The WNBA offseason began in earnest Saturday, which started a two-week period when teams negotiate with free agents.
However, deals can’t officially be signed until Feb. 1.
The Storm have had several months to dissect what went right and wrong during a 2021 season that brought a Commissioner’s Cup championship and ended sooner than expected with a second-round upset loss in the WNBA playoffs.
Despite a coaching change — Noelle Quinn replaced Dan Hughes after he abruptly retired — and the loss of prominent starters Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark from the previous season, Seattle was in prime position to defend its 2020 WNBA title.
The Storm had a league-best 16-5 record with 11 games remaining before finishing 5-6 during the final six weeks to slip to fourth in the standings.
The late-season slide coincided with the loss of star forward Breanna Stewart, who suffered a left Achilles injury that forced her to miss the final two regular-season games and the playoffs.
Even if the Storm wanted to simply run it back, general manager Talisa Rhea would have to rebuild a roster that currently has five players under contract.
“We have a lot of free agents,” Rhea said last month. “We’re excited to talk to our players starting in January. We’re transitioning into the Noelle Quinn era and hoping to build the (team) identity to match hers. We’ve been working a ton with her to try to identify players that fit her vision to move us forward.
“It’s a really exciting time for her and for us to head to this next era with Noelle.”
Here are three questions the Storm must answer in free agency.
1. Is the Breanna Stewart-Jewell Loyd pairing sustainable?
The 27-year-old Stewart and 28-year-old Loyd comprise the youngest and most dynamic duo in the WNBA. No other team had two players younger than 30 ranked among the top 15 scorers in the league. During their six years on the court — Stewart sat out in 2019 — the Storm are 93-55 during the regular season and 11-4 in the playoffs, including WNBA titles in 2018 and 2020.
Loyd was vague about her long-term plans after the season, which might have played a role in Seattle’s decision to designate her its core player, which removes her from free agency and gives Seattle exclusive negotiating rights.
Loyd is guaranteed a one-year, supermax deal of $228,094, which is a considerable raise from the $121,500 she made last year.
Still, Loyd might be seeking a long-term deal or a fresh start with a new team, which could prompt a trade that would have been inconceivable a few months ago.
Even though Stewart is an unrestricted free agent for the first time in her career, she’s given every indication that she plans to re-sign with the Storm.
“It is kind of crazy that I’m a free agent that’s for sure,” Stewart said in September. “But Seattle has always been my home. It’s where I’ve grown up. It’s where my career has continued to blossom. I plan on being back unless something crazy happens. We have more things to do here.”
Stewart could sign the richest contract in WNBA history if the two sides agree to a four-year, $912,376 deal.
2. What’s up with Bird?
Sue Bird is back. At least that’s what the Storm said in a recent short-lived tweet that drew the ire of the WNBA and was deleted. The Associated Press reported the league slapped Seattle with an undisclosed fine for making an announcement about a free agent.
According to the league’s collective-bargaining agreement, tampering fines are as much as $300,000 for a first-time offender.
Bird, who also announced she’s returning for a 19th season on Instagram, was Seattle’s highest-paid player last year at $221,450. She’s eligible for a supermax deal of $228,094, which would be warranted considering her value on and off the court.
Still, this might be the year when the Storm invest in a succession plan for their 41-year-old star.
3. Is there any money for anyone else?
The 2022 WNBA salary cap is set at $1,379,200, which is a slight increase from last year’s $1,330,000 cap.
If Seattle retains its Big Three with supermax deals, collectively they would eat up nearly half of the salary cap. The trio would make $684,282 and leave $645,718 to fill out the 12-player roster.
The Phoenix Mercury were the only team in the WNBA with three players collecting supermax contracts and could only keep 11 players due to financial restraints.
Still, Seattle has a considerable amount of financial flexibility in free agency because it’s the only WNBA team without a guaranteed contract heading into the new season.
In essence, the Storm have $1.3 million that they could divvy among free agents Jordin Canada, Mercedes Russell and Stephanie Talbot, who each recently received qualifying offers from the team.
Seattle could also shop strategically for bargain free agents on the market including Tina Charles, Rebecca Allen, Sylvia Fowles and Angel McCoughtry.
“Obviously, last year we didn’t finish the way that we wanted to, but we feel like we have a lot of good pieces,” Rhea said. “We’re excited to talk to our players to figure out what pieces we can add to help us take that step back to being on top.”
The Storm also have five picks (No. 9, 17, 18, 21 and 33) in the 2022 WNBA draft that’s set to be held in April.
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