How Much Talent Is The WNBA Missing This Season?

Normally, the WNBA has an offseason with two distinct parts.

There’s Part 1: free agency, which begins in February. And there’s Part 2: the draft, held in April. This being 2020, of course, all the typical calendars have gone out the window, with tipoff moved from the originally scheduled date in May to July 25 and delayed roster building that will continue well into the season.

This year, we have two new components to add to free agency and the draft: Part 3, the losses suffered by teams from players opting out for either medical, general unease or social justice reasons. Then there’s Part 4, as yet unmeasurable and only fully understood when the season is over: how many players test positive for COVID-19 once in Bradenton, Florida.

But we can quantify how many teams were affected by opt-out decisions and see which rosters have been most ravaged in this year unlike any other. Presenting what must be the most depressing power rankings in WNBA history: The Opt-Out All-Stars.

The Opt-Out All-Stars

WNBA teams by 2019 win shares of players opting out of the 2020 season

Team 2019 win shares lost
Washington Mystics 13.5
Los Angeles Sparks 6.3
Connecticut Sun 5.6
Las Vegas Aces 4.1
Atlanta Dream 1.9
Phoenix Mercury 1.5
New York Liberty 1.0

The Minnesota Lynx are without Cecilia Zandalasini, who had 0.4 win shares in 2018 but none in 2019.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Top of the list is the Washington Mystics, a team that in ordinary, COVID-less times looked like a good bet to repeat as WNBA champions after edging out the Connecticut Sun in five games during the 2019 finals. That was before Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders opted out by the original June 25 deadline — Cloud for reasons of pursuing social justice initiatives, and Sanders citing “what’s best for my health and my family.” Elena Delle Donne and Tina Charles have applied for medical exemptions — which would get them paid in 2020, unlike Cloud and Sanders. The league denied Delle Donne a high-risk exemption, despite her Lyme disease, which triggered a PR nightmare for the WNBA, but the Mystics said this week she will still be paid her full salary. A decision on Charles, the seven-time all-star acquired by the team in April from New York, has yet to be announced. But it is unlikely that either will suit up for the Mystics this season.

Accordingly, it is easy to declare the Mystics the winners of the opt-out power rankings. Delle Donne is the reigning MVP and led the league with 7.7 win shares. Cloud made the team go, second only to Kristi Toliver in assist percentage, while taking on the toughest defensive assignments on the perimeter and accumulating 2.5 win shares. Sanders ranked third on the roster in win shares, with 3.4, ahead of Toliver (3.3, now with the Sparks), Cloud and Ariel Atkins (3). And though Charles struggled in 2019 with the Liberty, she posted win shares north of 4 in each season from 2014 to 2017, and Mystics coach Mike Thibault had set up a role for her that would have maximized her strengths scoring around the basket and grabbing rebounds. To be sure, there’s a lot of talent left on D.C., starting with Emma Meesseman with a win share of 4. But they took the biggest hit. Total win shares lost from those opting out: 13.5.

Though easy to overlook at first glance, don’t miss just how much firepower the Los Angeles Sparks will be without in 2020 as well, thanks to the dual opt-outs of Toliver, the team’s biggest free agent acquisition, and Chiney Ogwumike, the previous offseason’s big addition who was acquired in a trade with the Connecticut Sun. Toliver’s 3.3 win shares only begin to tell the story, as she provides the creativity to find her own shot, incalculable leadership in the locker room and an ability to run the offense, giving regular point guard Chelsea Gray the chance to move off the ball or even rest more than she did in 2019. Ogwumike, who had 3 win shares, primarily came off the bench for a Sparks team that weathered injuries all season, but she remained productive and dangerous from virtually anywhere inside the 3-point arc and defended at the level that made her a two-time All-Star in Connecticut.

Unlike the Mystics, who will need to shift a variety of players into new roles to weather their losses, the Sparks have obvious solutions for the loss of both these players. The return of Riquna Williams and addition of Brittney Sykes should patch coach Derek Fisher’s rotation minutes previously earmarked for Toliver, while relying more on Candace Parker, hopefully healthier than last season, should limit the damage from Ogwumike’s absence. The team even possesses a second Ogwumike in Nneka, who ranked third in the league with 5.5 win shares, a significant advantage over the rest of the Ogwumike-less league.1 Total win shares lost from those opting out: 6.3.

Coming in third, but still a team that will weather a large loss, is the Connecticut Sun, last year’s runners-up. Only one player from the 2019 Sun opted out — though the team lost Shekinna Stricklen and Courtney Williams in the offseason as well, so 2020 already promised to be very different. And the Sun’s opt-out player looms large: Jonquel Jones, whose 5.6 win shares ranked second in the league last season. Jones provides a center of gravity that will be missing, a 6-foot-6 inside-outside threat who showed signs, late last season, of reaching another level of dominance. Her 32 points and 18 rebounds in Game 2 of the 2019 finals helped the Sun shock the Mystics in D.C. and turned what was a series Washington was expected to win easily into one that went the distance. Total win shares lost from those opting out: 5.6.

Along those lines, the Las Vegas Aces are without Liz Cambage, the 6-foot-8 center who re-signed this past offseason, after the team announced last week that she wouldn’t be playing in 2020. There’s no real way to replace what she brings on both ends — despite starting 2019 slowly as injuries hampered her, she finished second on the team in scoring, led in both rebounding and block percentage, and even posted a career high in assist percentage. Still, leading scorer A’ja Wilson will have more room to operate and more chances to shoot as Cambage sits this one out, so there are some ready answers for coach Bill Laimbeer to make the best of it. Total win shares from those opting out: 4.1.

Then there’s the Atlanta Dream, who lost last season’s starting backcourt, even as the team had previously made moves to augment, if not replace, that production already. Tiffany Hayes led the 2019 Dream in scoring, at 14.7 points per game, while Renee Montgomery, the team’s primary point guard, finished third at 9.5 points per game. With Sykes off to Los Angeles in a trade to bring Kalani Brown to Atlanta, the loss of Hayes and Montgomery seemed to decimate Atlanta’s ability to score.

The Dream, however, had moved to revamp an offense that produced a team field-goal mark of just 37.1 percent last year, worst in the league. Atlanta acquired Courtney Williams, the midrange architect of Connecticut’s playoff run last season, along with her Sun teammate Shekinna Stricklen, a three-point master — though Williams hasn’t yet arrived in Bradenton. And with the fourth overall pick in the 2020 draft, the Dream selected Chennedy Carter, a ball-dominant point guard who is expected to get the keys to the offense from day one.

Still, Hayes is an All-Star level creator and strong defender, while Montgomery runs an offense smoothly, shoots well from three and brings a championship pedigree from her time in Minnesota. Total win shares from those opting out: 1.9, but this fails to fully capture what’s been lost.

Three other teams suffered opt-out-related losses as well. The New York Liberty will be without projected starter Rebecca Allen and her 0.6 win shares from last year — a total that could have been higher in 2020 had she played more often in Walt Hopkins’ three-intensive lineup — after the Australian international elected not to come over for the season, along with center Han Xu, who did not register a win share in limited minutes as a rookie. The Liberty are also missing Asia Durr, though she opted out only after contracting COVID-19, not in an effort to avoid it.

The Phoenix Mercury will be without versatile forward Jessica Breland, a cancer survivor who was deemed high-risk by the league and is staying home. Her 1.5 win shares — accumulated on the defensive end in Atlanta last year — will be missed. And Cecilia Zandalasini — who hit 38.3 percent of her threes and accumulated 0.4 win shares in limited 2018 minutes with the Minnesota Lynx2 — was a late scratch over COVID-19 concerns as well.

As for the rest of the league? Well, it’s business as usual … or as close to it as anyone is getting these days.