January 22, 2022 

Breanna Stewart meets with the Liberty in LA

What could this mean, and how does New York’s plan change?

After hanging out at Barclays Center with Stefanie Dolson during her official visit to meet with the Liberty during the free agency negotiation period, Betnijah Laney was in SoHo on Friday morning where she teased what these couple of weeks have been like for her as she helps her team convince WNBA talent to join her in New York.

“There are a few great players that we’ve been talking to that I would love to play with,” Laney told The Athletic’s Mike Vorkunov. “I’m not going to name drop just yet.”

Laney didn’t have to name drop. Yahoo Sports’ Chris Hayes did the job for her. That afternoon, Hayes reported that the Liberty met with 2x WNBA Champion Breanna Stewart this past week in Los Angeles.

This comes just two weeks after Sue Bird announced on Instagram her intent to return to the WNBA — and presumably to the Storm — for one more season. And over a month after Bird admitted on the Knuckleheads podcast that Stewart “saved” her career.

The report also comes just a week after the Storm cored Jewell Loyd, rather than Stewart, in a move that signals their confidence in Stewart returning to Seattle. But amid whatever confidence Seattle have in Stewart returning for 2022, the Syracuse, New York native took a meeting with the Liberty.

In an interview with Forbes published on Dec. 9, Stewart proclaimed that her “heart is in Seattle” with full intent on playing at the Storm’s new venue, the Climate Pledge Arena that they share with the NHL’s Kraken. Later that month, however, Stewart mentioned in an interview with SB Nation’s Sabreena Merchant that she expects this free agency cycle to be the “biggest free agency” period since the league’s 2020 CBA.

Do her actions speak louder than her words? How much is what she told Merchant up for interpretation? Did she make that comment as an observer on the outside looking in or with the idea that she could be exploring free agency seriously in the coming weeks?

Later that month, Stewart spent the holiday season in New York City with her wife Marta Xargay Casademont, and their baby, Ruby. They enjoyed walks on the Brooklyn Bridge and took photos in front of The Plaza Hotel.

Now, what are New York’s intentions in the grander scheme of it all? Just earlier this month, Jonathan Kolb, Sandy Brondello and Clara Wu Tsai were aligned in their rhetoric to reporters, expressing their desire to develop the Liberty’s young core while also adding complementary pieces to ensure “quality WNBA personnel throughout” their 2022 roster.

Is the Liberty instigating a meeting with Stewart a sign of a change of their initial intentions? Or is it an opportunity for Governors Joe Tsai and Clara Wu, Kolb and Brondello to plant a seed inside Stewart for the future. Is this meeting mutually beneficial, allowing New York to continue to establish itself as a prime destination for the best players in the world? Absolutely.

But if the Liberty found a way to lure Stewart over to New York for 2022 and beyond, what might it look like?

New York would sign Stewart to a supermax at $221,450 starting in 2022, leaving the Liberty $31,534 above the current salary cap. How do they get below the cap? The Liberty then trade Neah Odom and Jazmine Jones to a team like the Mystics or the Mercury who need cheaper athletic, defensively minded wings and guards. That clears $137,169 off the Liberty’s cap sheet.

But then there’s more. Even with Stewart hypothetically signing, the Liberty could still find space to bring Rebecca Allen back, though does require some more finessing with the Liberty’s current personnel. If Allen is signed to a multi-year deal at around $150k per season, New York would have to suspend Han Xu, removing $60,471 off the books. And to make room for Marine Johannès, New York could waive Asia Durr, which would remove another $72,141 off the Liberty’s salary sheet.

This allows New York to pay both Allen and Johannès, who could be offered a deal worth as much as $85k to play in 2022. But while Johannès’ wants to return to New York, there’s a bit of a caveat.

According to a source familiar with her thinking, The Next can report that the Liberty would have to deal with her arriving in Brooklyn “very late” due to a long French season if both parties come to an agreement. Her last game for her French team LDLC ASVEL Féminin will be on April 30. She’d miss most of training camp.

New York could make it out around $3,000 below the salary cap while rostering only 11 players rather than 12, which would also include in addition to those mentioned above in Stewart, Allen and Johannès: Kylee Shook, DiDi Richards, Michaela Onyenwere, Jocelyn Willoughby, Sami Whitcomb, Sabrina Ionescu, Betnijah Laney, and Natasha Howard.

And then of course, how would Howard feel about a move like this when part of her intent on signing a long term deal with New York was to become an offensive focus on a team without Stewart?

Could Howard be convinced to play with Stewart again in order to win a championship? It’s possible. Could Howard be traded elsewhere? That’s also quite possible.

But as Kolb noted earlier this month, New York was going to aim to be aggressive, but he expressed that it takes “two to tango.” With all else being equal, what was New York’s motive to have a meeting with Stewart that didn’t just include the Tsais, Kolb and Brondello but also the Liberty’s “full front office staff” and leaders on the business side when they know about Stewart’s likelihood of returning to Seattle?

They understand that there are potential returns to having this meeting now. Look no further than how the Las Vegas Aces have courted not just Becky Hammon but how they landed Chelsea Gray in free agency around a year ago. The courting began in 2020, a year before Gray was even on the market.

Uninterrupted followed Gray and her wife Tipsea as they traveled to Vegas and met with then-coach Bill Laimbeer, the entire basketball operations staff and the rest of the Aces front office. Gray visited the facilities and learned about how the Aces operate. At the time she had only been with one WNBA franchise for 80% of her pro career. (She was drafted by the Connecticut Sun in 2015 but was later traded to the LA Sparks, where she’d play for five years.) 

Gray’s wife Tipsea explained the benefits to making a trip like this even when Gray had one year remaining on her contract with the Sparks.

“You get to see how other teams operate, you get to see how other people treat their players, treat superstars and from there you can make an educated decision,” she said. “But when you only have been with one franchise, you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Screenshot of Keri Laimbeer’s Instagram story.

The Aces manager of basketball operations Keri Laimbeer posted to her Instagram story on Friday revisiting the Uninterrupted mini documentary. She wrote: “Seems like a good time to revisit this gem. A reminder that the (Las Vegas Aces) set the standard for free agency courting. Big shout out to Chelsea Gray for trusting us and seeing the vision.”

And it appears as though the Liberty have followed suit. Pun intended, of course.

Written by Jackie Powell

Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also covers women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.

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