February 4, 2024
As WNBA free agency rolls on, let’s look at some depth charts
A vibes-based approach to taking stock of the most chaotic time of the year
WNBA free agency is not over yet. But if I wait until next week’s column to assess the fallout of all the moves that have consumed my every waking moment over the past three days, someone else is going to write this column first. So here we are.
No need for any fancy intro or long narrative here, other than the caveat that a few prominent free agents are still unsigned: Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner (more on her later), DeWanna Bonner, Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike. There are also at least three players still looking for homes who could be staples in playoff teams’ rotations: Danielle Robinson, Tianna Hawkins and Shey Peddy.1 So there are a few spots here that could change in ways that matter.
(One quick clarifying notes on these depth charts: two slash lines between players indicates a clear difference in the players’ places on the depth chart, whereas one slash line between players indicates the spot on the depth chart is either split or uncertain.)
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There is a lot going on here. First of all, it remains incredibly strange to see Tina Charles listed as a Dream. Did you know that she is the first MVP that Atlanta has ever employed?
Back to the current Dream roster. This team has also once again backed its way into a serious bench problem, especially at ball-handler. Haley Jones was serviceable as their emergency point guard last season, but it wasn’t her best position, and even then she was their third option. I’m also concerned about the synergy of the starting lineup: Jordin Canada is a quintessential pick-n-roll (PnR) point guard, but Cheyenne Parker and especially Nia Coffey aren’t much in the way of PnR threats; Allisha Gray and arguably Rhyne Howard are still playing out of position (or at least playing at their second-best position); and the Howard-Coffey-Parker trio still feels pretty redundant.
This is a starting lineup that, assuming Canada’s shooting does not regress, can simply out-talent the majority of this league. I’m not sure how much trust I have in Atlanta beyond that, but the “beyond that” is the difference between needing to fight for a playoff spot and hosting a first-round series.
I’m taking some liberties with the Sky bench here that I’m not going to take with other teams, because it seems safe to say that the backups who have outstanding qualifying offers are overwhelmingly likely to make this team. That’s a decently fun squad. New head coach Teresa Weatherspoon has a starting lineup of players who could be first-division starters, although altogether they stand a good chance of earning an early offseason. There’s good passing, scoring, defending and rebounding here — it’s just that none of this quintet are good at more than two of those things individually.
Chicago’s strength remains its bench, and I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment. James Wade may have capped the team’s near-term future but he at least left it with quality cost-controlled depth.
I don’t think there is a wide range of outcomes for this team; a normal distribution would probably have 80% of their outcomes land between the seventh and 10th seeds. But there are a few different ways to get there, and if Weatherspoon lives up to her reputation, the Sky could be surprisingly fun.
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No, I’m not really sure what’s going on here, either. My best interpretation of the guiding philosophy here is that Sun brass has done its best to continue the success of the system they were running last year, which saw solid returns early on and turned role players into star producers once they went five-out after Brionna Jones’ Achilles tear. And with Tiffany Hayes retiring and Natisha Hiedeman traded, they have tried to continue that success by filling the vague outlines of their departing talents with players of similar archetypes. For Hayes, this means a rim-pressure guard, so in steps Tiffany Mitchell. For Hiedeman, it’s a dynamic shooter, so in steps Rachel Banham.
The issue is that taken altogether these moves seem baffling. Jones was cored despite even the most optimistic rehab timeline leaving her starting the season as a diminished version of herself, a move that effectively took them out of the running for Delle Donne. Replacing Hiedeman with Banham saved them some money in exchange for significant downgrades in passing, defending and pull-up 2-point shooting — on top of the fact that trading Hiedeman for Mitchell actually made the roster more expensive. If Connecticut is replacing Hayes with Mitchell directly, it’s a massive downgrade in shooting and overall scoring; if it’s replacing Hayes in the starting lineup with Carrington then no problem there, but Mitchell sliding in as the latter’s backup has a lot of opportunity cost. Between Mitchell’s protected contract at her salary point and signing Astou Ndour-Fall to a shockingly protected six-figure deal, the Sun are all but signaling that they’re done adding top-tier vets. Which is quite notable considering that DeWanna Bonner is still a free agent.
I loved this team last year. I still like the system, the roster, the coaching, and I really like the addition of Moriah Jefferson for basically free. But overall this is a team that seems to have made a lot of moves and got a bit cheaper and a bit worse. There’s a world where Connecticut ends up with a lottery pick, but in all likelihood it just gets clobbered in the first round of the playoffs instead.
It’s the exact same team as last year except they also have two more first-round picks. Maybe they take a center, which would be the 11th time they’ve done so in the past 10 drafts. Maybe they draft-and-stash Charlisse Leger-Walker (this would be a great idea). Either way, same team as last year.
With Seattle and Phoenix both getting a heck of a lot better but Connecticut backsliding, the Wings sitting somewhere in the morass of teams between No. 3 and No. 5 seems reasonable, right?
The biggest caveat here is that this is assuming Caitlin Clark enters the 2024 WNBA Draft, in which case this is an incredibly fun team. If she doesn’t, well, let’s not think about that possibility too hard.
The second caveat is that I have no idea where Grace Berger is going to fit into the depth chart, but it’s somewhere among the second unit. It should be above Erica Wheeler at the one, but there’s a lot of capital (both of the monetary and draft varieties) being sunk into other Fever backups.
Regardless, fun times abound. Indiana is the platonic ideal of a team making the leap from the early stages of a turnaround to the first couple years of playoff berths, and the addition of Katie Lou Samuelson should provide a bumper that connects the emerging stars on both ends. There are the left tail and right tail outcomes any emerging team has, but this is just a fun group of players with few expectations weighing over them. A lower-half playoff seed seems more than likely.
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The Aces are our first incomplete grade. There are signs that they’re still waiting to re-sign Candace Parker, given various social media and the slightly-below-max salary-sized opening in their cap sheet. Otherwise, this is just the same team as it was for most of last year but with A’ja Wilson apparently no longer playing many minutes at center at all, given Megan Gustafson. Gustafson is a fun addition, though I’ll miss our dear Wilson-at-the-five lineups.
Vegas could also fill that hole in the cap sheet with Delle Donne, something I’m sure she would approve of. Just sayin’.
I have no idea how this depth chart is going to play out and I bet neither does Curt Miller. And that is a good thing for a team that seems like the overwhelming favorite to land the top odds in the 2025 lottery.
There is both a lot and a little to say about this rotation. There are a good number of players who will get to demonstrate whether or not they can be W-caliber ball-handlers, and there is a frontcourt rotation filled with a lot of possible combinations. If Cameron Brink declares for the draft, she’ll go to the Sparks at No. 2 and make that rotation more exciting and even trickier for the coaching staff. Same goes for Los Angeles’ No. 4 pick in the event that it selects a Kamilla Cardoso or Rickea Jackson. Good problems to have, though.
This team making the playoffs would be miraculous. But that’s not a bad thing. The current roster is exactly what you like to see out of a team that has to take a couple years’ break from contention: a lot of shots to find diamonds in the rough with solid veteran players buttressing. There are worse times to suddenly suck than a two-year span where you could potentially land Brink, another quality lottery pick and Paige Bueckers.
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The Lynx got appreciably better this offseason, but with the improvements made by Seattle and Phoenix, it feels like they’re just treading water. They have directly upgraded at both point guard and center, and likely indirectly upgraded on the wing just by virtue of Diamond Miller entering her sophomore season in the pros. Their bench is considerably better as well, turning Mitchell and Banham into Hiedeman and moving Dorka Juhász back to a backup role.
Minnesota is definitely going to be more fun this year. Courtney Williams is a joy to watch, and Alanna Smith is an incredibly synergistic frontcourt fit with Napheesa Collier with her off-ball movement, screening and versatile play-finishing. The addition of those two should improve the defense even more so. Beyond that, there should be a very good player available at No. 7 in the draft and if I end the Lynx’s blurb here then I don’t have to talk about how hard it’s going to be just to repeat as the No. 6 seed.
It is almost the exact same team as last year except the depth seems to be way better. Stefanie Dolson is gone, but she was a liability in the playoffs anyway. Marine Johannès is not going to play this year, but she was also a liability in the playoffs when her shot wasn’t falling, and on this team that mostly makes her redundant anyway. On the flip side, Leonie Fiebich and Ivana Dojkić both have the potential to be playoff contributors.
New York should once again be odds-on for the No. 2 seed. It is worth mentioning that this team could still add Ogwumike if Bonner signs with Seattle.3
Natasha Cloud // Sug Sutton
Sophie Cunningham // Michaela Onyenwere
Rebecca Allen // Kadi Sissoko
[silhouette strongly resembling Brittney Griner but for competitive balance reasons maintaining the plausible deniability of not being Brittney Griner] // Brianna Turner
I could not give a more incomplete grade here. Half of the bench is not filled out, Brittney Griner is almost certainly going to re-sign but only once the Mercury figure out how much she can make after they make … some other combination of moves. Those moves might involve Delle Donne, they might involve Bonner, they might only involve marginal moves to shore up the bench. If we get the latter, this is a good squad but not much of a contender. If we get one of those first two, and new head coach Nate Tibbets is as good as his reputation suggest, this is going to be very interesting.
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The Storm went out of their way to sacrifice a lottery pick in order to free up a protected contract slot on their roster. It’s all but certain to be Ogwumike or Bonner, and though I’d bet the former, I truly have no idea which. Either way, I would argue until I’m blue in the face that this is the third-best starting lineup in the WNBA.
There is a chance that this excellent starting lineup is bolstered by a decent bench, but that doesn’t really matter. Either the starters blow the opposition out of the water enough that bench-heavy minutes don’t matter or they lose. But if Jordan Horston is as good defensively as I thought she was last year, this is a legitimate entrant to the “superteam” category. The third-best among them, sure, but a legitimate entrant nonetheless.
I’m only a bit more sure of this depth chart than I am of Los Angeles’. I am equally sure that this team is not sniffing the playoffs, and I am equally sure that the Mystics are going to be fun as hell anyway. The Shakira Austin breakout campaign, after pausing due to a hip injury last summer, will keep rolling. The emergence of Brittney Sykes, Offensive Havoc-Wreaker will continue. The shooting that Washington has been in dire need of since Kristi Toliver left after 2019 is now here in the form of Julie Vanloo and Karlie Samuelson, who can both shoot the snot out of the ball.
At press time, the Sparks and Mystics seem to be the only two teams overwhelmingly likely to miss the playoffs. Unless the Fever join them, Washington has a solid chance of securing the No. 1 overall pick in 2025, and has a surprisingly entertaining way to get there. They also have yet to secure a return for Delle Donne via sign-and-trade, and who knows what that could bring.
- Gabby Williams is also an unrestricted free agent but has previously all but outright stated that she’ll be staying in France through the end of the EuroBasket season and Olympics, keeping her away from the W until 2025. ↩︎
- Neither Stewart nor Jones have officially signed yet, but Stewart’s been cored and Jones has reportedly agreed in principle on a two-year deal somewhere around $200,000 annually. Reading the tea leaves, I suspect they have not finalized both signings for Ogwumike-related reasons. ↩︎
- I should technically add that Ogwumike has said she is also considering Chicago. Technically I should add that, but I’m putting it in a footnote because come on. ↩︎