Free Agency Fails to Make Impact

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  • Kevin Pelton, | Dec. 16, 2004
    When the WNBA and its Players Association agreed to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in March 2003, one of its most highly-touted features was the first free agency in the history of women's professional sports. While free agency has certainly changed the way the WNBA game has played, it has yet to produce a major impact move.

    Weatherspoon left New York for the Sparks.
    Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty
    In 2003, free agency was more of a notion than a reality. Only inaugural WNBA players were eligible, and only as restricted free agents. With so few quality players left in the league and the ability for teams to designate as core players and protect elite potential free agents like Lisa Leslie, the free agent crop was thin at best. Additionally, the agreement was signed a week before teams could begin practicing, giving players and teams little time to worry about free agency. As a result, only one player of note - long-time Phoenix stalwart Jennifer Gillom - changed teams. The 38-year-old would go on to average just 3.1 points per game during her final WNBA season.

    Last year, free agency became a little more potent, with the WNBA originals not under contract or protected as core players becoming unrestricted free agents and two new classes of restricted free agents, players with five or six years experience. Compared to 2003, the results were dramatic - eight notable players changed teams as either unrestricted or restricted free agents last winter and spring, including four players (Tamika Whitmore, Teresa Weatherspoon, Nikki McCray and Merlakia Jones) who had averaged at least 20 minutes per game in 2003 (rounding up for Jones' 19.8 mpg) and a fifth (Olympia Scott-Richardson) who had done so in 2002 before suffering a torn ACL that kept her out all of 2003.

    With their new teams, however, none of the players averaged 20 minutes per game and only Whitmore and Jones played 500 minutes, about the cut-off for a WNBA rotation player:

    Player Old Team New Team
    03 Min
    04 Min
    Tamika Whitmore New York Los Angeles
    Merlakia Jones Cleveland Detroit
    Olympia Scott-Richardson Indiana Charlotte
    Jessie Hicks Connecticut San Antonio
    Nikki McCray Indiana Phoenix
    La'Keshia Frett Sacramento Charlotte^
    Teresa Weatherspoon New York Los Angeles
    Astou Ndiaye-Diatta Detroit Indiana

    * Richardson's minutes total is from 2002
    ^ Frett signed as a free agent with Charlotte, but was waived and signed with New York
    Not included are Nicky McCrimmon and Tausha Mills, both of whom did not make their new teams

    Editor's Note: It turns out Frett was actually traded to Charlotte by Sacramento for a third-round draft pick. There were conflicting sources and I chose to make her a free agent. I regret the error.
    Using minutes may overstate the performance of the free agents. That they were signed by their new teams and their past WNBA successes may have played into their roles in 2004 as much as their performance. I use a method for rating players which is too complicated to bother going into here (you can read more about it here) but compares them to a replacement-level player (a training-camp invitee, basically) and divvies up 11 wins per team (the amount an average team is better than a team made up solely of replacement-level players, in theory) amongst players based on how well they rate per minute and their minutes played.

    What's remarkable is, using this rating system, only Whitmore, Jessie Hicks and La'Keshia Frett rate as better than replacement level:

    Player Old Team New Team
    Tamika Whitmore New York Los Angeles
    Merlakia Jones Cleveland Detroit
    Olympia Scott-Richardson Indiana Charlotte
    Jessie Hicks Connecticut San Antonio
    Nikki McCray Indiana Phoenix
    La'Keshia Frett Sacramento Charlotte*
    Teresa Weatherspoon New York Los Angeles
    Astou Ndiaye-Diatta Detroit Indiana

    That might seem unrealistic; after all, these are veteran WNBA players, some of them (in the cases of McCray and Weatherspoon) former All-Stars. However, when you look at the players who show how replacement-level players are acquired - free agents who were out of the league the previous season - several of them, including Felicia Ragland, DeTrina White and Stacey Lovelace-Tolbert, saw just as much action as the average pickup in true free agency, and all were productive players.

    Meanwhile, international free agent Laura Macchi and undrafted rookie Le'Coe Willingham rate as the best free agents by the method outlined above, and the biggest playoff impact of any free agent was made by the Storm's Alicia Thompson, who was out of the league in 2003.

    What is the bigger picture here? Maybe nothing.

    Free agency in the WNBA is a dynamic process, and the quality of free agents will get better every year as more and more players attain the seniority needed to become free agents. (This year, four- and five-year veterans are restricted free agents, while players with six or more years of experience are unrestricted.) Unprecedented player movement is expected this off-season in the WNBA free agency market, and the quality of players changing teams should likewise improve.

    At the same time, free agency is a tough way to build a team in any league because teams often have to overpay to outbid their competitors. That will continue to only be more true in the WNBA, where elite players will likely never see free agency (under this CBA, at least) because of the core player designation. Building through the draft and filling in with trades (or, in recent years, Dispersal Draft picks) remains the way that top WNBA teams have built their roster, and that seems unlikely to change.

    Maybe the most interesting point is this - while the signings of player who change teams and have established themselves as starters in the WNBA get the most fanfare, they often aren't the most productive, especially given the salaries these players command. Few batted an eye when the Lynx picked up Lovelace-Tolbert during training camp, but she was on the court during the playoffs while bigger names sat at home.

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