What do the 2023 WNBA offseason's biggest deals mean for the league this season and beyond?
Starting with the trade sending 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones from the Connecticut Sun to the New York Liberty with a third team (the Dallas Wings) involved, we're seeing blockbuster moves that alter the balance of power.
For the first time, ESPN grades the league's biggest deals, breaking down the implications in terms of the hard salary cap and teams building out their 2023 rosters.
Which teams got the best deals to set themselves up for success? And which others might have missed out on better opportunities? Check out our analysis.
New York Liberty get:
Rights to Leonie Fiebich
2024 second-round pick (via Chicago)
2025 first-round swap (via Phoenix)
Chicago Sky: C-
In adding Mabrey via sign-and-trade, the Sky got perhaps the best player remaining in free agency who will change teams. Mabrey ranked 12th in my 2023 free agent projections. Because Mabrey was a restricted free agent and the Wings could have matched any offer to her, however, that came at a hefty price in terms of draft capital.
Following a forgettable start to her WNBA career with the Los Angeles Sparks, Mabrey blossomed after being dealt to Dallas prior to Year 2, reuniting her with Notre Dame backcourt-mate Arike Ogunbowale. Having split time the previous two seasons starting and coming off the bench, Mabrey emerged as a full-time starter in 2022 and posted career highs in both points per game (13.6) and assists per game (3.7).
Although Mabrey is more of a combo guard than a traditional lead ball handler, she fills the crater left in the Chicago lineup with the departure of longtime point guard Courtney Vandersloot for the Liberty in free agency. And I like the fit of the 5-foot-11 Mabrey in the backcourt alongside undersized shooting guard Courtney Williams (5-8), who signed with the Sky earlier this offseason.
Just reaching her prime at age 26, Mabrey should hold her value through the life of this contract. That's important because Chicago might need her to take a step forward to avoid sending valuable picks to the Wings to complete this deal.
More than any trade we've previously seen this offseason, this one takes advantage of the WNBA's rule change allowing teams to deal picks up to two years into the future. Already, we'd seen a 2025 first-rounder traded by the Atlanta Dream (to Dallas along with this year's first-round pick for Allisha Gray), but it was always possible for a team to trade two of its first-round picks in the same deal.
By contrast, this is the first trade in WNBA history in which a team has given up control of both first-round picks beyond this year, as the Sky sent the Wings both their 2024 first-round pick outright and swap rights in 2025, in addition to the No. 5 pick in this year's draft. Because teams must retain at least one first-round pick within the window in which they can be traded, that's the most possible in a single deal without adding picks from other teams.
As Chicago's dual head coach and general manager, James Wade has successfully bet on his team's draft picks coming late in the first round before. The whole reason the Sky had the No. 5 pick to trade was because Chicago snagged Phoenix's first-rounder in the deal sending DeShields to the Mercury last year. Wade essentially swapped that pick for the Sky's own first-rounder (No. 11, now also held by Dallas after a series of trades), moving up six spots in the process when Phoenix narrowly made the playoffs.
Still, that bet came when Chicago was the defending champion bringing back a star-studded lineup. The future no longer looks so bright with both Vandersloot and Candace Parker, as well as key reserve Azura Stevens, heading elsewhere in free agency. Mabrey's arrival strengthens the Sky's backcourt, but their depth chart shows a major hole at power forward until or unless unrestricted free agent Emma Meesseman re-signs with the team.
Even if Meesseman returns, Chicago will likely lose her for part of the season with Belgium slated to play in EuroBasket in June, testing the Sky's depth. Ahead of what looks like a loaded 2024 draft, Chicago risks dealing away an invaluable lottery pick if next season goes south, and will be similarly vulnerable the following year because of the pick swap.
To me, that's too much to potentially give up in exchange for anything but a proven All-WNBA contributor.
Dallas Wings: A-
Nobody stockpiles picks quite like the Wings. Having made three first-round picks in both 2020 and 2021, Dallas now holds three in this year's first round (No. 3, No. 5 and No. 11), as well as a pair in both 2024 and 2025.
In contrast to 2021, when the Wings were able to cheaply land the No. 1 pick (used on Charli Collier) via trade because of the perceived weakness of the available class -- an assessment that has yet to change -- these first-rounders appear more likely to yield difference-making players.
At some point, Dallas has to actually keep these young players in Wings uniforms for their primes. Mabrey is the second starter Dallas has traded this offseason, following Gray. (It's also amusing that for all the high picks the Wings have made, second-round pick Mabrey has been one of the team's most consistently productive players.)
Still, Dallas has gotten good pick value in both deals and also managed to bring back a couple of veterans via trade. DeShields joins Natasha Howard as the second All-Star the Wings have imported via trade and fills a need on the wing with both Gray and Kayla Thornton dealt elsewhere.
The big question for Dallas is whether DeShields can get back to that level of play, having been an All-Star in 2019 at age 24. As detailed by ESPN's Holly Rowe last year, she subsequently experienced a health scare when surgery was required to remove a benign tumor in her spinal cord. Grueling rehabilitation left DeShields far less than 100%.
Healthy last season, DeShields scored 13.1 PPG, her highest average since 2019. On a Phoenix team starved for scoring with Brittney Griner wrongfully detained in Russia, Tina Charles gone midseason and Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi missing time due to injuries, DeShields pushed her usage rate to a career-high 29% and her efficiency (a career-worst .472 true shooting percentage) suffered.
Playing alongside Ogunbowale in Dallas, DeShields won't be responsible for creating her own shot as often, and the Wings can hope her play benefits.
At point guard, Dallas had already prepared for Mabrey's departure. Veronica Burton, drafted No. 7 overall last spring, moved into the starting lineup with Ogunbowale sidelined late in the regular season and continued in that role in the playoffs, averaging 28 minutes per game in the Wings' first-round loss to the Connecticut Sun. Dallas also signed Crystal Dangerfield to a two-year deal after acquiring her rights in the Howard trade.
Phoenix Mercury: D+
Dealing for DeShields was a key part of the Mercury building what they were hoping was going to be a superteam last year with Charles, Diggins-Smith, Griner and Taurasi rounding out the starting lineup. Remarkably, by the playoffs, DeShields was the only one of those players active for Phoenix.
As the Mercury plan to refocus their lineup around Griner, DeShields looked like a trickier fit. She hit just 24% of her 3-point attempts last season, dropping to 30% for her career. Sophie Cunningham, who has made 40% beyond the arc the past two seasons and broke out in a starting role in the second half of last season, appears a better match for the floor spacing required for Griner post-ups.
Re-signing Cunningham for a reported $150,000 salary -- per HerHoopsStats.com data, along with other salaries in this piece -- put Phoenix in a tricky spot with the salary cap. Pending additional moves, the Mercury could not have paid both Griner and Taurasi the supermax as free agents. That situation, along with Mat Ishbia's purchase of a controlling stake in the Mercury and the NBA's Phoenix Suns, could have been part of why Taurasi said last week at a USA Basketball training camp that ongoing discussions with the organization on a new contract were taking time.
Swapping out DeShields' protected $154,500 salary for Onyenwere (making a non-guaranteed $75,407 as part of her rookie contract) will give Phoenix more room to operate in free agency. The Mercury will also hope to get the version of Onyenwere who showed great promise winning Rookie of the Year in 2021 before playing a reduced role last season.
Shooting is a swing skill for the athletic Onyenwere. As a rookie, she attempted 5.7 3-pointers per 36 minutes and hit them at a 33% clip. Last season, both her volume (3.9 attempts per 36) and accuracy (30%) dropped. Given Onyenwere was just a 30% career 3-point shooter in college at UCLA, her 2022 performance might be more telling. At the same time, Onyenwere's 84% career foul shooting is appositive indicator for future improvement.
Getting Onyenwere from the Liberty required the Mercury to give up a first-round swap in 2025. With prioritization coming to the WNBA, it's possible New York will no longer be as dominant next season as this year's superteam looks. Still, Phoenix too is taking a risk of moving down several picks in the 2025 draft and for less current upside in return.
New York Liberty: A
This trade also has important financial ramifications for the Liberty. Although New York was able to officially sign both Vandersloot (for $189,000) and Breanna Stewart (for $175,00) because both players took sizeable discounts, there wasn't enough room under the cap for newcomer Epiphanny Prince to make the team with Onyenwere on the books. (The Liberty could sign Prince anyway because her training camp contract doesn't count against the cap until after roster cutdowns.)
Getting any value in return for Onyenwere, then, was a win for New York. This deal has a chance to become a home run if the Liberty's 2025 first-rounder falls near the end of the round and the Mercury are closer to .500. If you think concern over the talent New York has assembled is loud now, just imagine the outcry if the Liberty end up picking in the 2025 lottery.
Jan. 21: Dream add Allisha Gray
Atlanta Dream get:
F/G Allisha Gray
Dallas Wings get:
2023 No. 3 pick
2025 Atlanta first-round pick
Atlanta Dream: B-
Dealing for Gray is an aggressive move for the Dream as they build back toward the playoffs after four seasons spent in the lottery. The most recent of those, the first year for new Atlanta leadership in GM Dan Padover and coach Tanisha Wright, saw dramatic improvement. The Dream won the equivalent of five more games, accounting for the schedule increase to 36 games, and missed the playoffs by just one win.
In the long term, returning to the lottery might not have been so bad for Atlanta. It gave the Dream the No. 3 pick, two spots higher than they would have selected had they reached the postseason. That's the centerpiece of this deal, which also takes advantage of a WNBA rule change allowing teams to trade picks two years into the future. Previously, they were limited to dealing picks from this year and the next.
Adding Gray, who could easily have been an All-Star last season while averaging a career-high 13.3 PPG, accelerates Atlanta's building process. Because Gray is capable of creating with the ball in her hands and is a dangerous spot-up threat (a career-high 41% from 3 last season; 38% over the last four years), she'll fit well on the wing alongside 2022 Rookie of the Year Rhyne Howard.
Add in point guard Aari McDonald, who improved dramatically in her second season under Wright's tutelage, and the Dream hope they have their perimeter trio for years to come. Cheyenne Parker was a solid starting center for Atlanta, leaving only power forward as a key need the Dream will look to fill in free agency. Add in the No. 8 pick, which Atlanta still has, and some veteran additions, and the bench should be playoff-caliber as well.
Gray's modest salary ($169,600 salary, per HerHoopStats.com) will help the Dream continue shopping. Even after adding Gray and veteran guard Danielle Robinson via trade, Atlanta still has nearly $700,000 in remaining cap space.
At the same time, Gray's salary affects the risk of giving up a top pick for a player heading into a contract year. Gray is eligible for an extension, but because the maximum possible 20% raise off her salary is still a few thousand below next year's standard maximum salary, she might be better off waiting for free agency next offseason.
Dealing the No. 3 pick for a rental would be a tough pill to swallow, especially with an additional pick headed to the Wings in 2025. Atlanta is surely hoping that Gray will still be part of the core by then, while McDonald and Howard will be entering their prime, making the Dream contenders -- and that pick a late one in the first round.
Dallas Wings: B
From a value standpoint, this deal looks pretty good for the Wings. The No. 3 pick should yield one of the prospects in this year's top tier, a player who will be on a bargain rookie contract for the next four seasons. I'd consider this far more of a premium pick than when Dallas acquired the No. 1 overall selection in the weak 2021 class.
With Aliyah Boston certain to be the No. 1 pick if she enters the draft as expected, the Wings are probably looking at one of Maryland's Diamond Miller, Stanford's Haley Jones or Tennessee's Rickea Jackson, projected in the top four in M.A. Voepel's post-lottery mock draft. Any of the three would address the void at forward left by Dallas trading both Gray and Kayla Thornton in the past week.
Cycling in another rookie contract will help the Wings as their recent draft picks graduate off them and earn higher salaries. Arike Ogunbowale begins a supermax extension this season, while Satou Sabally will be eligible to sign an extension prior to the last year of her rookie deal. An extra first-rounder will also be helpful in 2025.
Still, dealing away another player in her prime has to be frustrating for Dallas fans. Gray follows Liz Cambage and Skylar Diggins-Smith away from the Wings, and the timing is especially tough after the franchise's first .500 finish since 2015. Adding Natasha Howard in last week's three-team deal eases the blow a bit, and adding Howard's salary is easier without Gray on the books, but Howard is three years older.
Following those deals, Dallas still has work to do. Guard Marina Mabrey and center Teaira McCowan will be in demand as restricted free agents this offseason. If the Wings intend to roster both of this year's first-round picks (No. 3 and No. 11), that leaves about $350,000 in cap space to re-sign Mabrey and McCowan or replace them in free agency.
Although the Sun didn't get another All-Star player in return, completing the deal now will allow Connecticut to use the core spot -- previously occupied by Jones -- to keep unrestricted free agent Brionna Jones, as ESPN's Alexa Philippou reported they plan to do.
The Liberty have landed a superstar interior player to pair with budding star guard Sabrina Ionescu. Remarkably, this deal not only gives New York at least two rotation players but also additional cap space, meaning it's still possible for the Liberty to pursue fellow MVP Breanna Stewart in unrestricted free agency.
Two years after Natasha Howard went to New York in a sign-and-trade deal as the Seattle Storm's core player, she's on the move again, headed to Dallas. Just how Howard fits in with the Wings remains to be seen based on their other offseason moves, but for now this looks like an opportunistic move for Dallas.
Dallas Wings get:
G Crystal Dangerfield, F/C Natasha Howard (from Liberty)
New York Liberty get:
F/C Jonquel Jones (from Sun)
F Kayla Thornton (from Wings)
From the Liberty's perspective, we can sort of think of this as two separate trades. First, New York dealt Howard, Crystal Dangerfield and the No. 6 pick in this year's WNBA draft for Jones. Second, the Liberty also swapped Rebecca Allen for Kayla Thornton.
The Howard-Jones swap is unambiguously an enormous win for New York. After she was limited to 13 games in her first season with the Liberty, Howard was an All-Star last year. But she has scored with average efficiency during her three seasons as a go-to scorer, including a .551 true shooting percentage (TS%) in 2022, when the league average was .541.
By contrast, Jones has proved capable of combining efficiency with high-volume scoring. During her 2021 MVP campaign, Jones posted a .614 TS% while finishing 27% of Connecticut's plays with a shot, trip to the free throw line or turnover. That stayed at .615 last season, when Jones' usage rate dipped to 24% with the return of Alyssa Thomas to the Sun's lineup.
An All-Defensive first team pick in 2021 and second team last season, Jones is, at worst, in the same ballpark as Howard, who was voted Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 but wasn't able to lift the Liberty's defense above seventh last season. (Connecticut, by contrast, had the WNBA's second-best defensive rating.)
Looking forward, Jones -- who turned 29 earlier this month -- is more than two years younger than Howard, making her a better long-term option. Add it up, and any team would happily make that swap.
The undercard is interesting in its own right. Allen has been a good role player in New York, combining above-average 3-point shooting (37% career despite last season's 31% accuracy) with solid perimeter defense. At 32% career shooting beyond the arc, Thornton offers a slight shooting downgrade in favor of more toughness.
Perhaps most importantly, Thornton's $109,716 salary (all salaries per HerHoopStats.com) is about $27,000 less than what Allen will make in 2023. Since Jones took less than the supermax to re-sign with the Sun as a core player last offseason, New York also saves more than $16,000 on that swap. So the Liberty's cap space has increased to more than $300,000 with this deal.
With a minimum of three roster spots to fill, the Liberty could sign a player for the max and still have about $160,000 to offer another free agent. New York doesn't yet qualify as a superteam with Ionescu and Jones, but stay tuned on that front.
The moves did cost the Liberty Dangerfield, whose arrival helped turn around their 2022 season by moving Ionescu to an off-ball role. Still, Dangerfield's own performance in New York was unspectacular. Her .490 TS% was poor for a player with a small 13% usage rate. The Liberty could look to find another point guard in free agency or hope Ionescu is more comfortable handling that role with more talent around her.
Trading star players for equivalent value is always a challenge in the WNBA because teams need them much more than stars need the league. We've already seen Jones opt out of the 2020 Wubble season, so sitting out if she was dealt to an undesirable destination was a credible threat. Rachel Galligan reported Connecticut allowed Jones to meet with teams and she picked New York.
Additionally, the Sun needed to save money in this deal to create cap room if they wanted to use the core designation on Brionna Jones -- who assuredly would have drawn max offers elsewhere as the No. 2 free agent after Stewart by my projections.
Those caveats noted, this return still seems disappointing in contrast to past star trades. Connecticut doesn't end up with either of the two best players in this trade -- those being Howard and Jonquel Jones. And the Sun end up with only one draft pick in the middle of the first round.
On the plus side, Connecticut should be deeper than in years past. The Sun previously had just one first-round pick on a rookie contract (2022 selection Nia Clouden) and can now add two first-rounders to the mix, having already held the No. 10 pick.
How well Tyasha Harris fits in Connecticut is a key wild card. The No. 7 overall pick in 2020, Harris never emerged as a starter in Dallas and showed little statistical improvement after a solid rookie campaign. On a Sun team that was starved for playmaking from the point after Jasmine Thomas' ACL tear, Harris' 6.5 assists per 36 minutes could be helpful. Alyssa Thomas was the only Connecticut player to average more.
Ultimately, this looks like a step back for Connecticut. Granting Brionna Jones has improved since then, we saw how a team starting her, DeWanna Bonner and Alyssa Thomas looked in the bubble. The Sun went 10-12 in that regular season before pulling a pair of upsets to reach the semifinals. Connecticut might be a deeper and more modern WNBA team in 2023 with Allen supplying more shooting. Yet, it's still unlikely the Sun will be better in the short or long term without Jonquel Jones.
Dallas Wings: A-
Amusingly, this is the second time the Wings have jumped into a multiteam trade involving Natasha Howard and the Liberty. Two years ago, they got the No. 1 pick from New York via Seattle. This time, Dallas is landing Howard in exchange for role players.
Kayla Thornton will be missed, particularly if the Wings ultimately trade starting small forward Allisha Gray. But going from Thornton to Howard is an upgrade, possibly a big one if Dallas sees moving Tyasha Harris' $83,194 guaranteed salary as a positive.
Given new Wings head coach Latricia Trammell's preference for versatile defenders, Howard looks like a fit. The interesting question is where Howard, who has played both power forward and center, slides into the Dallas lineup. Both Wings centers, Isabelle Harrison and Teaira McCowan, are free agents. (McCowan is restricted, meaning Dallas can match any offer to her.)
At 6-foot-2, Howard is undersized for a center, but that's where she started in Seattle when Stewart was healthy, and the Wings could similarly put size next to her with 6-4 Satou Sabally. So we'll see whether Dallas brings back either of its incumbent centers, who are less capable of defending on the perimeter than Howard.
There's still plenty more to shake out from the Wings' offseason, including another key restricted free agent (starting guard Marina Mabrey) and the possible Gray trade. For now, Dallas seems to be starting free agency in a more favorable position with Howard's addition.