CHICAGO -- Going Sky High! The Sky's the Limit! The Windy City Winners! Those are the headlines after theChicago Skybeat thePhoenix Mercuryin the2021 WNBA Finalsto win their first title Sunday as the league wrapped up its 25th anniversary season.
But as soon as a champion is crowned in sports, questions arise about what's next. Was this WNBA season the last go-around for longtime stars such as the Seattle Storm's Sue Bird, the Minnesota Lynx's Sylvia Fowles, Chicago's Candace Parker and Phoenix's Diana Taurasi? Who will win the 2022 WNBA draft lottery? What are the biggest storylines to watch in free agency? Is expansion on the horizon?
So as Parker, point guard Courtney Vandersloot and WNBA Finals MVP Kahleah Copper continue to celebrate Chicago's championship, we look at what's to come in a busy offseason -- and what will most impact 2022 -- now that the 2021 season is in the books.
1. Which team is the favorite for the 2022 title?
The 2021 champions went 16-16 in the regular season and were the No. 6 seed. Chicago had its ups and downs in large part due to injuries. With everyone healthy and the chemistry clicking, the Sky became the team that some observers projected back in May -- a championship contender, with free-agent signee Parker as the missing piece.
Can they do it again? No WNBA team has repeated since the 2001-02 Los Angeles Sparks, and the Sky have some work to do in free agency. But as reigning champs, they deserve a mention for 2022. Same for runner-up Phoenix, which awaits Taurasi's decision on whether she will return for her 18th season.
The Connecticut Sun and Las Vegas Aces, who had the best records this season, both lost in the semifinals. Minnesota, a couple of years into the rebuild after its dynasty era, did well in finishing third but lost in the second round to Chicago, which proved the hottest team in the postseason. Seattle, which looked on a path to repeat its 2020 title, faded after the Olympic break despite winning the first Commissioner's Cup title in August.
Who's the early pick? We'll go with Connecticut finally breaking through. The Sun were very disappointed they fell short this season, which provides a lot of motivation for 2022. The same could be said for the Aces.
2. How many legends are coming back?
This month, Seattle's Bird turned 41 and Minnesota's Fowles 36. Chicago's Parker will be 36 in April and Taurasi 40 in June. Bird has four WNBA titles, Taurasi three and Fowles and Parker two each. They're all locks for the Hall of Fame. How much longer will they play?
Bird, Taurasi and Fowles have said they need time in the offseason to think about whether to return; Parker said prior to Game 4, "I handle it like that every season." Taurasi and Parker have a year left on their contracts, while Bird and Fowles are unrestricted free agents.
Then there's the Washington Mystics'Elena Delle Donne, who missed the 2020 season and all but three games in 2021 because of back issues. She said before her brief return in August that she still hoped to play for several more years if healthy. But after she re-aggravated her back Aug. 26 and didn't return this season, it's uncertain if 2022 is a realistic possibility for the two-time MVP, who turned 32 in September.
3. Which teams have the most to figure out regarding free agency?
The champs, as mentioned. The WNBA officially will announce free agents in January. But according to a list compiled by Richard Cohen of Her Hoops Stats, Chicago has five unrestricted free agents, including starters Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and Copper. The Sky also have two restricted free agents: Diamond DeShields and Lexie Brown.
Unrestricted free agents can negotiate with and sign with any team (unless they receive the core designation from their current team). Restricted free agents can do the same, but their current team has the right of first refusal to match the offer.
Washington has five unrestricted free agents, led by Tina Charles, an MVP candidate in 2021. Seattle has four UFAs, including Bird, Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart, and three RFAs. In Las Vegas, Liz Cambage, Angel McCoughtry and Riquna Williams are UFAs, while A'ja Wilson is an RFA.
Since the 2020 collective bargaining agreement, the WNBA's free-agency movement has been more robust. Parker's move to Chicago was the biggest the league has seen and worked out spectacularly.
Will Loyd and Stewart, past No. 1 picks who have won two championships with the Storm, remain teammates? Will Cambage and Wilson, both looking for their first WNBA title, keep trying to win it together?
4. Which team will win the draft lottery?
Is there light at the end of the tunnel for the Atlanta Dream or Indiana Fever? The Fever missed the postseason for the fifth consecutive year and had the worst record this season at 6-26. Just ahead were the Dream at 8-24.
The lottery odds are based on the 2021 non-playoff teams' combined records from the past two seasons. Indiana at 12-42 is the lottery favorite, with a 44.2% chance to pick first overall, something the Fever have never done. Atlanta is second at 15-39 (27.6% chance at No. 1) and Washington third at 21-33 (17.8%). By record, Los Angeles is fourth, but the Sparks traded their 2022 pick to Dallas, so the Wings are in that spot with a 10.4% chance at No. 1. Dallas took Charli Collier in the top spot this year.
Since Tamika Catchings retired after the 2016 season, the Fever have struggled to find an identity. She is now the team's general manager, and 2022 will be Indiana's fifth straight year in the draft lottery. Kelsey Mitchell and Teaira McCowan, No. 2 in 2018 and No. 3 in 2019 respectively, are part of the starting core. But the Fever released Lauren Cox, No. 3 in 2020, this year (she's now with Los Angeles), and Kysre Gondrezick (No. 4 in 2021) played sparingly in 19 games this season before going on personal leave in August.
Atlanta just hired former player Tanisha Wright, and she has quite a chore in her first head-coaching job. The recent public reveal of a fight outside a club in May resulted in the Dream telling free agents Courtney Williams and Crystal Bradford they won't be back with the team. Chennedy Carter, the No. 4 pick in 2020, was put on indefinite suspension in July for conduct detrimental to the team, and it's uncertain if fences can be mended with her and the organization.
Whichever lottery pick the Fever and Dream end up with, they each should get a good player. But both teams have a ton to fix.
5. Who will be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft?
The 2022 draft looks much better than 2021; this year's rookie class struggled to make an impact. Looking just at seniors now, the top pick projects as Kentucky Wildcats guard Rhyne Howard, a two-time SEC player of the year.
Also in the lottery mix are Baylor Bears forward NaLyssa Smith, Michigan Wolverines forward Naz Hillmon, Iowa State Cyclones guard Ashley Joens and Ole Miss Rebels center Shakira Austin. We'll see who else plays their way into this conversation, and which draft-eligible juniors might opt to leave early.
6. Will Dallas and the New York Liberty keep trending up?
The Wings and the Liberty have been the youngest teams in the WNBA the last two seasons. Both made the playoffs this year -- Dallas as the No. 7 seed and New York as No. 8 -- and lost in the first round. Dallas will have another lottery pick in 2022.
New York is one of the original eight WNBA teams but still looking for its first league championship. The Liberty haven't played in the WNBA Finals since 2002. They're now owned by the Brooklyn Nets and have 2021 rookie of the year Michaela Onyenwere and 2020 No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu. The status of 2019 No. 2 pick Asia Durr, who has dealt with long-haul COVID-19 and missed the past two seasons, is uncertain. But overall, the Liberty are building from youth, same as the Wings.
New York and Dallas might make some bold moves in 2022 with free agency or trades (New York did that with Natasha Howard before this season) to add experience. It remains to be seen how bright the future is for both.
7. Will Los Angeles get back in the playoffs?
The Sparks are an original-eight franchise and have 20 playoff appearances, more than any other WNBA team. But injuries took a big toll in 2021, and Los Angeles missed the postseason for the first time since 2011.
Losing Parker to free agency -- and then watching her win the 2021 title with her new team -- was an emotional blow for Sparks fans, who are used to their franchise being among the elite. The Sparks have some good players, still led by Nneka Ogwumike. But Los Angeles coach and general manager Derek Fisher has work ahead to position the Sparks for climbing back into the race in 2022 and beyond.
8. How challenging will the 2022 schedule be?
One coach told ESPN recently, "I'm concerned about what we're going to be asking players to do next year." That's because, along with the anticipated move to 36 games, an All-Star Game and the Commissioner's Cup final, the WNBA must finish its season before the Sept. 22 start of the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup in Australia. That means a compacted schedule, which the WNBA has been through before in seasons with the World Cup.
The WNBA schedule is always a complicated puzzle dictated in part by television windows. It could mean more series-style play (where teams stay in one city for back-to-back games against the same foe) in 2022 like we saw this year.
Speaking of the World Cup, the United States will be seeking its fourth consecutive title in that event (formerly called the World Championship) and 11th overall. But longtime national team director Carol Callan stepped down after the Tokyo Olympicsand has been replaced by Briana Weiss. There is uncertainty about the head coach; Dawn Staley said she was "done" after Tokyo, but has since softened that stance. Plus, national team stalwarts Bird and Taurasi might be finished playing for USA Basketball, so there could be a lot new for the 2022 U.S. team.
9. Will the WNBA playoff format change?
WNBA coaches and players dislike single-elimination games. But can the league expand the playoffs, especially next season when the schedule already will be so tight? A postseason change is almost certainly coming, but we wait to see when.
10. Will there be real progress on expansion?
It's an ever-popular topic, but one that has been kicked down the road to "next year" for quite a while in the WNBA. With 12 teams, the league needs a larger footprint, which commissioner Cathy Engelbert readily acknowledges. She recently told ESPN, "I suspect by next summer or this time next year, in our 26th season, we'll be talking about the number of teams and a list of where."