Rosters Shrinking Around WNBA

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Kevin Pelton, | April 26, 2007
The stereotypical training camp opens with a large roster that is slowly whittled down until the start of the regular season, but that is quickly becoming a thing of the past in the WNBA. Despite a camp roster that once numbered as many as 24, the Seattle Storm has yet to practice with more than 13 players. The Storm has had just eight available most of the time since waiving five players after the team's second practice.

League-wide, the Storm's situation is becoming much more the rule than the exception. The Connecticut Sun opened camp with eight players, while the Detroit Shock started out with just seven.

There are a pair of reasons for the small rosters. The traditional explanation is the number of players still in action overseas. No fewer than eight Connecticut players were still overseas as the Sun started camp; the Storm is still without four of the team's five incumbent starters and five rotation players for last season. That's nothing new, as WNBA stars have always supplemented their income by playing overseas during the off-season, with the European seasons bleeding over into the start of training camp.

What is becoming a larger factor, however, is the reluctance to bring a large number of players to camp on make-good training camp contracts. If one of those players gets hurt, they cannot be waived. With teams like the Shock and the Storm up against the WNBA's hard salary cap because of the salaries commanded by their veteran stars, there is no room on the rosters to keep an injured player.

So, by merely inviting a player to training camp, teams with little salary-cap space are taking a risk - one Bill Laimbeer, who opened camp with 11 players on the Shock's roster (four of them still overseas), was unwilling to take. Laimbeer explained his thinking in a thread on the RebKell Junkie boards, a home for WNBA discussion.

"If you are happy with the existing 11 players, how can you risk bringing Nancy Notalent to camp?" wrote Laimbeer (under the name SFO), answering his own hypothetical question." They won't make the team, and if they are hurt, last years (sic) #12 gets cut."

Storm Coach Anne Donovan was willing to take the risk, but in keeping with her philosophy of moving forward when it becomes clear a player is not going to make the team, kept most of the players invited to camp around only briefly.

"We really wanted to get them in and evaluate them, see if they could beat one of our players out, but more than likely just decide if we want to keep them in our bank of free agents for down the road," Donovan said Wednesday. "Last year, unfortunately, we got in the situation where we had to keep calling post players in. We now know, through six players that we've already evaluated, who we would call and who we wouldn't. So it's been to our benefit, but it's also been a big risk. There's not a lot of teams taking that risk now.

"It's a high-risk situation and it's unfortunate. We bring in players for two days or two practices and then they depart here, so it's a tough situation for everybody."

Mike Thibault's team provides an interesting example. The Sun initially signed just two players to training camp contracts, despite the number of star players who missed the start of camp, but added another one Wednesday in post Vanessa Gidden.

"We debated bringing in another post player and the ultimate decision was she was good enough to compete for a job," Thibault told The Advocate in Gidden's hometown of Stamford, Conn.

Check out the new daily audio camp report, featuring analysis from Alan Horton and Kevin Pelton in addition to interviews with Coach Donovan and several players.
Many teams, including the Storm, use male practice squads to supplement the low numbers. Even that, however, presents an issue as scrimmages involving the men tend to be more physical, risking injury to the WNBA players.

"You cringe every time there's contact - it could be a guy (making the contact) or a girl," said Donovan, "but it's what we have to do to get ready for May 19 if we don't have our returning players back."

Concern about injuries has never been a significant problem in the NBA, where teams can exceed the salary cap to keep players making the minimum salary and the roster has up to 15 spots, as compared to the 13 in the WNBA. The situation could change after this season, when the WNBA's Collective Bargaining Agreement will be renegotiated, but the hard salary cap - even in the case of injuries - will probably remain in place.

"As coaches and general managers, we're really pushing for that to be included in the next CBA," said Donovan. "The problem is the salary-cap situation and the owners don't necessarily want to increase the salary caps to account for injuries. We're really pushing hard for that. I don't know how far it will go, to be honest."