In a week full of moves that have shaken the landscape of the WNBA as we once knew it, Wednesday’s trade sending two-time All-WNBA first team pick Skylar Diggins-Smith from the Dallas Wings to the Phoenix Mercury in exchange for three first-round picks stands out.
The deal potentially teams up two of the top three picks from the loaded 2013 WNBA draft, with Diggins-Smith joining No. 1 overall pick Brittney Griner, who was designated a core player by the Mercury but has yet to officially sign a new contract. And, unlike 33-year-old Kristi Toliver — who left the defending champion Washington Mystics to sign with the Los Angeles Sparks on Monday, the opening day of free agency — Diggins-Smith is still in her prime at age 29.
What does adding Diggins-Smith mean for Phoenix? And has the new WNBA collective bargaining agreement moved us into a new era of stars teaming up, much as we’ve seen in the NBA? Let’s break down the implications of the Diggins-Smith deal.
Mercury building top-heavy roster — but are they better?
Wednesday’s trade was the second of two made by Phoenix this week, which worked together. Coming off a disappointing 2019 season that ended with a blowout loss in the first round of the playoffs, the Mercury held the fifth pick in the 2020 draft. They added to that the seventh and 10th overall picks with a sign-and-trade deal sending veteran forward DeWanna Bonner to the Connecticut Sun, which also yielded Connecticut’s 2021 first-round pick. Phoenix then sent the fifth and seventh picks, along with its own 2021 first-rounder, to Dallas for Diggins-Smith.
“Free agency has been so hot because of circumstances similar to the NBA’s summer of 2016 … the NBA salary cap jumped 34.5% due to new national TV deals. The WNBA salary cap has made a similar increase, going up 30% because of the new CBA.”
Yet the Mercury might not be done yet. Howard Megdal of High Post Hoops reported Tuesday that Phoenix was in talks to acquire both Diggins-Smith and New York Liberty forward Tina Charles, the league’s MVP in 2012 who’s coming off the weakest season of her career. Like Diggins-Smith, Charles was made a core player by the Liberty, guaranteeing her a maximum salary ($215,000) but giving them the ability to negotiate a sign-and-trade deal.
If the Mercury pull off the Charles trade and re-sign Griner, they’d have one of the strongest collections of individual talent we’ve ever seen in the WNBA. We haven’t yet mentioned 2009 MVP Diana Taurasi, still Phoenix’s team leader at age 37. But I’m still not convinced the star-studded Mercury would be a leading championship contender.
Remember, Bonner was a three-time All-Star in her own right whose defensive versatility gave coach Sandy Brondello the ability to toggle between big lineups with Bonner on the wing and smaller, quicker ones with her playing power forward. Since Bonner is 32, Phoenix got younger by swapping her for Diggins-Smith, but I’m not sure the Mercury actually got better next season.
Adding Charles would also cost Phoenix dearly in terms of depth. Based on salaries from High Post Hoops’ database, max salaries for Charles, Diggins-Smith and Griner along with the five players previously under contract (Taurasi, veteran guard Briann January and 2019 draft picks Sophie Cunningham, Alanna Smith and Brianna Turner) would give the Mercury slightly more than $1 million in salary in a league with a $1.3 million hard cap.
Add in this year’s No. 10 pick, should Phoenix keep it ($62,500), and Wednesday’s signing of veteran guard Bria Hartley (at least the veteran minimum of $68,000) and the Mercury could field a full 12-player roster only by keeping two final players at the rookie minimum of $57,000. Keeping a veteran with at least two years of experience would force Phoenix to start the season with 11 players. As a result, in addition to Bonner, the Mercury will likely have to say goodbye to 2019 starters Leilani Mitchell, Essence Carson and Yvonne Turner (Carson and Turner split time at small forward).
Phoenix will be relying on staying healthy, a concern after Taurasi was limited to six games last season by preseason back surgery and a hamstring issue that came up after her return. The Mercury will be expecting better years from Taurasi and, if she’s acquired, Charles — who made just 41% of her 2-point attempts last season, far and away the lowest mark of her career. If they don’t get them, the collection of talent might not prove as strong on the court as on paper.
Wings rebuilding around young backcourt
From Dallas’ perspective, granting Diggins-Smith’s desire for a trade was softened by the success of the Wings’ young backcourt last season while Diggins-Smith sat out after giving birth in April. In her absence, Arike Ogunbowale — the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player during Notre Dame’s 2018 NCAA championship run — stepped forward as Dallas’ go-to player on the perimeter. The No. 5 pick in the 2019 draft, Ogunbowale averaged 19.1 points per game and finished second in Rookie of the Year voting.
To Ogunbowale, the Wings will add point guard Moriah Jefferson, the centerpiece of last spring’s trade sending center Liz Cambage to the Las Vegas Aces. Jefferson, who also missed the 2019 season due to injury but re-signed on a multiyear deal earlier with Dallas this week as a restricted free agent, will help share playmaking duties with Ogunbowale.
The Wings — who landed the second overall pick in last fall’s draft lottery, as well as the No. 9 pick in the Cambage deal — now hold four of the top nine picks. They’ll look to add additional talent to a young core that includes five players chosen to All-Rookie teams over the past four years (Jefferson, Ogunbowale, Kaela Davis, Allisha Gray and Azurá Stevens). Overflowing with picks, Dallas flipped the 2021 first-rounder from the Diggins-Smith trade to Chicago for restricted free-agent center Astou Ndour, who combined for 33 points in the Sky’s two playoff games last season. With the Wings still holding so many first-rounders this year, more trades could be coming.
Losing Diggins-Smith is a tough blow for Dallas, given she was the team’s most marketable and accomplished player. But in Ogunbowale, the Wings have another player capable of growing into the face of the franchise, and they might add one more with the No. 2 pick — possibly Baylor forward Lauren Cox, a Dallas-area native who would surely help ticket sales.
Start of a new WNBA era?
With more transactions perhaps in store, we’ve already seen more turnover of high-profile WNBA players this week than just about any offseason in league history. Inevitably, the question is whether this is the new normal — particularly the creation of superteams, with the league’s best players joining already strong teams, as we’ve seen in the NBA.
To some extent, this isn’t really new. Witness 2015, when Chicago center Sylvia Fowles sat out the first half of the season before a trade sent her to join All-Stars Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen with the Minnesota Lynx. Though the core designation has prevented the WNBA’s best players from hitting unrestricted free agency, the credible threat of sitting out entire seasons — possible since most WNBA players play year-round and make the bulk of their salary overseas during the WNBA offseason — has allowed them to more or less get where they want.
Add in the fact that there are just 12 WNBA teams compared to 30 and that max salaries are a relatively lower percentage of the cap than in the NBA and it’s somewhat inevitable that stars are going to cluster together.
Those factors won’t change, but I do think this year’s free agency has been so hot in part because of unique circumstances similar to the NBA’s summer of 2016, when Kevin Durant joined the Golden State Warriors after his Oklahoma City Thunder lost to the Warriors in the Western Conference finals. Back then, the NBA salary cap jumped 34.5% due to new national TV deals. The WNBA salary cap has made a similar year-to-year increase, going up 30% because of the new collective bargaining agreement.
As was the case in the NBA, existing contracts have not changed except that players who were under contract for less than the new minimum salaries for their experience will get bumped up to that level. That created a situation where players such as January and Taurasi, who were under contract for the old maximum salary of $119,500, now take up less cap space than before.
Those contracts will eventually cycle through and normalize to the new cap level, a process that will happen faster in the WNBA because contracts are limited to maximum of four years. Soon, the fact that the max salary is now relatively higher (16.5% of the salary cap, as compared to 11.8% for max contracts in 2019 under the old CBA) will actually make it more difficult for stars to team up than it was before. So don’t expect a new superteam era in the WNBA.