Every WNBA Team's Biggest Need This Offseason

Jackie Powell@@classicjpowContributor INovember 16, 2021

Every WNBA Team's Biggest Need This Offseason

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    Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    A lot of WNBA general managers are looking at spreadsheets right now and formulating next season's roster contingencies. Here at B/R, we'll look at what the central goals are of each team, starting with the defending champions and ending with the lottery teams going into free agency and then the draft.

    What specific needs should each W team be planning to address come the new calendar year?

Chicago Sky: Keep Their Core Intact

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    Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    The defending champions need to plan on how to keep their core together. With only four players signed through 2022, including Candace Parker, how can the Sky put themselves in the best position to run it back? It's a goal reigning Finals MVP Kahleah Copper, an unrestricted free agent, revealed in a piece for the Players' Tribune.

    Sky coach and general manager James Wade has already been preparing how to best manage the salary cap. Since winning the Finals, he revealed to The Next's James Kay that he flew to New Orleans to meet with Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin and has sought out advice from other NBA executives, including Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, Boston Celtics president Brad Stevens and Los Angeles Clippers head coach Ty Lue.

Phoenix Mercury: Solutions at Position They Couldn't Guard

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Mercury achieved what many thought they could not: making a WNBA Finals without much bench depth. Phoenix's Big Three of Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith willed the team offensively from single elimination all the way to the Finals. But once the Mercury lost Kia Nurse to a torn ACL in Game 4 of the semifinals, their Achilles' heel was exposed. Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello explained after Game 3 of the Finals that her team couldn't contain Kahleah Copper. Phoenix wing Sophie Cunningham had the size but not the speed or defensive skill.

    Even if Nurse—who was acquired to defend the opponent's best guard—had been healthy, there were no guarantees Phoenix would have come out on top. The Mercury's missing piece in 2021, another athletic defensive wing, will have to become their target leading into 2022 if they want to make it back to the Finals.

Connecticut Sun: More Backcourt Firepower

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    Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    For the second season in a row, the Sun's season ended in the semifinals. For the majority of the 2021 regular season, the No. 1-seeded Sun were favorites to be the last team standing. Before its 2021 playoff run, Connecticut ended its regular season on a 14-game win streak. Well, what happened? The team with the best defense all season long struggled to contain the Sky's dangerous offense that finally put the pieces together at the right time.

    In a panel discussion breaking down Connecticut's surprising exit from the playoffs, Sun play-by-play commentator Brendan Glasheen explained that a lack of a challenge and adversity during the regular season didn't prepare Connecticut for the type of punch the Sky threw at them in the semifinals. "The Sun were never really in spots during the regular season in which they needed clutch shot-making and/or execution," he said.

    While Connecticut was without Alyssa Thomas for the majority of the season, the club added her back into the fold during the final week of the regular season. However, she didn't have enough time to mesh with the rest of the core in game situations.

    But presumably, a more glaring issue was the lack of production from the Sun's backcourt in Game 4. Without Briann January in the lineup, the Sun were short on three-and-D options, January's bread and butter. Defensive stalwart Jasmine Thomas shot 21.4 percent from the field in a game where Connecticut didn't score more than 17 points in a quarter in the final three frames.

    Looking ahead, do the Sun need to get not only more offense in their backcourt but also more youth?

Las Vegas Aces: Hire the Right GM

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Aces begin the offseason with more losses in personnel than any other WNBA team. We haven't even hit free agency yet. How could that be? Since Vegas' season ended Oct. 8 in a heartbreaking Game 5 loss to the Mercury, the Atlanta Dream hired both assistant coach Tanisha Wright and general manager Dan Padover.

    The Aces had a historically deep roster in 2021, and the departure of both Wright and Padover proves the window for Las Vegas to win a championship is closing. When Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer coached the New York Liberty, he also served as the general manager. But in Vegas, he seemingly wanted fewer responsibilities, and over time his initial duty as president of basketball operations has shrunk to just serving as the head coach.

    With five free agents on their salary sheet, including restricted free agent and franchise star A'ja Wilson and unrestricted free agent Liz Cambage, the Aces need to hire a new GM—and fast.

Minnesota Lynx: Backup Post and Consistent Backcourt Shooter

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    Once she completes her November evaluations, head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve will notice that her Lynx do not need more players who can play on the wing. Both Aerial Powers and Kayla McBride are locked in for two more seasons.

    Even if both Sylvia Fowles and Layshia Clarendon return and Napheesa Collier has a bounce-back year, Minnesota will need more help to back up Fowles in the post and more consistent backcourt play from a guard who's a reliable shooter. With Crystal Dangerfield still learning how she can play in this league as a smaller guard, Damiris Dantas rehabbing from a Lisfranc injury that cut her 2021 season short and an up-and-down season from Natalie Achonwa, the Lynx need more reliable depth to support their main cast.

Seattle Storm: Multiple Plans in Place

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    Photo by Joshua Huston/NBAE via Getty Images

    The Storm's Big Three of Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird are all unrestricted free agents. For 41-year-old Bird, it's more of a "will she or won't she play" rather than whether she will return to Seattle. If she elects to play one more season, there's a 99 percent chance it will be with the team that drafted her and the team she's won four championships with. A new arena appears awfully tempting to the future Hall of Famer.

    Stewart and Loyd will seriously test free agency, and the Storm need to be prepared with a plan A, B and C if they can't bring both All-Stars back. Most likely the Storm will prioritize Stewart, leaving them to negotiate with Loyd. Also, does Seattle want to commit to restricted free agent Mercedes Russell long-term? Last offseason, the Storm lost three major pieces of their 2020 championship roster in Natasha Howard, Alysha Clark and Sami Whitcomb.

    They scrambled and added the developing but skilled Katie Lou Samuelson, as well as Kiki Herbert Harrigan, who missed most of the season because of maternity leave. The Storm also acquired the rights to Stephanie Talbot, who ended up faring well as a role player, and signed free agent Candice Dupree, who they waived halfway through the season. Dupree never jelled with the Storm's frontcourt personnel and how the team plays.

    As the window to win another title with Bird is incredibly narrow if she does return, the Storm need to make sure they have different scenarios planned to field a more competitive and talented team behind her.

Dallas Wings: Veteran Leadership

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    Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

    Even before falling to the veteran-heavy Sky in the first round of the playoffs, it was obvious the Wings couldn't move forward without veteran leadership. While they made the postseason for the first time since 2018, a large portion of their struggles in 2021 involved finishing close games. Head coach Vickie Johnson leaned on two young stars in Arike Ogunbowale and Satou Sabally to center the Wings emotionally. While Sabally sees Johnson as their leader, there's a disconnect. Who is going to hold the Wings accountable? That's a tall order, and that showed in 2021.

    Sabally admitted this season that she still believes she and Ogunbowale have a lot to learn. How is that done? How do they continue learning? Well, possibly through someone they don't have on their roster. The oldest player on the team is 29-year-old Kayla Thornton, who has only played in three single-elimination playoff games in her five seasons with the Wings.

New York Liberty: Depth in the Post

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The glaring void this past season for New York was another multipurpose post player—the type who fits the type of game the Liberty play. Natasha Howard and rising third-year player Kylee Shook can stretch the defense, know how to play in a pick-and-roll-predicated offense and play hard defensively.

    Shook, who is still learning how to play meaner against the elite centers in the W, will hopefully be joined in the post by another member of her draft class, Jocelyn Willoughby, in 2022. Willoughby, who usually plays the 4 offensively, missed the entire 2021 season after rupturing her Achilles in the preseason. During the "Wubble" season, teammates called Willoughby one of the "strongest" players on the roster, and that remains the case going into 2022 for now.

    The Liberty will need to know where they can best add reinforcements. Does it exist in the upcoming draft class, where they have the No. 5 pick? Can they sign an available free agent? Will 6'9" Chinese prospect Han Xu be ready to return to the WNBA?

    Speaking of international players, Marine Johannes of France could return to the Liberty after two seasons with a suspended contract because of the pandemic in 2020 and her national team commitments in 2021. If she's re-signed and is able to join the team in 2022, she could fill a smaller hole the Liberty grappled with all season as another combo guard who can serve a similar function to Sami Whitcomb and back her up when needed.

    Also, New York's 2019 lottery pick, Asia Durr, announced Monday that she's officially cleared to play basketball after missing two seasons due to contracting COVID-19 and dealing with lingering symptoms. If she can return to form by late April, she’s another guard option to consider.

Washington Mystics: Clarity on Elena Delle Donne

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    Daniel Kucin Jr./Associated Press

    While the Mystics expect Elena Delle Donne to be more prepared to play in 2022 after having two back surgeries, her progress will influence how Washington looks come training camp. Can head coach and general manager Mike Thibault convince free agents Tina Charles, Myisha Hines-Allen and Emma Meesseman that 1) the Mystics can return to the playoffs and make another championship run with a healthier team and 2) he'll have enough cap space for all of them?

    Right now, Washington has $456,900 in cap space, according to Her Hoop Stats, with Delle Donne and reserve Erica McCall the only post players signed for 2022. Washington has two protected deals left with Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins and Alysha Clark occupying the other four spots.

    Charles signed with the Mystics to win a championship and play a smaller role than she had in the past. Neither came true in a season when she finished with another scoring title and became the focal point of Washington's Delle Donne- and Meesseman-less offense. Hines-Allen was in and out of the lineup in 2021 because of injuries and a non-COVID illness, and her return is up in the air if the Mystics can't offer her enough money in restricted free agency.

Los Angeles Sparks: Offensive 'Spark'

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    SB Nation's Sabreena Merchant summed up the Sparks offense euphemistically. "Their offense is not the most pleasant to watch," she said in June on her podcast The Step Through alongside basketball coach Evin Gualberto. The numbers do not contradict the eye test: The Sparks finished the season with a league-worst 92.3 offensive rating.

    One reason for this was their laundry list of injuries, but that's no excuse. The question is how do they address it? They could either get head coach Derek Fisher some offensive help on his coaching staff or excuse him altogether. The Sparks will also need a more versatile backcourt player who can facilitate, and that's what they'll get in Gabby Williams, who will return to the W in 2022. But the Sparks need to work on a more advanced offensive game plan besides running a high pick-and-roll with Erica Wheeler and Amanda Zahui B.

Atlanta Dream: Everything

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    Hakim Wright Sr/Associated Press

    You can officially call what's going on in Atlanta a rebuild. Newly hired GM Dan Padover referred to the Dream approaching this new era "the right way" without taking any shortcuts. Or in other words, the Dream's front office will approach every player it looks to sign and draft with care and patience. There's no rush.

    The Dream have the rights to five players, including Chennedy Carter, who was suspended indefinitely in early July. According to Padover and new head coach Tanisha Wright, attracting the right personnel who fit the Dream's values and culture will be the priority. The basketball style and scheming will come second. Padover, who spent years working under Bill Laimbeer before taking over as the Aces GM, will have an arduous task ahead to convince some of the league's most talented free agents to #DoItForTheDream and give Atlanta a chance.

Indiana Fever: A Vision

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Fever legend and current GM Tamika Catchings sounds like a broken record when she discusses her goals and aspirations. She wants her team to escape the lottery, which the Fever will be included in for a fifth straight season. Sure, it's a rational goal from one of the most competitive people to play in the W, but the issue for Catchings has always been in the "how," which both she and head coach Marianne Stanley haven't been forthcoming about.

    In 2021, the Fever waived 2020 third overall pick Lauren Cox. Kelsey Mitchell and Teaira McCowan, the two remaining players with any sort of superstar potential, play at different paces. Something's got to give. The Fever need an identity, and if either Mitchell or McCowan don't fit it, then Indiana ought to get considerable value for putting either player on the trade market.

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