WNBA free agency tracker: Sophie Cunningham returns to Mercury
Plus, Erica Wheeler signs with the Indiana Fever.
After an intense battle between five teams, the Mercury and the Liberty secured the last two playoff spots. The Dream, the Lynx and the Sparks just missed the cut, while the Fever have been out of contention for most of the season.
As the rest of the league entertains scenarios of championship bliss, the offseason is already underway for those four organizations. Here’s what each squad needs to do in the coming months to get into contention next season.
Atlanta was one win away from sneaking into the playoffs, but back-to-back losses to the Liberty ensured New York surpassed the Dream as the final team in the postseason. First-year head coach Tanisha Wright took the Dream from winning 25 percent of their games in 2021 to 39.9 percent this season. That’s the team’s best win percentage since they made it to the semifinals in 2018.
Rookie of the Year frontrunner Rhyne Howard averaged 16.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.6 steals a game to lead Atlanta back into the playoff chase. But the Dream have some major offensive shortcomings that need to be addressed in the offseason, starting on the inside. The Dream are fourth in the country from beyond the 3-point line, but once they step inside the arc, things go downhill. As a team, they are 11th in the league in 2-point field goal percentage (45.2) and 10th in free-throw percentage (77.7). And on the other side of the ball, the Dream allow their opponents to score 49.9 percent of their points from 2-point range.
Atlanta needs to set out and sign an experienced big or draft a WNBA-ready post. Players like Nneka Ogwumike, Emma Meesseman and Dearica Hamby will be free agents this offseason, and depending on how things shake out in the 2023 draft lottery, the Dream could be in a position to select South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston or Kansas State’s Ayoka Lee, though the latter may take more development. A better inside presence can easily lead to a couple of more wins and, in turn, a playoff spot.
I’m not ready to think about the WNBA without Sylvia Fowles, but the Lynx need to. Cheryl Reeve was right when she said there will never be another player like her, so replacing the WNBA’s leading rebounder isn’t going to happen.
Instead, Minnesota needs to figure out its new identity. Will they be a more guard-oriented team? Will they look for another traditional post, or seek out someone who can stretch the defense and shoot 3s? How will they fill the hole on defense? What about on the glass? There are plenty of questions, and they won’t all be answered right away.
A good start for Minnesota would be to sign a couple of non-traditional bigs who can serve two purposes. The first is to keep up the team’s rebounding prowess — they were the second best squad on the glass this season. The second is to create offense by stretching the floor. Without Fowles to displace defenders and take attention away from driving guards, the Lynx need to clear lanes in other ways. A post who can stretch the defense and shoot 3-pointers is a great way to do that. Plus, Minnesota could use a lift from beyond the arc after finishing the season with just 24.9 percent of the team’s points coming from 3-point range.
Overall, the Lynx will want to play through two-time All-Star Napheesa Collier, who returned to the court for her team’s last four games just 74 days after giving birth to her daughter. Collier averaged 16.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks during the 2021 season.
Despite finding a way to stay in playoff contention, the Sparks were a mess this year. Derek Fisher was fired early in the season, but his decisions continue to haunt L.A. From the contract divorce with Liz Cambage to his insistence on signing Chennedy Carter despite reported pushback from the organization, Fisher left the Sparks in bad shape. Because of that, it’s time for a total rebuild.
Seven players are going to be free agents, and it makes sense for L.A. to unload most of them and start fresh. Holding onto someone like Nneka Ogwumike, despite her obvious talent, isn’t beneficial when the team needs to rework most of its roster. Her $193,409 salary is better used on young talent the organization can develop and build around. The Sparks need to worry about the future, not the now. That means turning to the draft and targeting a versatile centerpiece like Haley Jones or, looking further ahead, a game-changing playmaker like Caitlin Clark or Paige Bueckers in 2024.
On paper, things look bad for the last-place Fever, who parted ways with coach Marianne Stanley earlier this season after she amassed a 14-49 record over three years and missed out on the playoffs for a league-leading sixth straight year. But in reality, the organization is doing all the right things and there is plenty to be excited about.
The Fever are overflowing with young talent after drafting college stars NaLyssa Smith, Emily Engstler, Lexie Hull, Queen Egbo and Destanni Henderson. Smith is certainly a player to build around, and after Rhyne Howard, she was easily the best-performing rookie in the league, averaging 13.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.4 assists per contest. For the Fever, it’s all about staying the course. There likely isn’t a quick pick-up or one draft pick who can take them from last place to the top of the league, but the pieces are coming together.
If Indiana develops the players it has and continues to put a focus on drafting top players over the next few years, then the organization has a good chance of breaking into the top half of the league. For now, they just need to be patient.
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.
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