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Inside The W with Michelle Smith: Team-by-Team Review of WNBA Free Agency

It’s almost that time of year – free agency season. Starting February 1, teams and players can finalize deals and sign contracts and offer sheets.

Last year’s blockbuster free-agent barrage of player movement and major moves might be a little difficult to live up to this season, but as is the case with all things in 2021, a little more calm might not be a bad thing. That said, there is a group of impact players that many teams will be vying for this offseason.

Let’s take a look at each team and where it stands as GMs and players begin the dance of negotiations with signings set to begin on February 1.

Atlanta Dream

Reserved: Jaylyn Agnew

RFAs: Kaela Davis, Blake Dietrick

UFAs: Glory Johnson, Betnijah Laney

Lay of the land: The Dream have a strong core returning, including Courtney Williams, Shekinna Stricklen, Elizabeth Williams and Tiffany Hayes, who sat out the 2020 season. Then there’s last year’s rookie sensation Chennedy Carter and Betnijah Laney, who won the league’s Most Improved Award, finishing last season as the team’s second-leading scorer behind Carter. And Atlanta will have the No. 3 pick in the 2021 Draft, likely adding an impact rookie.

The big decisions: Laney will be an unrestricted free agent and it would make sense that getting her back will be a top priority. Will Atlanta need to choose between veteran guard Renee Montgomery or post Glory Johnson? It’s a choice between depth and experience inside or out. Johnson averaged a career-low in minutes, points and rebounds last season. Montgomery sat out to focus on social justice work, but has been a productive guard off the bench for the Dream in her first two seasons in Atlanta.

Chicago Sky

Reserved: Alexis Prince

RFAs: None

UFAs: Sydney Colson, Cheyenne Parker, Jamierra Faulkner

Lay of the land: James Wade just received a contract extension, a reward for turning the Chicago Sky into a playoff team. He has a great base to build from that includes the guard tandem of Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, young stars Diamond DeShields and Gabby Wiliams and a veteran post in Stefanie Dolson.

The big decisions: Find a way to keep Cheyenne Parker, who has been such a steady contributor for the Sky over the past two years will be the big priority.

Connecticut Sun

Reserved: None

RFAs: Brionna Jones

UFAs: Essence Carson, Jasmine Thomas, Theresa Plaisance, Alyssa Thomas, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Bria Holmes

Lay of the land: Following a four-year contract extension for Curt Miller, the Sun are looking to see if they can take another step forward after last season’s title-series run against Seattle. With DeWanna Bonner, whose first season with the Sun was a smash hit, and the return of All-Star Jonquel Jones, Miller has a lot of other decisions to make about his roster, which has six unrestricted free agents, the most in the WNBA this offseason.

The big decisions: Signing Alyssa Thomas, who at the age of 28, is at the peak of her powers, is the priority. Putting Thomas, Bonner and Jones on the floor at the same time would put the Sun in position to have a “Big Three”, which is something that has led a lot of WNBA teams to championship seasons in year’s past. Will that mean having to part ways with stalwart guard Jasmine Thomas? That is the big question for Connecticut.

Dallas Wings

Reserved: None

RFAs: Allisha Gray

UFAs: None

Lay of the land: New head coach Vickie Johnson inherits both the youngest team in the league and a very stable roster, anchored by two of the league’s brightest young stars in Arike Ogunbowale and Satou Sabally, and 11 players already under contract for 2021.

The big decisions: There is really just one. Bringing back veteran wing Allisha Gray makes sense for a young team that needs a veteran presence.

Indiana Fever

Reserved: None

RFAs: None

UFAs: Kamiah Smalls, Candice Dupree, Jantel Lavender, Natalie Achonwa, Erica Wheeler

Lay of the land: Marianne Stanley heads into her second season with the Fever with the second-youngest team in the league, the No. 4 pick (and six overall picks) in the upcoming draft and five unrestricted free agents, second only behind Connecticut. This roster could potentially look much different come opening day than it did on the last day of 2020.

The big decisions: With all of this young talent, does Stanley continue to anchor her team with Candice Dupree, who will be entering her 16th season? Does Dupree want to return, or have a chance to join a title contender? And will Erica Wheeler, who sat out 2020 after her career-changing 2019 season, come back and if she does, can she be the same key contributor she was two years ago?

Las Vegas Aces

Cored: Liz Cambage

Reserved: None

RFAs: None

UFAs: Cierra Burdick, Danielle Robinson, Carolyn Swords, Sugar Rodgers, Kayla McBride

The lay of the land: Last week’s announcement that Raiders owner Mark Davis has purchased the team injected a little more offseason excitement into the Aces, but the fact that Liz Cambage has been cored by the team removes at least that level of uncertainty. With MVP A’ja Wilson, Angel McCoughtry, Dearica Hamby and Kelsey Plum (coming off an Achilles injury) all signed and exclusive negotiations opening with Cambage – who sat out last season and could possibly elect to sit out 2021 to prepare for the Olympic Games – the core appears mostly locked up.

The big decisions: Re-signing Kayla McBride, who has been with the team since she was drafted to San Antonio, should be the priority among the list of unrestricted free agents, assuming that Carolyn Swords will return to retirement and guards Danielle Robinson and Sugar Rogers should be playing more supporting roles moving forward.

Los Angeles Sparks

Cored: Nneka Ogwumike

Reserved: Marianna Tolo

RFAs: Brittney Sykes

UFAs: Reshanda Gray, Candace Parker, Seimone Augustus, Riquna Williams, Chelsea Gray

The lay of the land: Now that Derek Fisher is the Sparks’ GM, the team he coaches will be the one he assembles, and he has a lot of math to do to make that happen. Kristi Toliver, who sat out last season, is under contract and second-year player Te’a Cooper recently re-signed. His next challenge will be figuring out how to bring back Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray, not to mention Chiney Ogwumike, and keep this group intact for another run at a title. Fisher has said he thinks Parker will return (at a max salary) and presuming that Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray would also generate a max offer, the numbers get tight quickly.

The big decisions: So can L.A. keep both Parker and Gray? It is going to be a painful choice between one or the other. Parker feels like the better bet to stay put. Other questions: does Seimone Augustus want to play another season and would she stay for less and how does Chiney Ogwumike fit into this mix after sitting out last season with her media career heating up?

Minnesota Lynx

Reserved: Anna Cruz, Temi Fagbenle

RFAs: Erica McCall

UFAs: Shenise Johnson, Kayla Alexander

The lay of the land: The Lynx gave themselves some room to maneuver last offseason even without a big free-agency splash, earned the No. 4 seed in the WNBA playoffs. Cheryl Reeve’s game plan is already playing out. Minnesota signed Bridget Carleton to a training camp contract and has extended qualifying offers to reserved players Anna Cruz and Temi Fagbenle, whose valuable international experience has been a big lift to the Lynx over the past few years. The Lynx, who already look to have intact a starting five with Crystal Dangerfield, Odyssey Sims, Napheesa Collier, Damiris Dantas and Sylvia Fowles, have salary cap room to go after a big-name free-agent, and then there’s the matter of determining whether Maya Moore is going to return after a two-year absence from the league.

The big decisions: Can the Lynx improve their post depth through free agency with someone like Amanda Zahui B? Would they go after a guard like Chelsea Gray? Minnesota has the flexibility to make a big move or see what Moore wants to do and stand pat with a playoff-quality roster.

New York Liberty

Reserved: Paris Kea, Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, Joyner Holmes

RFAs: None

UFAs: Amanda Zahui. B

The lay of the land: The New York Liberty once again have the No. 1 pick in the 2021 Draft and will bring a premier collegiate talent into the fold to a team that is building an impressive group of young talent, most notably Sabrina Ionescu, who should be ready and recovered from last year’s devastating ankle injury to reset the start of her pro career. A young roster – New York played seven rookies last season – gives the Liberty salary cap room to make a big move or two to make an immediate impact on the team’s fortunes.

The big decisions: The team’s only free-agent is post Amanda Zahui B, who is going to generate interest among other teams. The Liberty may be positioned to make a big free-agency splash or to make a deal with a No. 1 pick and a lot of promising young talent. With Ionescu as the centerpiece, things could get interesting in New York.

Phoenix Mercury

Reserved: Angel Robinson, Sonja Petrovic, Marta Xargay

RFAs: Nia Coffey, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough

UFAs: Alisia Jenkins, Diana Taurasi, Kia Vaughn, Jessica Breland

The lay of the land: The Mercury were deeply involved in last year’s free agency frenzy, snagging one of the biggest names in the pool – Skylar Diggins-Smith and letting stalwart DeWanna Bonner move to Connecticut in a sign-and-trade deal. Phoenix does not have a lot of room to maneuver in the salary cap because of the deals to sign Diggins-Smith, Bria Hartley and retaining Brittney Griner. Griner’s pre-playoff departure from the “bubble” last year for personal reasons may or may not factor into Phoenix’s offseason plans.

The big decisions: Sign Diana Taurasi. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Taurasi tests the market at this point in her career. She looks like a Mercury lifer. But Phoenix is going to want to make sure. Kia Vaughn, who played well for Phoenix last season, could add depth, but she will be sought after in the open market.

Seattle Storm

Cored: Natasha Howard

Reserved: None

RFAs: Sami Whitcomb

UFAs: Sue Bird, Epiphanny Prince, Alysha Clark

The lay of the land: The team that has won two of the last three WNBA titles has a core group of its top talent locked down for another year, including Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Jordin Canada. But with those three players eligible for free agency next season, Seattle needs to keep one eye on 2022 when making its current roster and budget decisions. The Storm have already cored Natasha Howard in the hopes of keeping the talented power forward, which would keep the Storm on track to be a title contender again in 2021.

The big decisions: Signing Sue Bird will be a priority as Bird has proven that even as the league’s oldest player, she still has the ability to impact Seattle’s fortunes in a positive way. The next biggest priority will be making a decision about Alysha Clark, who has been with the team since 2012, plays a heart-and-soul role on this roster and is one of the league’s best two-way players.

Washington Mystics

Reserved: None

RFAs: None

UFAs: Alaina Coates, Tina Charles, Tianna Hawkins, Emma Meesseman, Aerial Powers

The lay of the land: Washington is a team with plenty of important decisions to make, a great problem to have when you have depth and home-grown talent who have turned into coveted players throughout the league. In addition to Emma Meessman, Tianna Hawkins and Aerial Powers (who played only six games last season) who are unrestricted free agents, LaToya Sanders and Natasha Cloud, both of whom sat out in 2020, are also in need of new contracts but are expected to be back in the fold. In fact, only five Mystics players are under contract for 2021.

The big decisions: Will priority No. 1 be to re-sign Emma Meesseman, or Tina Charles? Will Messeeman play for the Mystics this season or stay home and prepare for the Olympics? Charles did not play last season in the bubble and her reunion with Mike Thibault was delayed. Thibault says she intends to play for Washington this season.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.