and the absence of Brittney Griner, who was sentenced to nine years by a Russian court last week while being wrongfully detained on drug charges. Losing Griner altered the entire makeup of the team — on a physical and emotional level — and disrupted any consistency they had built from last year’s deep playoff run.
Despite that and the midseason contract divorce with Tina Charles, the Mercury have been resilient behind the play of Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi and have a shot to sneak their way into the playoffs (while hoping Taurasi recovers from a quad strain).
Atlanta Dream: 15
Chicago Sky, Dallas Wings, Las Vegas Aces, New York Liberty: 1
This is perhaps the least shocking result of our poll. With a new ownership group, front office and coaching staff, the Dream have completely revamped their culture in one year. They added a franchise cornerstone in 2022 No. 1 pick Rhyne Howard, and the future is bright, if not here already.
After a hot start to the season, Atlanta was hanging around the top four through the first half of the season. Now at 14-20, they’re tied for seventh and have an opportunity to secure a playoff spot for the first time since 2018.
The voter who chose the Sky said it was due to the fact they went from a .500 regular-season team last year to the best record in the league this year. And one voter was not surprised by anything that transpired this season.
Roster expansion first: 1
Based on the results, it is clear that the majority of those involved in the league believe the WNBA is ready for expansion, as more talented players get pushed out of the league each year due to a limited number of roster spots. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said as much, revealing during All-Star weekend that the league will add up to two teams no later than 2025. She has also said that 10 to 12 cities are on the league’s short list for possible expansion markets.
One respondent believed the WNBA should hold on expansion, while another voted for roster expansion as a bigger priority than team expansion at this time.
Bay Area: 7
That brings us to our next hot topic of where the league should next establish its roots. The Bay Area remains a heavy favorite between fans and team personnel, earning the most votes in our poll. Engelbert said during All-Star weekend that she considers the Bay Area a “top candidate” for expansion.
Winner of ATL/NY
The majority of voters feel the Liberty have what it takes to inch into the playoffs. Two straight losses had dropped the Liberty out of the top eight, but they rebounded Wednesday night with a 91-73 win over Dallas and still have an opportunity with two games remaining against the Dream. One voter noted that the final spot will come down to the winner of Atlanta and New York in their regular season finale.
Things are certainly grim in Los Angeles for the Sparks, who have lost seven of their last eight games and are slipping out of the playoff picture at 13-21. That streak has transpired since Liz Cambage’s unceremonious departure from the team on July 26. Chennedy Carter, the Sparks’ other big offseason acquisition, has also raised questions while getting little playing time this season. Los Angeles is currently on the outside looking in of the four-way tie for seventh place and has two games left to try to grab the final playoff spot.
The majority of our respondents agreed that the Fever and the Sparks have the most work to do in the offseason. Both teams dealt with midseason coaching changes — the Fever from Marianne Stanley and the Sparks from Derek Fisher — and a rebuilding roster.
The Fever are a bit further along after completely tearing things down last offseason to build from the ground up. Their 5-29 record and 16-game losing streak is not a reflection of the strides this team has made this season with competitive rookies who have gained valuable experience.
The Sparks traded away valuable assets and their 2022 first-round draft pick to secure Cambage and Carter in free agency. After agreeing to a contract divorce with Cambage and getting limited minutes from Carter, this upcoming offseason will be one of the most critical periods in Sparks franchise history. The good news is Los Angeles will always be a destination for free agents, especially once they name their new coach and GM. The majority of players on the current roster will also be free agents after this season, leaving the team with the cap space to make key signings.
Rachel Galligan is a basketball analyst at Just Women’s Sports. A former professional basketball player and collegiate coach, she also contributes to Winsidr. Follow Rachel on Twitter @RachGall.
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