WNBA offseason storylines: Schedule questions, an all-important Draft Lottery and high-profile free agents


Earlier this month, the Chicago Sky won their first title in franchise history, defeating the Phoenix Mercury in four games in the 2021 WNBA Finals. Candace Parker, who signed with the Sky in free agency last winter, delivered her hometown team a championship in her first season

Now, with the 2021 season officially in the books, it’s time to turn our attention to the offseason. This one should be busier than usual, as there’s a lot to figure out with the schedule, an all-important Draft Lottery and a number of high-profile stars hitting free agency.

Here’s a closer look at some of the biggest offseason storylines:

What to do about the schedule?

Between playing in the summer, international basketball events, limited national TV slots, most teams not being the primary tenant in their arena and at times complicated travel logistics, the WNBA faces a number of unique challenges. As a result, it is far more reactive than other leagues when it comes to setting its schedule for each season. 

In 2022 that problem is going to be amplified. First and foremost, there’s the 2022 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup to contend with. That event, which comes around every four years, is set for Sept. 22–Oct. 1 in Australia. Because it’s so late in the year, it’s unlikely the league is going to want to take a break like they do with the Olympics. It’s safe to assume, then, that the season will need to be complete sometime in mid-September. 

Furthermore, the league is expected to move to a 36-game schedule next season, which would be the most games ever played. The addition of the Commissioner’s Cup, which includes a championship game played at a neutral location, is another new factor. Plus, there will have to be an All-Star break at some point as well. 

The WNBA has dealt with condensed schedules before, but never to this extent. And, because many players already arrive late to the season because of overseas commitments, it really isn’t possible to move up the start date in any significant manner. We probably won’t end up seeing the schedule until sometime early next spring, but it’s going to be interesting to see how the league figures things out.

On another schedule-related note, it’s worth keeping an eye on any potential changes to the postseason format. Under the current system, which was introduced in 2016, the first and second rounds are both single elimination. That means the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds can be done after just one playoff game, which is what happened this season when the Seattle Storm and Minnesota Lynx were both knocked out in the second round. 

There’s always been some discontent with the second round being single elimination, but it reached new heights this time around. Multiple players spoke out about wanting a change, including Storm star Breanna Stewart.

“I think from the players’ standpoint we all would like the single elimination to be gone,” Stewart said. “Just because you work all season for an opportunity, and to have one game just kind of makes it over really quickly. Yeah, it’s the format for college, but this isn’t college. This is the WNBA.”

“I think extending the playoffs and making series out of all the rounds just makes for more viewers,” Stewart continued. “More eyes to watch us, and more people to be a part of it.”

It seems likely that the format is going to change at some point in the near future, but whether or not it will happen next season remains to be seen. With all of the other challenges on the horizon regarding scheduling, the league might prefer to push the playoff issue back until 2023 when there’s a bit more normalcy. 

The Draft Lottery

The draft lottery is always one of the biggest events of the offseason, and that will be especially true this time around — both because of the teams involved and the prospects at the top of the draft. As of now, a date has not been set, though it will likely be sometime early in the winter. 

Kentucky guard Rhyne Howard, who is the reigning back-to-back Player of the Year in the SEC, is the presumptive No. 1 pick. As a junior, she averaged 20.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.5 steals per game, while shooting 37.3 percent from 3-point land. A three-level scorer who can create her own shot with ease, Howard is, in theory, the type of player a team could build around for years to come. 

For a number of franchises in the lottery, that’s exactly what they need. The Indiana Fever, who own the best odds at 44.2 percent and have never had the No. 1 pick, are chief among that group. They are currently mired in the worst stretch in franchise history, during which they’ve missed the playoffs five seasons in a row and have gone 40-116. Worst of all, there’s little hope given their current roster. A player like Howard could be the spark they need to turn things around.

Then there’s the Atlanta Dream, who have the second-best odds and just experienced one of the most chaotic years any WNBA franchise has ever had. They went through three different coaches, suspended star guard Chennedy Carter for conduct detrimental to the team and informed Courtney Williams and Crystal Bradford they would not be re-signed after a video surfaced showing them involved in a fight outside a club. With only one guaranteed contract on the books for next season, there could be a lot of changes. If they get the No. 1 pick, Howard could be the start of a new era. 

The Washington Mystics, who have the third-best odds, are in a bit of a different position. They’re only in the lottery because of horrid injury luck last season, and have plenty of talent on the roster. While they don’t need Howard to help turn things around, adding a player of her caliber to a roster that already features Elena Delle Donne, Tina Charles (assuming she re-signs), Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud could be the boost they need to get back into title contention. 

Finally, with the fourth-best odds, are the Dallas Wings. They actually made the playoffs last season, but have this pick via a trade with the Los Angeles Sparks. Led by Arike Ogunbowale and Satou Sabally, there’s plenty of young talent on this Wings team and they appear to have a bright future. At the same time, you get the sense they’re still another player away from really making some noise, and Howard could be that missing piece. 

Big names hitting free agent market

Another big item on the offseason agenda is free agency. Thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement, free agency is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the WNBA conversation. This winter just might be the most notable yet, with four of the last five MVPs — Jonquel Jones, A’ja Wilson (restricted), Breanna Stewart and Sylvia Fowles — hitting the market.

The official list of free agents won’t come out until some time after the start of the new year, and players can’t start signing deals until Feb. 1. There will be plenty of time to go more in-depth on this topic in the months to come, but for now, it’s worth taking a glance at some of the most notable names hitting free agency. Hat tip to Richard Cohen of Her Hoops Stats for his work tracking contracts. 

Sue Bird

Seattle Storm

Unrestricted

Liz Cambage

Las Vegas Aces

Unrestricted

Tina Charles

Washington Mystics

Unrestricted

Kahleah Copper

Chicago Sky

Unrestricted

Diamond DeShields

Chicago Sky

Restricted

Stefanie Dolson

Chicago Sky

Unrestricted

Tiffany Hayes

Atlanta Dream

Unrestricted

Briann January

Connecticut Sun

Unrestricted

Jonquel Jones

Connecticut Sun

Unrestricted

Jewell Loyd

Seattle Storm

Unrestricted

Angel McCoughtry

Las Vegas Aces

Unrestricted

Emma Meesseman

Washington Mystics

Unrestricted

Kia Nurse

Phoenix Mercury

Restricted

Allie Quigley

Chicago Sky

Unrestricted

Breanna Stewart

Seattle Storm

Unrestricted

Courtney Vandersloot

Chicago Sky

Unrestricted

Courtney Williams

Atlanta Dream

Unrestricted

A’ja Wilson

Las Vegas Aces

Restricted

In addition to the names mentioned above, it will also be interesting to see what happens with legends Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. 

Now 41 years old, Bird is an unrestricted free agent, and it’s not clear if she’ll return for another season. The Seattle Storm’s playoff loss in the second round felt like a send-off in some ways, but Bird has plenty of time to make a final decision. If she does come back, it will almost certainly be with the Storm. 

As for Taurasi, she is still under contract with the Phoenix Mercury for another season, but will be turning 40 years old herself. She played through an ankle injury and broken foot in the playoffs, as the Mercury fell just short of their fourth title in franchise history. In a recent interview with ESPN, she said she hopes to play in 2022 but will take some time to think it over with her family during the offseason. 





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