WNBA free agency 2021 grades -- Chicago Sky, Las Vegas Aces score high marks

ByMechelle Voepel and Kevin Pelton via ESPN logo
Wednesday, April 14, 2021

WNBA free agency began Feb. 1. Unlike the "old days" -- before the new collective bargaining agreement in 2020 -- there was a lot of movement. And while there are still some players unsigned and trade rumors floating, most of the action is done. Which teams fared the best? We grade the 12 franchises on their free agency decisions and other moves made. The grades don't reflect how we think the teams will fare in 2021; rather, it's more about how they appear to have gotten better or worse -- or mostly stayed the same -- during the offseason.

Chicago Sky

Grade: A

The Sky parted with a very good post player named Parker (Cheyenne) for a sure-fire Hall of Fame post named Parker (Candace). Assist leader Courtney Vandersloot had been one of the longtime anchors of the team, but the Sky has needed another superstar-level player since Elena Delle Donne requested a trade after the 2016 season. That's not taking anything away from veteran sharpshooter Allie Quigley, who has led the Sky in scoring three of the past four seasons since Delle Donne's departure. But Quigley and the rest of the team will be happy to have the talent of Candace Parker. She will be 35 in April, but will be invigorated by the move and can mentor younger players such as Diamond DeShields, Azurá Stevens and Ruthy Hebard, who all have much potential and could get some really good tips from Parker. -- Voepel

Las Vegas Aces

Grade: A

Inertia alone makes the Aces winners of the offseason, as they saw the Storm team that swept them in the WNBA Finals broken up. Beyond that, Las Vegas was proactive in improving the roster by effectively swapping Kayla McBride for Chelsea Gray in free agency. (Both players signed lower max contracts, Gray for two years and McBride for three.) Gray and McBride are both 28, similar size and both three-time All-Stars, but Gray's superior playmaking has made her the slightly better player over the course of their careers. Riquna Williams later followed Gray from Los Angeles, strengthening the Aces' bench and dramatically improving the team's shooting. (Williams' 43 3-pointers in 2020 were 18 more than any Las Vegas player made.) We're assuming here that the Aces will in fact return Liz Cambage, their core player who has yet to officially sign a contract for 2021. If Cambage plays, Las Vegas likely enters the season as title favorites. -- Pelton

Dallas Wings

Grade: A-minus

The Wings didn't have any unrestricted free agents, and they re-signed restricted free agent Allisha Gray -- their biggest target -- to a three-year deal that averaged just under $165,000 per season, according to Her Hoops Stats. They extended forward Kayla Thornton. And the Wings also got the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft in a trade for Katie Lou Samuelson, who averaged just 5.0 PPG last season and might not have had much of a future in Dallas. Now they can add a young post like Charli Collier if she leaves Texas early. Or maybe that pick gets traded a third time for a veteran post, because there is still a need in the paint. -- Voepel

Washington Mystics

Grade: A-minus

Mike Thibault and company faced a tricky offseason with just five players under contract. So far, so good. Although the Mystics lost Aerial Powers when she backtracked on what Thibault believed was a verbal agreement on the framework of a deal, they were able to pivot and sign Alysha Clark as a short-term upgrade on the wing. Washington still has work to do after re-signing Tina Charles and LaToya Sanders. Natasha Cloud, who can negotiate only with the Mystics, remains unsigned. And Washington needs to save enough cap space to be able to add Emma Meesseman to the roster after the Olympics, presuming they proceed as planned. If the Mystics have Meesseman for the postseason, they've got an excellent chance of getting back to the WNBA Finals for the third time in four years. -- Pelton

Minnesota Lynx

Grade: B-plus

The Lynx are in the midst of doing one of the harder things in pro sports: Rebuild after a dynasty without missing the playoffs. Center Sylvia Fowles, 35, who missed much of last season with a calf injury, is the only player left from their last championship, in 2017. Yet the Lynx still advanced to the postseason, and had the WNBA Rookie of the Year for the second year in a row (Crystal Dangerfield in 2020, Napheesa Collier in 2019). They've added free agents Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa, former Notre Dame teammates who should fit in well for the Lynx. It is a bit unusual they dealt last year's No. 6 pick, forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, to Seattle, but they might not have seen her having a big role in the foreseeable future. If Fowles can return healthy, and Dangerfield and Collier continue their success, the Lynx should be a playoff team again. -- Voepel

New York Liberty

Grade: B-plus

It was a rough 2020 with so many young players trying to jell, and No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu being lost for the season when she was injured in the third game. New York also doesn't know when 2019 No. 2 pick Asia Durr might return; she missed last season and is still dealing with the effects of COVID-19. The Liberty won the draft lottery again, but rather than add another young player, they opted to trade for forward Natasha Howard. They've made a large commitment to her financially, four years at an average of about $225,000 per season, according to Winsider. Howard becomes their go-to veteran post scorer, and as Kevin pointed out in his trade analysis Wednesday, she should be a terrific pick-and-roll partner with Ionescu. The Liberty also signed wing player Betnijah Laney after her best season -- she was the WNBA's Most Improved Player in 2020 -- and opted to deal Kia Nurse and Megan Walker. After a two-win season in 2020, the Liberty needed to shake things up and make some big moves, and they've done that. -- Voepel

Atlanta Dream

Grade: B

After adding Courtney Williams and Shekinna Stricklen last offseason, as well as drafting WNBA Rookie of the Year runner-up Chennedy Carter, the Dream never got a chance to see that vision on the floor because All-Star Tiffany Hayes opted out of the 2020 season. With Hayes returning, Atlanta moved on from Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney and instead invested that money in the frontcourt, signing Cheyenne Parker and Tianna Hawkins to complement All-Defensive First Team pick Elizabeth Williams up front. Losing Laney's size on the wing could hurt -- she too was an All-Defensive First Team pick -- but the Dream should be much improved offensively after finishing 12th and 11th in offensive rating the last two seasons. -- Pelton

Phoenix Mercury

Grade: B

Phoenix is bringing back franchise icon Diana Taurasi, who was an unrestricted free agent. She had a very good 2020 season, averaging 18.7 PPG and 4.5 APG, and still has gas left in the tank. She paired well in the backcourt with Mercury newcomer Skylar Diggins-Smith last season. Via trade this week, the Mercury added two other UConn alums: Kia Nurse and Megan Walker, both of whom should benefit from a change in scenery and the chance to play alongside Taurasi. The rumors about a potential Brittney Griner trade still linger after her early exit from the WNBA bubble last year. But when she talked to the media during the USA Basketball camp last week, Griner seemed to be looking forward to her Mercury future. -- Voepel

Connecticut Sun

Grade: B-minus

Alyssa Thomas' Achilles rupture put Connecticut in a tough spot. If the Sun lowballed Thomas, they risked losing her to another team as an unrestricted free agent. The two sides agreed on a deal that pays Thomas less than the supermax (starting at $200,000 rather than the full $221,450, per Rachel Galligan of Winsidr). Still, between that and new deals for Brionna Jones and Jasmine Thomas, Connecticut is left with barely enough cap room to fill out an 11-player roster with one of the team's two second-round picks and three players making the rookie minimum. With Thomas expected to miss this season, that will leave the Sun with just 10 healthy players to navigate the schedule. -- Pelton

Indiana Fever

Grade: D

The Fever don't seem to have kept pace with last year's other lottery teams. Indiana's marquee moves were signing a pair of players in their 30s who have primarily been reserves. Danielle Robinson is coming off a strong season in a bench role in Las Vegas but hadn't previously scored with above-average efficiency since her first two years in the league. As Robinson ages, her quickness might no longer be such a weapon. Jantel Lavender is coming off a broken bone in her left foot that cost her the entire 2020 season following surgery and doesn't project as an upgrade on departed Natalie Achonwa in the post. The Fever might regret protecting all three years of contracts for both players, per Galligan and HerHoopStats.com, since their money might have gone further in future years when other teams are strapped for cap space. Pelton

Seattle Storm

Grade: D

As Kevin wrote last fall, it was going to be a tough offseason for the Storm to keep its talent together. They lost cored player Natasha Howard, who wanted out, and Alysha Clark, who didn't, but got an offer she couldn't refuse from Washington. They also dealt Sami Whitcomb for Stephanie Talbot. Howard and Clark were starters and Whitcomb a solid role player from the Storm's last two championship teams. Then after getting the No. 1 pick from New York in the sign-and-trade that sent Howard to the Liberty, the Storm dealt that pick to Dallas for Katie Lou Samuelson, who will be on her third team in three years in the league. This might be a move the Storm live to regret, especially if the top pick ends up being an All-Star caliber-type player, which so far Samuelson has not shown she will be. They've also added via trade forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who spent her rookie year in Minnesota, and signed veterans Candice Dupree and Tamera Young. This is still a team with a lot of young talent, led by Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Jordin Canada. Veteran point guard Sue Bird is returning, too, though she hasn't signed yet. But losing both Howard and Clark hurts. -- Voepel

Los Angeles Sparks

Grade: D-minus

After losing both Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray, the Sparks have talked a good game about a fresh start following two years of playoff disappointments. Still, it's impossible to argue this roster is as talented as the typical Los Angeles team. The Sparks have also overloaded on undersized guards, signing 5-foot-7 Erica Wheeler to go with 5- 7 Kristi Toliver and 5-8 Te'a Cooper in the backcourt. The news wasn't all bad for Los Angeles, which re-signed restricted free agent Brittney Sykes to a reasonable contract ($223,300 over two years, per HerHoopStats.com) and got a commitment from Nneka Ogwumike to return. Amanda Zahui B also looks like a nice addition in the frontcourt. But if the Sparks lose in the first two rounds of the playoffs this year, it might not be an upset. -- Pelton