2020 WNBA Free Agency
A groundbreaking CBA. Stars requesting exits. Franchises in "win now" mode. All of it made for historic levels of player movement.Kurtis Zimmerman March 30, 2020
Injured players returning and others wanting a new look set up what was expected to be an active WNBA Free Agency, and with the finalization of the latest CBA pushing back its start, it packed a wallop, and fast. Within the first two days alone, four former All Stars had moved teams, foreshadowing unprecedented movement in the WNBA in just the first few weeks.
Entering March, major questions were still unanswered — we still have yet to see a Tina Charles signing, for example — but as the month winds down, much broader unknowns have taken over, with the timing and execution of the season itself in question.
None of that changes the historic moves we've already seen. While we wait for news, let's dive in to some numbers.
Former All Stars On the Move
Some All Star movement is common. 11 All Stars moving is not. 2010 is heavily impacted by former Sacramento Monarchs forced to go elsewhere after the franchise folded; Rebekkah Brunson, Kara Lawson, Ticha Penicheiro, Nicole Powell, and DeMya Walker each had to find a new team, skewing the numbers up for that free agency period. 2007 is similarly skewed by the folding of the Charlotte Sting, which forced Sheri Sam, Tangela Smith, and Tammy Sutton-Brown to make moves.
I initially suspected that 2008 was skewed for similar reasons, but the only thing abnormal between the 2007 and 2008 seasons was the expansion draft for the Atlanta Dream, and the only All Star that moved as a result was Betty Lennox (from Seattle). Instead, three teams really had a major impact on the movement that year: the Indiana Fever, the Los Angeles Sparks, and the Seattle Storm.
2007 was a rock-bottom year for the Sparks. Jerry Buss sold the team after the 2006 season, and Lisa Leslie announced her pregnancy shortly thereafter. A 10-24 record in 2007 led to a No. 1 pick who would become the face of the franchise, Candace Parker, and it led to a number of changes in the roster. Mwadi Mabika and Taj McWilliams-Franklin went elsewhere, while Marie Ferdinand-Harris was brought in.
As for the Fever, losing in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Shock (again) led the franchise to part ways with head coach Brian Winters, after which they brought in Lin Dunn and retooled the roster, making one of the splashiest trades of the time: Tamika Whitmore was sent to Connecticut for Katie Douglas. Anna DeForge headed out to Minnesota, while Sheri Sam went up to Detroit, adding another pair of All Stars leaving Indy.
The Storm's story is fairly similar. 2007 was a disappointing 17-17 finish for Seattle in what would be Anne Donovan's last year as head coach, and after bringing in Brian Agler and losing Lennox in the Dream expansion draft, they brought in three of the league's biggest names in Swin Cash, Yolanda Griffith, and Sheryl Swoopes, accounting for four of the former All Stars on the move. The season outcome didn't change drastically, but they improved in the regular season and were back in the Finals by 2010, when they won their second championship, though only Cash remained from that trio.
2008 is a special year overall when it comes to player movement. Based on game log data, I measured players who changed teams from one season to the next, and while it doesn't perfectly account for late-season signings, it gives a good representation of the overall movement.
% Minutes Moved in Free Agency
Looking at minutes played, you really see how the 2008 offseason stands out from any other, and when you look at 2020 free agency from this perspective, it really falls right in the middle in WNBA history. In 2008, 45 players were no longer playing for the same teams they were with in 2007, and they accounted for just under 25% of the minutes played in 2007. Compare that to 2020, where we have seen 29 players move, those players accounting for just over 16% of the minutes played in 2019. Of course, a big part of that is the fact that multiple players who moved played well below their career averages, if at all, last season: Augustus, McCoughtry, Diggins-Smith, and Clarendon would all skew the numbers down due to their injury/pregnancy recoveries.
In addition to the big moves detailed for the Sparks, Fever, and Storm, the minutes moved is largely affected by the expansion draft for the Atlanta Dream. That ended up moving several players, including Érika de Souza, Ann Strother, LaToya Thomas, Jennifer Lacy, Kristin Haynie, and Betty Lennox. 2000 also saw an expansion draft for four new teams, 2010 saw the dispersal of former Sacramento Monarchs players, and 2006 saw expansion with the new Chicago Sky, to account for a few of the other years in this chart as well.
This year, the movement has been spread out, with some of the biggest moves involving Atlanta, Connecticut, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. Atlanta moved on from Angel McCoughtry and Jessica Breland while picking up Glory Johnson, and Phoenix lost DeWanna Bonner and Briann January but picked up Skylar Diggins-Smith. Connecticut got both Bonner and January while Layshia Clarendon departed for New York. Finally, the Aces lost Epiphanny Prince but picked up McCoughtry and Danielle Robinson.
2020 Atlanta Dream
2020 Phoenix Mercury
2020 Connecticut Sun
2020 Las Vegas Aces
It's an interesting mix of teams who had a disappointing finish to 2019 (Atlanta and Phoenix) and those who were contenders all season (Connecticut and Las Vegas), and I think that speaks to the other major dimension of this offseason that has made the movement have such a great impact. It's not just a handful of sought-after players, and it's more than just a couple of teams making moves for big-name players.
Lottery Picks On the Move
Maybe All Star movement isn't the best measurement of what feels so different about 2020 free agency. I honed in instead on "lottery picks" (top 4 draft picks) playing for different teams from one year to the next. I focused in on just those players who moved teams during the offseason to really focus on free agency movement in particular.
So far in the 2020 free agency period, 11 former lottery picks have changed teams either as free agents or via trade. You have to go back to 2015 to find a year that even comes close to that total, though 2015 is undoubtedly remembered for its splashiest move occurring in the middle of the season, when Sylvia Fowles was finally traded to the Minnesota Lynx.
|Katie Lou Samuelson||CHI||→||DAL|
The first thing that stood out to me about these three tables is the repetition of players. Renee Montgomery, Cappie Pondexter, Epiphanny Prince, Shekinna Stricklen, and Kristi Toliver each moved in more than one of these years.
As mentioned before, 2010 free agency was impacted by the folding of the Sacramento Monarchs and the subsequent dispersal draft. It's reasonable to think that Ticha Penicheiro and Nicole Powell may have remained with the Monarchs had that been an option.
In each year there's a good mix of younger players and those who would end up playing their last season that year (Chamique Holdsclaw, Armintie Herrington, Candice Wiggins), which may be the case with a player like Seimone Augustus.
Speaking of Seimone, her signing with the Sparks has been perhaps the most shocking move of free agency. The next-closest was likely Kristi Toliver's move back to LA, but at least she has positive history with the Sparks to fall back on. Kristi has the most unique career arc though: to move to the Mystics after winning a championship in LA in 2016, and now to move back to LA after winning another ring with the Mystics last year is unparalleled in the WNBA, if not beyond.
But let's get back to Seimone. I highlighted her and Angel because of all the lottery picks listed, they are the only No. 1 overall picks moved in 2020, and the fact that they both made a move in the same offseason is special. You have to go back to the 2009 offseason to find the last time two top draft picks moved teams. That year Tina Thompson (No. 1 in 1997) signed with the Sparks after the Houston Comets folded, and Lindsey Harding (2007) was traded to the Mystics from the Lynx.
No. 1 Picks On the Move
On the topic of No. 1 picks, Angel and Seimone moving to LV and LA, respectively, has set up some interesting potential scenarios involving No. 1 draft picks.
2012 Seattle Storm - No. 1 Picks
2020 Las Vegas Aces - No. 1 Picks
2020 Los Angeles Sparks - No. 1 Picks
The 2012 Seattle Storm are the only WNBA team to have played four No. 1 draft picks in the same game, but this year the Aces and the Sparks will likely each do so. In fact, when the two teams meet up, it could be the first time we see eight No. 1 picks in the same regular season game, potentially even all at the same time. Of course, there's plenty of time for more moves to change that up.
But, again, I digress. I think what hits fans hardest about Seimone moving teams is that she was the face of the Lynx for so long that it seemed she would end her career there. Angel would have been a similar case if it hadn't been public knowledge that led to the expectation that she would be leaving Atlanta.
Looking at the table of top draft picks who have moved teams in free agency, there isn't really a comparison for what has transpired with Augustus. Tina Thompson went to LA in 2009 only after the Houston Comets folded, and the next closest comparisons might be the 2005 offseason when Margo Dydek and Chamique Holdsclaw each moved on from the franchise they had been with since they were drafted, Holdsclaw for six seasons and Dydek for seven.
Augustus played in 14 seasons for the Lynx prior to 2020. The only players with more seasons on the court for one franchise are Sue Bird in Seattle (16), Tamika Catchings in Indiana (15), and Diana Taurasi in Phoenix (15). That means the WNBA record for longest tenure before moving teams belongs to Seimone. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for Diana or Sue to move, and next closest behind is Candace Parker, who has all 12 of her seasons on the floor with the Sparks. Beyond that, you're looking at Courtney Vandersloot (9 in Chicago) and Maya Moore (8 in Minnesota), so it's a tough record to compete with.
In fact, that's really what hits hardest about this free agency period. It's not just the volume of players who have moved or their statistical contributions so much as it is just how long they had been with their previous team. We were so used to seeing their players where they were.
Average Years With Team Moved
You can see that 2020 "wins" that competition. On average, the players who have moved so far were with their previous teams an average of about 3.5 years, and the next closest year is 2015, when the average was 2.8 years. Of course, the earlier years of the league aren't going to have incredibly high numbers in this department, but 2020 still stands out by a wide margin.
2015 saw 38 players move and was pushed upward in average years by Tanisha Wright, who went to New York after 10 years playing in Seattle, Monique Currie (8 in Washington before moving to Phoenix), Camille Little (7 years in Seattle before moving to Connecticut), and a slew of players who had spent about 5 years with their previous team, including Plenette Pierson, Cappie Pondexter, Jennifer Lacy, Epiphanny Prince, and Renee Montgomery.
While the movement has been league-wide, a lot of big changes have centered around one franchise in particular.
% Starts Lost
The Mercury played in 34 regular season games and 1 playoff game (35 total) in the 2019 season. That means they had 175 starter positions (35 × 5) available. Last year, Phoenix filled 90 of those spots with DeWanna Bonner, Briann January, and Leilani Mitchell, who have each been lost to free agency. That's about 51.4% of their starting spots, and it's the fifth-most lost in one offseason in league history.
% Scoring Lost
The effect on the Mercury is even greater in terms of points scored, with about 46.4% of their points from 2019 gone in free agency. Of course, the return of a consistent Diana Taurasi could offset a lot of what they missed from her last season. Regardless, the shift for the Mercury is up there in WNBA history, behind some major free agency move-makers.
It's no surprise to see the 2014 Connecticut Sun up there, considering they lost their top scorer when Tina Charles (18.0 PPG in 2013) requested a trade to get back home to New York. Kara Lawson (13.8 PPG) went off to the Mystics to close out her career, and Mistie Bass (7.0 PPG), Kalana Greene (5.1 PPG), and Sydney Carter (4.1 PPG) took their points with them, too. Seattle in 2015 really began retooling after the departure of Brian Agler on the way to their eventual 2018 title. Camille Little (12.9 PPG), Tanisha Wright (8.0 PPG), Shekinna Stricklen (7.2 PPG), and Temeka Johnson (5.8 PPG) all ended their runs with the Storm.
The Lynx made a couple of trades between their inaugural 1999 season and the start of the 2000 regular season that resulted in a major overhaul of their roster. Then-general manager Agler sent Tonya Edwards (14.8 PPG), Trisha Fallon (3.0 PPG), and Adia Barnes (1.1 PPG) to Phoenix for Marlies Askamp, Kristi Harrower, and Angela Aycock. Askamp was eventually traded later for a trio of draft picks. The Lynx's leading scorer in 1999, Brandy Reed (16.1 PPG), was also traded to the Mercury in exchange for the fifth overall pick in the 2000 WNBA Draft. Unfortunately, none of those moves led to better performance in the subsequent years.
The Mercury appear to be somewhere closer to the 2014 Sun and 2015 Storm, setting up for a post-Taurasi era while still maximizing the star power and success that helped lead them to a championship just six years ago.
And a title is always the ultimate goal, right? Whether it feels legitimately in reach this summer or a franchise is setting up for the next couple of years to come, exactly where these moves stand up in history will ultimately be measured by how many rings the franchise gets out of them. For that, we'll have to wait and see.
• • •
All player movement and season statistics made possible through the Across the Timeline WNBA database. Several publically-available tools make this information easily accessible, including 2020 WNBA transactions, all-time WNBA draft picks, and all-time WNBA All Stars. For further inquiries, contact email@example.com