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Liz Cambage’s trade request is the free agency drama the WNBA needs

WNBA free agency tends to be stale because teams have CBA perks to keep superstars home. But Cambage’s request is lighting its own fire.

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The NBA thrives on pettiness, feuds, offseason player movement, and rivalries just as much as the actual game itself, if not more. We see this each time Adrian Wojnarowski breaks Twitter in half with a July push notification, and fans assemble to rag on Kevin Durant’s (or DeMarcus Cousins’) decision to join the Warriors.

Now, finally, the WNBA is getting its dose of well-deserved drama.

Liz Cambage is the league’s 6’8, three-point shooting, league-leading scorer, as well as its biggest personality. When news broke that she’d requested a trade — later confirmed by the Dallas Wings — Twitter erupted.

Cambage averaged 23 points and 10 rebounds in 29 minutes per game last season, all while flashing her newfound three-point stroke (32 percent on 1.2 per game.) She set the WNBA’s record for points in a game, too, with 53 (remember the W plays 40-minute games, not 48.)

She’s a big deal on the court, but that’s only half of what makes her special. She also twerks at the sight of hummus, stares down referees, and voices her opinion on what the WNBA is doing wrong in promoting the league.

She’s everything a growing league should want.

There were some worries that she wouldn’t return to the league at all after a tumultuous season in Dallas that included the firing of head coach Fred Williams, with whom Cambage was close. (Williams has since signed as an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Sparks.)

But with a trade request, it looks like Cambage has warmed up to the idea of coming back, where she can command attention from fans and media in a new home.

A superstar like Cambage almost never enters the trade market in the W

The WNBA’s current Collective Bargaining Committee is team-friendly when it comes to free agency. Each team has the right to use the “core” designation on one of its own veteran players who’d otherwise become an unrestricted or restricted free agent. This “core” designation forces those players to negotiate only with their current team, and can be placed on any player up to four times after their rookie contracts end, which means WNBA stars may not get to pick their teams until they’re in their 30s.

Not only has that been a struggle for players, it’s been a struggle for fans, too. The best of the best aren’t available on the open market until they’re midway through their playing primes. If your team strikes out in the draft, good luck signing a game-changing free agent, because so few become available without forcing a trade.

2019 free agency was trending down the same path

Every offseason, at least a few big names switch jerseys in the NBA. LeBron James and DeMarcus Cousins highlighted last summer’s free-agent period, for example. Increased player movement has made the NBA a 12-month sport and is just as central to the league’s popularity as the games themselves.

The WNBA does not have that. When the WNBA’s moratorium began on Jan. 15, Maya Moore and Tina Charles, two of the best in the world, were unsurprisingly “core’d” by the Minnesota Lynx and New York Liberty, respectively. (The Lynx and Moore are currently talking through some sort of dispute.) Other fringe-All Stars and second-tier stars remain in unrestricted free agency, like Chicago’s Allie Quigley and Dallas’ Karima Christmas-Kelly, but the two biggest names were taken off the board as the clock struck midnight on Day 1.

That hurts the identity the league is trying to build for itself. Fans have little reason to be engaged during the long offseason, aside from checking in on how their favorite players are performing overseas — and praying they don’t get hurt.

But Cambage’s request will change that

This is not the first superstar trade saga in league history. The most recent one happened two years ago when Elena Delle Donne asked out of Chicago, and it ended with her new team, the Washington Mystics, making their first-ever Finals in Year 2. Two years before that, center Sylvia Fowles made a trade request, leading to a stand-off only resolved when she was traded to the Minnesota Lynx in the middle of the season. She’s since reached three straight Finals and won two.

Cambage is destined to make the same type of impact, and unlike the more bashful Delle Donne and Fowles, she’s unlikely to be as quiet while the situation plays out, or in the months that follow. Turning on Instagram notifications for her is a must.

Where Cambage wants to play isn’t clear, but wherever she goes, she can create a superteam like her predecessors in the forced-trade market.

From there, her narrative can really develop. Will she become the league’s biggest villain and join forces with a stacked Candace Parker-Chelsea Gray-Nneka Ogwumike lineup in the league’s biggest market, Los Angeles? Can she find her way onto a storied Minnesota Lynx roster? How about joining the bandwagon favorite Las Vegas Aces, beside Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson? The thrill is in the possibilities and the unknowns. No matter where Cambage ends up, it’ll be the biggest earthquake of the year.

The WNBA needs more of this, not less. It’s possible after the league’s new CBA is ratified for the 2020 season, it can happen without a trade request.

Until then, we wait for more stars to stir the pot like Cambage.