Last year’s new WNBA collective-bargaining agreement raised the league’s salary cap to $1.3 million — up from $996,100 in 2019 — and created an early buying frenzy in this year’s free-agent market.
Two-time WNBA Finals MVP Candace Parker left the Los Angeles Sparks, her home the past 13 years, and returned to her hometown to play for the Chicago Sky.
Three-time WNBA All-Star point guard Chelsea Gray is also departing L.A. after a five-year stint and joins the Las Vegas Aces, which was swept 3-0 by the Storm in the 2020 WNBA Finals.
The four-time WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx, who are looking to infuse a young, talented roster with veterans, are expected to sign Kayla McBride, Aerial Powers and Natalie Achonwa.
And then there’s the defending champion Storm.
It remains to be seen if Seattle is going to fall into the buyer or seller category when the teams can officially sign deals Monday.
For now, Storm fans are coping with the loss of Alysha Clark, who is signing with the Washington Mystics, and leaving Seattle where she had become one of the league’s top two-way players, a defensive ace, a three-point specialist, a team leader, a fan favorite, a vocal social activist and a charitable powerhouse in the community during the past nine years.
In an Instagram post Friday, Clark thanked Storm fans, her teammates, coaches, staff and the team’s ownership group for taking a flyer on the former 2010 WNBA second-round draft pick who made the team in 2012 as a training camp invitee.
“Thank you for being a place where I got a chance to grow as a woman and a player,” Clark, 33, wrote on her Instagram account. “Thank you for all the lifetime relationships and bonds I’ve created over the years. Thank you for helping me follow my passions and make a difference.
“I was ready to walk away from this league and you gave me one more chance. That chance changed the course of my life. Until next time (heart emoji).”
As much as Clark loved Seattle, she had to leave.
The 5-foot-11 forward outplayed her contract after signing a three-year, $252,400 extension in 2018. Her $85,800 salary last season was the seventh highest among the Storm.
Clark, a two-time WNBA all-defensive team selection, was one of the biggest bargains in the league considering she put up career highs in scoring (10.0 points per game), assists (2.7), field-goal percentage (55.8%) and three-point field-goal percentage (52.2%) last season.
Clark, who helped the Storm to two titles in the past three seasons, also ranks fourth all-time on the team in games played (273), fifth in assists (392), sixth in rebounds (928) and steals (203) and seventh in points (1,891).
The Storm is one of the deepest teams in the WNBA, but replacing that much production won’t be easy.
At that moment, Seattle has eight players under contract, which accounts for $794,591 of the salary cap, not including All-Star forward Natasha Howard, who was designated a core player on Jan. 15.
If the Storm re-signs Howard and free agent Sue Bird, it could potentially eat up $412,000 and leave roughly $131,000 to fill out the rest of the roster.
It’s possible Seattle waives 13-year center Crystal Langhorne who is set to make $105,000 next season to create additional cap space. The 34-year-old veteran started four years for the Storm since a trade with Washington in 2014, but lost her starting job in 2018 and has seen her role and production diminish each year.
Last season, Langhorne finished with career lows in scoring (1.4 points), rebounds (2.2) and minutes (8.2) while appearing in just 13 games.
Backup forward Morgan Tuck, who averaged just 1.7 points, 0.6 rebounds and 8.8 minutes in just 10 games, also appears to be a salary-cap casualty considering she’s currently the third highest-paid player on the roster.
However, trading or releasing Tuck would result in a $115,000 hit against Seattle’s salary cap, according to SpoTrac.
Conceivably, the Storm opens the 2021 season with a starting lineup that includes Bird and two-time All-Star Jewell Loyd in the backcourt alongside two-time WNBA Finals MVP Breanna Stewart, Howard and center Mercedes Russell.
Russell, a three-year veteran, started 30 games in 2019 when she posted career highs in scoring (7.5 points), rebounds (6.1), field-goal percentage (51.7%) and minutes (25.6).
Other potential candidates to replace Clark are third-year point guard Jordin Canada, promising 21-year-old center Ezi Magbegor and Tuck.
The Storm will have difficulties replenishing one of the league’s deepest benches if it’s unable to retain restricted free agent Sami Whitcomb and unrestricted free agent Epiphanny Prince.
Both players earned $68,000 last season and Whitcomb, a 32-year-old three-point specialist, could possibly double her salary this season.
The Storm will likely need to lean on 2020 WNBA draft first-round pick Kitija Laksa, who remained at home in Latvia last season, and this year’s first-round pick to become immediate contributors off the bench.
Seattle picks 11th in the WNBA draft, which still does not yet have a finalized date, and is being linked to Arkansas guard Chelsea Dungee, Oregon forward Erin Boley, Syracuse point guard Tiana Mangakahia and Texas A&M forward N’dea Jones.