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Why stars requesting trades is actually great for the WNBA

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No, it’s not a sign that the league can’t be taken seriously. It’s actually the opposite.

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - Final Four - Practice Session Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The success of the NBA isn’t built just from its on-court grandeur. Sure, the step-back threes from Stephen Curry get millions to turn their televisions on, but the pure X’s and O’s and complexities of how the best athletes in the world toss a ball through the hoop isn’t the game’s only appeal. Basketball loves its off-court drama more than any other sport in the world.

The 2019 WNBA season has started off with two league-changing atomic bombs. Before the season’s tip-off, two of the game’s best players, Dallas Wings MVP runner-up Liz Cambage and Connecticut Sun All-Star Chiney Ogwumike, requested trades.

With the build-up of he said-she said and endless rumors about the internal player vs. management power struggle, some have called into question the integrity of a league whose stars have the ultimate say. Here’s Mike Anthony of the Hartford Courant on Ogwumike, who was dealt to the Los Angeles Sparks after she asked out.

The Sun will be fine, and maybe Ogwumike should even be applauded for her frankness, too. Still, this flip side flash of power that a WNBA player possesses, the ability to threaten sitting out a season or force a trade, is a bad look. This isn’t the first time a player has handcuffed a team simply because she preferred one city or situation over the next.

The WNBA is a serious league and should be taken seriously. This does not help.

That line of thought is baffling, especially for those who have watched the NBA grow. The genius of the NBA comes partly through the mind-blowing talent and athleticism of its players, but theatrics have turned the league into an endless 24/7, 365-day-a-year conversation. It’s why July, a month with no basketball games except for Summer League, is more popular than any given day in November.

Whichever team acquires New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis, who also requested a trade midseason, will dominate the storylines after the NBA Finals end in June. Where free-agent superstars Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard decide to play in July has already fueled the national discussion, too. The NBA manages to put different faces in the same predicaments every season.

The WNBA hasn’t had that offseason attention yet. The league is already in a tough spot given its short, 34-game season, its limited pool of revenue, and its players’ need to spend their offseason overseas to make a more livable salary. Fans in the U.S. are already stuck without basketball for eight months of the year, sans streaming European games through the middle of the night.

But the conversation surrounding the league dies out without a real offseason, too. The WNBA’s “core” franchise tag can, and typically does, keep a superstar with the team who drafted her for seven years, even if it’s against her will. A player might turn 30 before she has an unrestricted free agency.

The only times the league’s stars change teams is when they force their way out. It’s what Sylvia Fowles did in 2015 to build a dynasty with the Minnesota Lynx, and what Elena Delle Donne did to move to the Washington Mystics in 2016. It’s what Ogwumike and Cambage are doing right now. It’s exactly what Davis is doing, what Leonard did before him to leave San Antonio, and what Irving did before him to leave Cleveland.

The league’s best players want to win championships. As they’ve stated plenty of times before, they aren’t here because of the WNBA’s paltry salaries. They do want to shine in the league’s larger markets, grow their platforms in the country’s biggest cities, hail exclusive shoe deals, and reap the benefits of their hard work in every way in which the men have. Those movements at the top only help grow the league’s national appeal.

Should Connecticut Sun fans be livid that Ogwumike, their former No. 1 pick who they’ve stuck through after multiple injuries, decided she wanted to leave the program? Absolutely. They got a crap deal for a late first-round pick. It sucks.

But basking in those sorrows is short-sighted. In the grand scheme of building the WNBA’s growing brand, power moves like Ogwumike’s forced exit from Connecticut, and eventually Cambage’s from Dallas, will prove vital. Star-stacking moves like reuniting the Ogwumike sisters in Los Angeles expand the national recognition of the women’s game. So did Fowles’ move to solidify a dynasty in Minnesota and win four titles in seven years, and so did Delle Donne’s move back to her home in the Mid-Atlantic if she’s able to bring home a title — and even if she can’t.

Sport has rivalries. Sport has feelings. And no sport is filled with a fleet of angelic people-pleasers.

Superstars forcing trades doesn’t mean the league will be taken less seriously. If anything, it means the exact opposite.