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Inside The W With Michelle Smith: Looking Towards 2020

A WNBA season that ended with the crowning of a champion that may well go down as one of the most complete teams in league history, ushers in a period of great importance for the league in advance of the 2020 season.

The Washington Mystics finished off their remarkable season by delivering a title for Mike Thibault (the winningest coach in league history) and two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne.

And while the Mystics bask in the glow of their accomplishment – appearing on Good Morning America, throwing out the first pitch in the Washington Nationals’ National League Championship Series game early this week – the WNBA as a whole is already experiencing the first waves of change and transition that will define the league for the near future.

Winds of change

The New York Liberty announced Thursday that they will be moving to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn beginning in the 2020 season, ending the team’s two-year run in the confines of the Westchester County Center. It’s a move that should excite both fans and players, and it is another marking point for what the Liberty hopes will be a new era for the franchise after Wednesday’s announcement that Katie Smith will not return as the head coach after two seasons at the helm.

The Liberty have a lot to offer a new head coach, including a sparkling new home court, stars such as Tina Charles, Kia Nurse and youth talent such as Asia Durr, not to mention the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft in the spring, a pick that might well be centered on Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu, who is widely viewed as a candidate to be the top pick following her final collegiate season.

Meanwhile, Indiana is also in search of a new head coach and general manager after parting ways with Pokey Chatman at the end of a season in which the youth-filled Fever roster finished with 13 wins. With Fever legend Tamika Catchings taking the reins as the team’s Vice President of Basketball Operations, a change was in order for a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2016. The question is whether the Fever will make two hires for these critical roles or just one. The Fever have had lottery picks in each of the last WNBA drafts, and have the No. 3 pick in the upcoming draft.

And in Los Angeles, the Sparks are looking for a new general manager after the departure of Penny Toler, who served as the team’s general manager for two decades. Replacing Toler will mean a fresh slate for a Los Angeles team that looks to keep its core group of Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray intact.

Happy returns

The social media site of Breanna Stewart getting shots up is a welcome one for WNBA fans who missed the 2018 league MVP this season. “Stewie” was forced to sit out the entire 2019 season after tearing her Achilles tendon while playing overseas last spring.

Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are on the mend after suffering injuries that kept them on the bench for most, if not all of the 2019 season, and are preparing to join the U.S. Women’s National Team on its collegiate tour in preparation for the 2020 Olympic Games.

The Dallas Wings expect both Skylar Diggins-Smith and Moriah Jefferson back on the floor next season to a team that got a huge boost from rookie Arike Ogunbowale.

The Atlanta Dream have every reason to assume that Angel McCoughtry will be back on the floor next season.

And the Minnesota Lynx await a decision by Maya Moore on whether she is ready to continue her Hall of Fame-caliber career.

A Path to the Future

With new WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert at the helm, the WNBA players and the league are at the negotiating table to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement that will likely focus heavily on players’ salaries and free-agency opportunities, as well as “quality of life” issues around in-season travel, scheduling and off-season career opportunities, particularly for those players interested in preparing for their post-playing days.

Engelbert signaled that she is aware of the issues around travel when she announced charter flights for teams heading to the league semifinal rounds after the second-round last month.

At the WNBA Finals, Engelbert said that she was committed to looking at “those pillars around player well-being, player pay and obviously, player travel experience.”

“It’s very clear that we all have the same goals here,” Engelbert said. “To lift the players, the player experience, whether it be from travel, health and wellness or pay, we need an economic model that will sustain this league and make this league a thriving one for the future.”