WNBA free agency 2021 -- Top players to watch and team-by-team needs

The 2021 WNBA free-agency market opened for negotiations Jan. 15. And though teams aren't allowed to sign free agents to contracts until Monday, the action is already well under way. Candace Parker is reportedly headed to the Chicago Sky as an unrestricted free agent after spending her entire 13-year WNBA career with the Los Angeles Sparks.

But there are plenty of other storylines to watch -- and questions to answer -- before Monday. How will the core designation impact free agency? Which teams have some flexibility with cap space? And who are the biggest names we should be watching?

Jump to: Team needs | Free agents: Restricted | Unrestricted | 1-20 ranking

What's the difference between core players, unrestricted free agents and restricted free agents?

Voepel: Being a core player is similar to having the franchise tag in the NFL. It means the WNBA team has exclusive negotiating rights with a player. Players can only get the core designation three times in their careers; starting in 2022, that will go down to two times.

An unrestricted free agent can sign with any team as long as she is not designated as a core player.

A restricted free agent is a player with four years of service who receives a qualifying offer from her team. It gives that team the right of first refusal if another team makes an offer to that player. If the player signs an offer sheet with another team, her current team has four days to decide to match it. If her team does, the player stays. If it doesn't, she goes to the new team.

There are three core players: Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks, Liz Cambage of the Las Vegas Aces and Natasha Howard of the Seattle Storm. Are they certain to remain with their teams?

Pelton: Not quite. A core player can be signed and then traded to a new team, allowing her to change teams while giving her current team value in return. We saw this last offseason with Tina Charles and the New York Liberty, who worked together to land her with the Washington Mystics in exchange for two 2020 first-round picks (No. 9 and No. 12) and a second-rounder (No. 15).

New York subsequently traded Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, also part of the deal, to the Phoenix Mercury for a third first-round pick (No. 10). Charles, now an unrestricted free agent, was unable to suit up for the Mystics in 2020 after she was medically excused from the WNBA's on-campus season.

Voepel: According to a source, Ogwumike has agreed to a multi-year deal with the Sparks. Coach/general manager Derek Fisher did not want her to feel "trapped" by the designation, so he encouraged her to speak with other teams. But apparently she still saw the Sparks, who drafted her No. 1 in 2012, as the right fit.

The question with Cambage is always, "Will she play in the WNBA this season?" She was out on a medical exemption last season, and since being drafted No. 2 in 2011, she has played just four seasons in the league. Las Vegas GM Dan Padover said, "Liz has said to us she has every intention to play, and that's what we're planning on. All the conversations on both sides have been super positive."

Who are the biggest names among the restricted free agents?

Pelton: Allisha Gray of the Dallas Wings was my top-rated restricted free agent. She has become a capable 3-point shooter in addition to her ability to create her own offense and defend multiple positions, meaning Gray would fit well with most any team if the Wings are interested in exploring a sign-and-trade rather than simply using their match rights.

Voepel: Agree on Gray. Dallas president and CEO Greg Bibb said it is a big priority of the Wings to keep her, both for her skills and the fact that she has experience, which the team needs.

Which players should we be watching in unrestricted free agency?

Pelton: After last year's exciting offseason, maybe the answer is everyone. But in particular, I'm looking at the teams with multiple key free agents to see whether they'll be able to retain them all. We already have some answers for the Sparks -- whose three best players, Parker, Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray, are all unsigned. That leaves the Seattle Storm (in addition to Howard's core designation, Sue Bird and Alysha Clark are unrestricted free agents and Sami Whitcomb is a restricted free agent) and the Washington Mystics (who chose not to core 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman and also have Charles and Aerial Powers as key unrestricted free agents).

Voepel: We know Parker will be leaving the Sparks, and we are hearing Gray might be, too. With Parker going to the Sky, Cheyenne Parker is likely headed elsewhere. And it has been reported that Kayla McBride is leaving Las Vegas for Minnesota.

There is apparently a lot of interest in Seattle's Alysha Clark, the defensive stopper and glue player for the Storm. She was a critical part of their 2018 and '20 championship teams. After nine seasons in Seattle, she still seems to have a lot left in the tank at age 33. Teams on both the West and East coasts would like to add her.

Which teams have some flexibility with cap space, and of those teams, which will have the biggest impact on free agency?

Pelton: Because WNBA salaries are still catching up with last year's dramatic increase in the salary cap tied to a new collective bargaining agreement, most teams have plenty of cap space. Per HerHoopStats.com, seven teams will start the offseason with at least $500,000 in cap space. But most of those teams are hoping to use that space to bring back their own key free agents, so I'd look at a couple of teams with more limited room but nearly-full rosters instead.

The Minnesota Lynx have every player who saw more than three minutes of action in last year's playoff run to the semifinals under contract and could easily throw a max offer at another player to add to that core. On Wednesday, Las Vegas Aces guard Kayla McBride told WSlam that she will be signing with the Lynx on Monday.

The New York Liberty have more players than roster spots after keeping seven rookies on last year's roster and will have to weigh keeping those players against adding veterans using their cap space.

Voepel: In addition to the Sky, whichever team nabs Alysha Clark will make major waves. Indiana is a franchise that could use a spark, too, and the recent upgrade of the Fever's facilities should be a benefit in regard to luring free agents. Indiana has to decide just how young it wants to go, and how much longer it wants to be in rebuilding mode.

What is each team's biggest need or storyline that we should be watching?

(Note: All cap space estimates from HerHoopStats.com.)

Atlanta Dream

Cap space: $358,863

Pelton: Atlanta never got a chance to see how last year's additions would fit with holdover Tiffany Hayes, who opted to sit out the season. That opened the door for Betnijah Laney, signed by the Dream after she was waived by Indiana in June, to win Most Improved Player honors. With Hayes' likely return, Atlanta could look to strengthen its frontcourt instead of re-signing Laney.

Chicago Sky

Cap space: $258,285

Pelton: The Sky open free agency with less cap space than any other team. But so far, they've made the biggest waves, with Candace Parker reportedly headed to her hometown. Fortunately, Chicago also has all its key players under contract save one: post Cheyenne Parker, who ranked seventh in my 2021 projections for free agents. Signing Candace Parker almost certainly means the Sky won't have the cap room to re-sign Cheyenne Parker.

Connecticut Sun

Cap space: $594,446

Voepel: The Sun had to deal with the bad news that the heart and soul of the franchise, Alyssa Thomas, has an Achilles injury and won't be playing this season. She is one of their six unrestricted free agents. Connecticut made a big splash in the offseason last year, obtaining DeWanna Bonner, and she was everything they hoped. They should get Jonquel Jones back this season after she sat out 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns. Will Jasmine Thomas stay?

Dallas Wings

Cap space: $286,191

Voepel: The Wings, with a new coach in Vickie Johnson, think they are closer this season to being a contending team. As mentioned, they want to keep Allisha Gray, but they like their core of mostly young players, led by sensational guard Arike Ogunbowale. They're very excited about how second-year players like Satou Sabally and Tyasha Harris will perform. It's possible they might still look for a little more veteran leadership.

Indiana Fever

Cap space: $754,591

Pelton: With so much cap space, the big question is what Indiana will prioritize. Frontcourt contributors Natalie Achonwa and Candice Dupree are both unrestricted free agents, but with recent first-round picks Lauren Cox and Teaira McCowan growing into larger roles, the Fever could look to redistribute that salary to fortify their wing rotation.

Las Vegas Aces

Cap space: $665,631

Voepel: The big news last year when free agency signings began was Angel McCoughtry going from Atlanta to Las Vegas, a move that was mutually beneficial to her and the Aces. Rumors have been strong that the Aces will be making another power move in signing an elite guard who can help a "we're ready to win it all now" franchise. With a young MVP like A'ja Wilson and the experience of making last season's WNBA Finals, the Aces aren't going to miss a chance to go for the ring.

Los Angeles Sparks

Cap space: $790,990

Pelton: With news that Candace Parker is headed to Chicago and rumors that Chelsea Gray is also leaving Los Angeles, the Sparks could have an eventful offseason. Though Los Angeles finished with the WNBA's third-best record at 15-7, the Sparks' one-and-done playoff run might spur desire for major changes for the franchise. With Parker gone and possibly Gray, Los Angeles will have the cap space to make a run at other key players.

Minnesota Lynx

Cap space: $452,145

Pelton: As noted earlier, the Lynx are in an enviable position cap-wise because they've got multiple contributors on rookie contracts, led by Napheesa Collier and Crystal Dangerfield, and center Sylvia Fowles under contract at the old, smaller maximum salary. Given Collier's success at power forward during the second half of the 2020 season and Fowles' age (35), adding Kayla McBride makes sense, with additional center depth also a possible need.

New York Liberty

Cap space: $468,436

Voepel: It was basically a lost 2020 for the 2-20 Liberty, with No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu out with injury shortly after the season began. They hope to have her back, but guard Asia Durr's lingering COVID-19 symptoms might keep her out another season. The Liberty have the No. 1 pick in the draft for a second year in a row, and there's no obvious immediate franchise-changer to select. GM Jonathan Kolb said they might look to add a more experienced post player through free agency.

Phoenix Mercury

Cap space: $529,420

Voepel: The assumption is that Mercury icon Diana Taurasi, an unrestricted free agent, will return. But what about Brittney Griner, who is under contract for two more years but left the Mercury during last season in what didn't seem to be the best of circumstances? Might a trade be in the works, or have things been patched up? If all is well, we'll see if restricted free agent Shatori Walker-Kimbrough returns to Phoenix.

Seattle Storm

Cap space: $544,409

Pelton: After they won the 2020 title, I wrote about the challenges free agency and the salary cap would present the Storm. Seattle will most likely waive forward Morgan Tuck and center Crystal Langhorne to create additional cap space, but also has to consider 2022, when Breanna Stewart will be eligible to bump up her salary to the supermax and Jordin Canada and Jewell Loyd will also both be free agents. It's possible that might make it difficult for the Storm to bring back the starting five that has won the WNBA championship both years it has been healthy.

Washington Mystics

Cap space: $795,260

Voepel:The biggest question is if the Mystics will bring back Emma Meeseman, who was Finals MVP in 2019 when they won the championship. She is in the prime of her career and has to be a major priority for Washington. Elena Delle Donne and Tina Charles, who is expected to stay on with the Mystics, didn't play last season. The idea of those three plus what we saw from Myisha Hines-Allen last season with more opportunity? It's a Mystics fan's dream.

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