WNBA free agency was already off to a raucous start, with six former All-Stars changing teams, including two-time MVP Candace Parker heading to Chicago after playing her entire 13-year career for the Los Angeles Sparks.
But if you thought the transaction window was quieting down two weeks after the first domino dropped, think again. The New York Liberty completed a blockbuster deal to acquire Natasha Howard Wednesday in a trade that touched five of the league’s 12 teams, and dealt the No. 1 pick in the 2021 WNBA draft.
Confused? Let’s break it down.
The Liberty have expedited their rebuild
New York started last season with seven rookies on their 12-player roster. Naturally, the Liberty were terrible — they finished 2-20 — but they won the lottery to get the no. 1 pick in the 2021 draft for the second straight season. After three straight seasons of the missing the playoffs, the Liberty chose to cash in their assets now.
Earlier in free agency, they signed 2020 Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney, arguably the best wing on the market. On Wednesday, they traded Megan Walker and Kia Nurse to the Phoenix Mercury for the no. 6 pick in the 2021 draft as well as Phoenix’s 2022 first-rounder. They then packaged that 2022 first with two of their own pick, including this year’s no. 1 pick, to get Natasha Howard from the Seattle Storm. They also traded Stephanie Talbot for fellow Aussie Sami Whitcomb, an older player who has been remarkably efficient as a spacer in Seattle’s offense.
Howard was cored by the Storm but was rumored to be seeking a larger offensive role after being a supporting player on the 2018 and 2020 Seattle title teams. As the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year and essentially a 3-and-D center, Howard is the perfect piece to plug in to New York’s five-out offense. With Howard, Laney, and a healthy Sabrina Ionescu, the Liberty are angling for a playoff berth and potentially a deeper postseason run now.
The Dallas Wings now have the No. 1 pick in the draft
The Wings have potentially the best collection of young talent in the WNBA. They have a scoring guard of the future in Arike Ogunbowale and a talented forward in Satou Sabally, so they’re presumably trying to find a center to create their core trio. Now, they have the no. 1 pick in this year’s draft to get that player, and all it cost them was Katie Lou Samuelson — an essentially redundant forward in their rotation — and a 2022 second-round pick.
Dallas could be targeting Charli Collier, a center playing college ball at Texas, to add some local flavor to their roster. Whatever happens, this is a fantastic reset for the Wings after a misstep in the 2019 offseason, when they traded Azura Stevens for Samuelson and center Astou Ndour, another player who didn’t fit into Dallas’ rotation.
What is the Seattle Storm doing?
The defending champions have now lost their starting center (Howard) and starting small forward, Alysha Clark, during this offseason. They also lost Whitcomb, a consistent backup guard. They had no choice with Clark, an unrestricted free agent, and Howard also reportedly demanded a trade, so the Storm had to pivot by retooling for the future.
Getting picks from New York as well as exchanging Whitcomb for Talbot, who is six years younger, to build around Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd makes sense. Trading two of those picks, including the no. 1 overall pick this year, for Samuelson and Herbert-Harrigan is much harder to process. They also signed Candice Dupree, a 36-year-old forward, who has made 29 total threes in her 15-year WNBA career to help fill in for the shooters who left.
No one could fault Seattle for wanting to win now with Sue Bird in the final stages of her career. But taking fliers on middling forwards is an odd way of going about it. In a day when multiple other teams got better, the Storm are the biggest loser.
The Phoenix Mercury get some depth
The Mercury haven’t been particularly fond of building through the draft during the latter part of Diana Taurasi’s career. Have you heard her comments about rookies?
“Every time you played rookies, you just wanted to fucking kill them.” - Diana Taurasi pic.twitter.com/rqNgI8FjdN— Matt Ellentuck (@mellentuck) May 4, 2020
So the Mercury dumped their next two first-rounders for two Connecticut wings who figure to get playing time right away for Phoenix. Nurse was an All-Star in 2019 before submitting one of the worst shooting seasons in recent memory in the WNBA bubble, which the Mercury are probably choosing to explain away by New York’s historically bad offense and lack of talent. Walker was also bad in 2020, but isn’t far removed from a very productive college career.
Taurasi has Huskies who she can count on to run with her, and Phoenix has added some balance to its guard-heavy roster.
Minnesota consolidates its roster for the upcoming season
The Lynx were the least involved of any of the parties in this deal, but they appear to have their eyes on a bigger picture. They sent their 2020 first-round pick Mikiah Herbert-Harrigan to Seattle for a 2022 first. Herbert-Harrigan likely would have been on the fringes of the rotation after Minnesota signed Kayla McBride and reportedly agreed to terms with Aerial Powers this offseason.
The next step for the Lynx could be to clear a protected salary slot for Powers (each team is only allowed six), likely by trading away Odyssey Sims. By removing Herbert Harrigan from the roster, they now have greater ability to make such a deal because they have an extra asset with the 2022 first-rounder and more cap space to take back a bad contract.