WNBA free agency began Thursday night with the defending champion Storm designating Natasha Howard as a core player, which gives Seattle exclusive negotiating rights with the seven-year veteran.

The move nearly assures Howard will return for her fourth year with the Storm where she won the 2019 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year award, the 2018 WNBA Most Improved Player award and helped Seattle to a pair of titles.

However, the decision to retain Howard is also costly. She’s scheduled to earn $221,000 next season, which is nearly twice as much as her $117,000 salary in 2020.

The Storm also appears to be gambling that Howard, who was one of just three WNBA players to receive core designations this season, is going to rebound from what had been her least productive year in Seattle when she averaged 9.5 points, 7.1 rebounds and 21 minutes.

Retaining Howard also means the Storm may face some difficult personnel decisions either this year or next year.

Sue Bird, Alysha Clark and Epiphanny Prince are unrestricted free agents who can sign with any team while Sami Whitcomb is a restricted free agent, which gives Seattle the right to match any contract offer.

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Re-signing Bird, an 11-time WNBA All-Star and four-time champion, appears to be a top priority. The 40-year-old point guard was the team’s highest-paid player last season with a maximum salary of $215,000 and would likely command another max deal.

The biggest question is what do the Storm do with the 33-year-old Clark, one of the top two-way players in the WNBA who led the league in three-point shooting percentage last season and was a unanimous pick by the league coaches to the All-Defense first team?

Clark, who joined the team in 2012, appears to be in line for a big payday considering she was the seventh-highest-paid player on the roster last season while earning $85, 800.

Conceivably, the nine-year veteran forward could double her salary if she were to test the market because it would be difficult for the Storm to reward her with a big raise while keeping Bird and Howard.

Under the new collective-bargaining agreement, the salary cap rose to $1.3 million and teams are required to carry a minimum of 11 players on the roster.

According to Spotrac, the Storm has $786,000 tied up in eight players, not including Howard. That leaves Seattle with roughly $514,000 to spend on free agents.

Teams can start negotiating with players Friday and deals are finalized Feb. 1.

Whatever decisions the Storm makes in the next two weeks will also have long-term ramifications considering two-time WNBA Finals MVP Breanna Stewart, two-time WNBA All-Star Jewell Loyd and heir apparent point guard Jordin Canada are in line for contract extensions next year.