There will be two major dominoes in WNBA free agency this year, creating a ripple effect across the league. They are Breanna Stewart and Candace Parker.
Over the course of the next week, speculation will run rampant about all the key players in free agency – Courtney Vandersloot included. But what Vanderloot, the WNBA champion, four-time All-Star and No. 3 player in league history in career assists, does will largely depend on whether Stewart stays with the Storm and Parker returns to the Sky.
Stewart reportedly held a meeting with the Liberty’s front-office staff, including coach Sandy Brondello and owners Joe and Clara Wu Tsai, as an unrestricted free agent in 2022. Sue Bird said she would return for another season, so Stewart’s chances of playing in her home state of New York were not high last year.
But 2023 is a completely different story. According to HerHoopStats.com, the Liberty have $382,915 in salary-cap space, trailed only by the Aces ($138,804) and Wings ($363,396). So the Liberty will need some movement on the end to make room for Stewart and still be able to fill out the rest of their roster. On the other end, the Storm have the most cap space in the league ($1,025,564) and only two players under contract in Lloyd and Mercedes Russell.
Stewart helped bring two championships to the Storm (2018 and 2020), but what potentially awaits him with the Liberty is the opportunity to build a new dynasty. One of the lessons to be learned from Parker’s decision to leave the Sparks for the Sky in 2021 is that there is a lot of glory attached to winning a home championship. Although Stewart grew up in North Syracuse, a four-hour drive from the city, this cannot be overstated.
As far as Parker is concerned, there appear to be only two possible landing spots, and those are the two teams he has played for in his career. For many, Los Angeles is a closed chapter for Parker, even though Sparks has hired new Reigns to lead the franchise into the future. But with nearly $1 million to spend in free agency, the Sparks’ ability to build a winning team that entices Parker shouldn’t be overlooked.
Sparks general manager Karen Bryant said, “We’re just as interested in having any party as Candace can decide what she wants to do.” “When the time is right, we’re willing to pay attention and engage in conversation when the opportunity presents itself.”
If we conflate Stewart’s stints with Fantasy and Liberty, it immediately puts them in title contention. Depending on the contract, this could happen for years to come. Another team with title aspirations in 2023 based on their roster is the defending champion Aces.
The point is, if Stewart leaves the Storm, Vanderloot will need to sign with a team that has a roster capable of defeating those two franchises in a series. If Parker re-signs with the Sky, he will be one step closer to being on the roster, which will make him more attractive to the Vanderloot.
But Vanderloot will be a sought-after commodity in free agency beyond Storm and Skye. Last year, she met Lynx in addition to Storm and Skye.
What Sky’s ownership should be thinking about is how it is investing in the franchise that makes Chicago a prime free-agency destination.
Parker definitely signed with the Sky in 2021, but that had more to do with Vandersloot, Eli Quigley and the rest of the roster than it did with the franchise in terms of player experience being the best.
The Sky are known as Chicago’s team, but they practice in Deerfield, about an hour away. And while Chiefs owner Michael Alter has said the franchise is interested in investing in a practice facility someday, other teams are doing so now. Parker told the Sun-Times last summer that the one thing that would make Sky go even higher is if they were located specifically in Chicago.
Coach and GM James Wade’s priority is making sure the organization has the right coaches and staff to develop a culture that attracts players. He told the Sun-Times that Sky would bring in a second player-development coach this season to work alongside Jeff Pagliocca, who the team brought in last year. Wade’s coaching staff of Tonya Edwards, Emre Vatansevar and Ann Waiters would remain the same.
There are a handful of WNBA veterans who have won multiple championships in one jersey. Wanderloot has the ability to do the same. But gone are the days when she was blindly loyal to the franchise that produced her.
Wade has dominated free agency over the past two years, signing Parker and winning a championship in 2021, followed by a free-agency class that earned him executive of the year in 2022. Give the fans some rest.
But if the Sky aren’t careful, they’ll lose Vandersloot and be in a position where they’re playing catch-up with the rest of the league – on and off the court.
Comment:The WNBA’s period for qualifying offers is January 11-20. Free agent talks can begin on January 21. The Sun-Times’ free-agency tracker webpage will go live on January 11 with free agents from all 12 WNBA teams.
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