Free Agency Heats Up the Offseason
December 20, 2004 - The WNBA's offseason period of free agency and player movement, which officially begins again on January 15, is likely to play a considerable role in shaping the league for the first time in its three year existence. More players than ever will be free agents, teams will have more options but be forced into more creative salary cap maneuvering and rosters could look very different when the 2005 season tips off in May.
General Managers and scouts are busy all year long working towards their future and crafting the roster that will win their team a championship. As soon as the WNBA season ended in October, the college season and 2005 WNBA Draft preparations began. But whereas teams in past season were forced to build either through the College Draft or via trades, free agency is now a third legitimate avenue.
|San Antonio's Margo Dydek could be an unrestricted free agent.|
“Now that the league is in year three of free agency, I think the players, agents and teams are more comfortable with the process," Clarissa Davis-Wrightsil, San Antonio Silver Stars C.O.O., said. "I believe there could potentially be a lot more player movement and free agency will play a big role on how teams adjust their roster heading into the 2005 season.”
Free agency was first introduced prior to the 2004 season as a result of the 2003 labor agreement between the league and the players. Only a handful of players were eligible last season with even fewer ending up on a new team. However, one or more marquee names may find themselves on new teams this season while mid-range veterans might find it difficult to make a team as a result of salary cap limitations.
"I think free agency is good for the players and it is important for them to have their rights and the ability to take their game where they feel they are most needed," ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman said. "If you are an older player or a veteran, think about where you want to finish your career. If you are a younger player and don't feel like you are being compensated how you want, then go ahead and exercise free agency."
However, it is still impossible to speculate just who will and who will not be a free agent even at this late date. According to league rules, the actual free agency process does not begin until January 15, 2005. This is the earliest date that teams can designate players as core players. Core player designations last for the length of the contract eventually signed by the player (or until traded). Teams can only have two players on their roster at any one time designated as a core player.
"If a coach or GM has a great player or really values that player, I expect those players to be the ones protected and designated as core players,” Sting coach and General Manager Trudi Lacey said.
On February 1st, players can begin signing with teams. Unrestricted free agents can sign with their team or another team while restricted free agents can sign with any team and their current team has the right to match the offer and keep that player.
|WNBA Finals MVP Betty Lennox could be a restricted free agent.|
On the flip side, the NBA's "Larry Bird" rule allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own free agents. However, the WNBA salary cap is a hard cap, meaning that teams cannot go over it to re-sign players. All player contracts and outstanding offer sheets count against the cap. Minimum one year contracts with no protection ("training camp contracts") do not count until the first day of the regular season.
“I think free agency will have a big-time impact on teams with players having the freedom to move around," Houston Comets Head Coach and General Manager Van Chancellor said. “At this time of the year, you really have to study your team’s cap numbers to see who you can sign among the players who will be eligible for free agency.”
The free agent scouting process is similar to college draft scouting in many ways. However with free agency, there is less guessing.
“My staff and I have drafted a list of top restricted and unrestricted free agents that we desire and think would be good fits for the Sting," Lacey said. "We rank them according to need and position and salary cap and work our way down.”
So what about those experienced veterans who still have some game left but are slated to make more than the league average because of their time spent in the league? Who knows? Perhaps they will be re-signed and perhaps they will be waived and sign on with another team.
“This year WNBA teams don’t have a Diana Taurasi or Alana Beard to bank on come draft time, so I think there will be a bigger emphasis of free agency," Davis-Wrightsil said. "There will be some key veterans that are going to be able to switch teams and make an immediate impact for their new team.”
Even if a player does not sign prior to the season, it does not necessarily mean they have to sit out the entire season. In fact, players can sign up until the last game of the regular season, which could come into play depending on injuries and player performance.
As always, many teams have needs, but just how they go about filling each need remains to be seen.
“The Charlotte Sting need to get bigger, younger and more athletic," Lacey said. "We desire a couple types of players, including a power player who can rebound and score and be physical at the forward spot. Ideally, this player would be versatile enough to score around the basket and would possess 15-17 foot shooting range. Also, we will look at a guard who can create her own shot and score off the dribble. Lastly, Dawn is invincible in so many ways but even she can’t play forever. We will always look around for a back-up point guard.”
“We do have some needs we’ll try to address through free agency prior to the draft," Chancellor said. "It is tough to get into those specific needs right now, but we hope free agency can help us along with the draft.”