One of the busiest days in WNBA offseason history saw five teams combine to make five trades involving seven players and five draft picks on Wednesday, highlighted by 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard heading to the New York Liberty and the Dallas Wings landing the No. 1 overall pick.
Defending champion Seattle was at the centerpiece of everything. The Storm lost two key contributors to their 2018 and 2020 title teams while reshaping the roster with a focus on younger talent that also involved the Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury -- nearly half the league's teams in all.
What does it mean for the Storm's championship chances, New York's hopes of surging to the playoffs and everyone else? Let's break it down.
Storm trade repeat chances for longer window
Added: Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, Katie Lou Samuelson, 2022 second-round pick (from Dallas), 2022 second-round pick (from New York), rights to Stephanie Talbot
Lost: Natasha Howard, Sami Whitcomb
I wrote last fall that free agency and the salary cap would be tougher obstacles for the Storm than any team they faced en route to their second championship in three years in 2020. That proved the case. The Storm have now lost two of the five starters from the title teams plus a key reserve, with Howard and Whitcomb following Alysha Clark (who signed with the Washington Mystics as an unrestricted free agent) out of Seattle.
There's no doubt that hampers the Storm's chances of making it three championships in four years. Clark and Howard were key anchors of the WNBA's best defense. (Seattle allowed nearly four fewer points per 100 possessions than any other team last season.) Clark was the lone unanimous selection to the 2020 All-Defensive First Team.
According to lineup data from WNBA Advanced Stats, the Storm's defensive rating was 5.5 points per 100 possessions worse with Howard on the bench, the biggest differential among the team's starters. Take both Clark and Howard out of the mix and their defensive rating dropped to fourth in the league.
Seattle has also lost important floor spacing. Clark led the WNBA by making 52% of her 3-point attempts during 2020 while Howard was a rare stretch 5 whose seven 3-pointers last season were more than newcomer Candice Dupree has made over the past 11 seasons (she's 4-of-37 in that span). And Whitcomb's 32 3-pointers ranked second behind Riquna Williams among players who started less than half of their games.
Presumably, the Storm are hoping Samuelson can replace some of that shooting. A 42% career 3-point shooter at UConn, where she played alongside new frontcourt-mate Breanna Stewart as a freshman, the No. 4 pick of the 2019 draft hasn't been nearly as accurate in two WNBA campaigns. She shot 28% from beyond the arc while playing sparingly for the Chicago Sky as a rookie, and while she earned more playing time with the Wings last season, her 3-point shooting wasn't much better (32%). Given that lack of production, it's surprising that Samuelson netted the No. 1 pick (along with a 2022 second-rounder), albeit in what's considered a weak draft.
Herbert Harrigan is another intriguing option for the Storm to fill the void at forward left by Clark's departure. The No. 6 overall pick last April was on the fringes of Cheryl Reeve's rotation in Minnesota despite shooting an impressive 42% on her limited 3-point attempts (14-of-33).
In time, Talbot could be part of that equation, too. Before deciding to sit out the 2020 WNBA season, Talbot was a career 35% 3-point shooter in three seasons with Phoenix and Minnesota. Because Talbot's contract expired while she was on the suspended list, she can negotiate exclusively with Seattle as a free agent when she returns to the league -- which presumably won't be until after competing with Australia in the Tokyo Olympics if they're held.
At 23 (Samuelson) and 22 (Herbert Harrigan), respectively, the newcomers join a young Storm core that also includes Stewart (26), All-Star shooting guard Jewell Loyd (27), point guard Jordin Canada (25) and centers Ezi Magbegor (21) and Mercedes Russell (25). Importantly, they also come with cheaper rookie contracts that will make it easier for the Storm to manage the cap going forward with several of those players due for raises in 2022.
Canada and Russell can be restricted free agents if they don't reach extensions to their rookie contracts by May 15. Stewart is also a possible extension candidate, eligible to bump up her contract to the supermax level ($228,094), while an extension is unrealistic for Loyd because rules limit her salary in the first year of an extension to a 20% raise from the current $121,500. By playing out her contract and re-signing as a free agent, Loyd would be eligible to make the supermax.
It will be interesting to see how Seattle's frontcourt rotation shakes out next season. Dupree said in her introductory news conference that coach Dan Hughes indicated she'll play regularly with Breanna Stewart. Those two could play together at forward, sliding Stewart out to the wing, or in smaller lineups with Stewart at center and one of the other newcomers alongside Dupree at forward.
However that works, Seattle no longer looks like the prohibitive favorite to repeat as champions because of the losses in free agency. This reminds me a bit of the offseason following the Storm's 2004 championship. They lost starters Sheri Sam and Kamila Vodichkova and reserve Tully Bevilaqua in free agency, replacing them with younger talent. Seattle still won 20 games but was upset in the opening round of the playoffs by the more experienced Houston Comets.
As in that case, the Storm must hope that extending their window to contend throughout the primes of Loyd and Stewart is a better option than maximizing their chances of winning with 40-year-old Sue Bird at point guard.
Sabrina Ionescu and the Liberty are ready to run
Added: Natasha Howard, Sami Whitcomb, No. 6 pick
Lost: Kia Nurse, Megan Walker, No. 1 pick, 2022 second-round pick, rights to Stephanie Talbot
The 2020 season couldn't have been any fun for New York, which went 2-20 in the "Wubble" in Bradenton, Florida, to set a league record for fewest wins in a season while narrowly avoiding the worst winning percentage in WNBA history. (Tulsa went 3-31 in 2011, a .088 winning percentage narrowly worse than the Liberty's .091 mark.)
The payoff for all that losing came when New York won a second consecutive draft lottery. Without a Sabrina Ionescu-level talent available in this year's draft, the Liberty decided to parlay that pick into arguably the most valuable player to change teams so far in 2021. No, Howard's résumé isn't nearly as distinguished as that of former two-time MVP Candace Parker, but at age 29 Howard is likely to play a bigger role in New York's long-term future than the 34-year-old Parker will with Chicago.
If you were constructing a center for Liberty coach Walt Hopkins' five-out offense in a lab, she might look a lot like Howard -- a reasonable 3-point threat (she hit nearly one a game in 2019, albeit at 31% accuracy) with the ability to roll to the basket and finish.
In particular, Ionescu should benefit from Howard as a pick-and-roll partner. Howard shot an effective 64% on pick-and-rolls last season, per Synergy Sports tracking, putting her fifth among players with at least 20 such shot attempts. She was even better in 2018, leading the WNBA by shooting an effective 71% on pick-and-rolls after accounting for the additional value of 3-point shots.
Granting they rarely got the benefit of playing with Ionescu, whose season was ended after three games by a severe ankle sprain, New York's primary post players shot an effective 48% (Kiah Stokes) and 27% (free agent Amanda Zahui B) off pick-and-rolls in 2020. Zahui B's mark was worst in the league among players with at least 20 shot attempts.
Much was made of Howard's numbers being down in the Wubble -- not just as compared to 2019, when she averaged a career-high 18.1 PPG as a go-to option with Stewart sidelined by injury, but to 2018 when she played a more similar role. That was largely a function of Howard getting a late start to training camp.
Over the season's first 10 games, Howard averaged 10.7 points per 40 minutes on 36% shooting. During the final 12 games, those increased to 22.5 points per 40 minutes on 62% shooting, better than her marks in 2018 (20.7 points per 40 minutes, 55% shooting). And on-off data suggested Howard was as important as ever to the Storm's defense. She was my pick to repeat as WNBA Defensive Player of the Year. (Howard actually got just one vote, third among Seattle players behind Clark and Stewart.)
I'm also intrigued to see what Whitcomb can do in a larger role. Only once in her four-year WNBA career, in 2019, has Whitcomb averaged better than 20 minutes per game. She should have more opportunity with the Liberty, who badly need her energy and floor spacing.
With the additions of Howard, Whitcomb and 2020 Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney, plus Ionescu back on the court, there's a path for New York to go from 2-20 to the playoffs. I'm not sure building that quickly around Ionescu was ideal. Thanks to their plethora of 2020 draft picks, however, the Liberty could afford to add salary aggressively.
The Liberty also limited the downside of this deal by sending Phoenix's 2022 first-round pick -- instead of their own -- to the Storm, meaning if things go south and New York ends up in the lottery again, it won't be costly. So in a draft lacking sure things, adding one via trade was a reasonable move.
Wings add another high pick
Added: No. 1 pick
Lost: Katie Lou Samuelson, 2022 second-round pick
If you thought Dallas had a lot of first-round picks last year, when the Wings drafted No. 2 (Satou Sabally), No. 5 (Bella Alarie) and No. 7 (Tyasha Harris), just wait until this April. After snagging the top pick in Wednesday's deal, Dallas suddenly has the top two selections as well as the Nos. 5 and 7 picks. No team in WNBA history has ever made the first two picks in the same draft.
Between now and the draft, the Wings will surely hope to convert some of those picks into either veteran talent or future draft considerations. After all, Dallas can't keep more than 12 players on the roster and the Wings already have 11 players under contract before adding all of this year's picks.
Nonetheless, this felt like a deal Dallas couldn't turn down. The Wings are relatively flush at the forward spots with a re-signed Allisha Gray, the newly extended Kayla Thornton, Sabally and Alarie. Dallas now gets to control the draft, and if the Wings are fond of Texas center Charli Collier -- the No. 1 pick in ESPN's post-lottery mock draft -- moving up assures they can draft her.
Lynx move on from Herbert Harrigan
Added: 2022 first-round pick (from Phoenix)
Lost: Mikiah Herbert Harrigan
From Minnesota's standpoint, this is relatively quick to deal away the No. 6 pick of last year's draft. However, Herbert Harrigan was going to have a tough time finding minutes after the Lynx added Natalie Achonwa, Kayla McBride and Aerial Powers in free agency.
With Achonwa and Sylvia Fowles at center, Damiris Dantas likely moves back to power forward on something close to a full-time basis after starting at the 5 in Fowles' absence last season. That pushes Napheesa Collier to the wing more frequently, where Minnesota adds McBride and Powers to fellow holdovers Rachel Banham and Lexie Brown.
Besides Herbert Harrigan, the odd player out will almost certainly be veteran guard Odyssey Sims. In order to sign Powers to a protected contract, the Lynx will need to move one and create additional cap space. Since the Herbert Harrigan deal doesn't accomplish those goals, Sims will likely still be on the move.
Mercury get low-cost rotation pieces
Added: Kia Nurse, Megan Walker
Lost: No. 6 pick, 2022 first-round pick
Because Phoenix has three stars making the supermax (Skylar Diggins-Smith, Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi), plus guard Bria Hartley at the lower max, staying under the salary cap while filling out the roster will remain a tight squeeze for the Mercury. That made it important for Phoenix to get two 2021 contributors in exchange for first-round picks this year and next.
Phoenix is gambling that Nurse can return to the form she showed in 2019, when she was chosen an All-Star based on averaging 13.7 PPG on league-average efficiency. Forced to create too much of her own offense last season after coming back from an ugly-looking ankle sprain in the season opener, Nurse struggled badly in terms of efficiency, making just 24% of her 3-point attempts and 31% of her 2-pointers. She rated a win below replacement level by my metric.
There's no reason to think Nurse has suffered any loss of skill, so I expect her to bounce back. At the same time, her 35% 3-point shooting in 2019 now looks like an outlier relative to the rest of her career. Overall, Nurse is a 30% career 3-point shooter in the WNBA, a level at which teams will happily help off her to double-team the Mercury's stars.
Shooting is also a major concern for Walker, the No. 9 pick of last year's draft. Pressed to stretch the floor in the Liberty's offense, she shot 6-of-43 (14%) from 3-point range, the second-worst accuracy in WNBA history for a player with at least 40 attempts. Walker was a 40%-plus 3-point shooter at UConn, so there's a good chance she improves on that going forward.