WNBA free agency: Aces are still the best, but several teams gained ground


Two marquee players who didn’t play last season returned to the WNBA on Thursday, the first day that free agent contracts could be made official. Guard Skylar Diggins-Smith signed with the Seattle Storm and post player Tina Charles is headed to the Atlanta Dream.

Longtime Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud announced she was going to the Phoenix Mercury. Guard Jordin Canada, who had a breakout season in 2023, will join Charles in Atlanta via a trade from the Los Angeles Sparks, who continue to go all-in on the 2024 WNBA draft.

It was a busy day in the WNBA, as Feb. 1 has become each year, but there are still some big questions. Where will longtime Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike go in free agency? Will Elena Delle Donne play, and if so where? She was given the core designation by the Mystics but apparently doesn’t want to play there after six seasons in Washington.

Did any of the moves so far get teams closer to stopping the Las Vegas Aces’ hopes of a championship three-peat? We break down the moves and what they could mean for the 2024 season.

What’s next for Seattle after signing Skylar Diggins-Smith?

Adding Diggins-Smith fills the enormous void left at point guard for the Storm following Sue Bird’s retirement. After pursuing Courtney Vandersloot in free agency a year ago, Seattle ended up going with veteran Yvonne Turner and rookies Ivana Dojkic and Jade Melbourne at the position last season. Ultimately, the best option proved to be Sami Whitcomb, who’s more naturally a wing.

In Diggins-Smith, the Storm added one of the best point guards in WNBA history and someone who performed at an All-WNBA first-team level the last time we saw her on the court for Phoenix in 2022. That might not be a fair expectation for Diggins-Smith, now 33 and coming off giving birth to her second child, but she’ll undoubtedly help fellow Notre Dame product Jewell Loyd shoulder last season’s heavy offensive load.

Seattle might not be done. Trading Kia Nurse and this year’s No. 4 pick to the Sparks gave the Storm enough cap space to add two max contracts — and, importantly, the ability to protect both of those without running afoul of the WNBA’s limit on protected deals.

According to ESPN’s Chiney Ogwumike, Nneka’s sister and a WNBA free agent, Seattle is one of three finalists for Nneka Ogwumike, who would function as the replacement for Breanna Stewart as the Storm seek to replicate the inside/outside balance of stars that brought the team WNBA titles in 2018 and 2020. ESPN’s Alexa Philippou also reported the Storm are contenders to sign DeWanna Bonner if she leaves the Sun.

If players were willing to take discounts, Seattle could hypothetically still sign both Bonner and Ogwumike, which would give the Storm a cohesive lineup of five players who were All-Stars in their most recent season (Bonner, Loyd, Ogwumike and holdover Ezi Magbegor made it last year, while Diggins-Smith was an All-Star in 2022). Realistically, adding either Bonner or Ogwumike would position Seattle as the strongest threat to last season’s dominant duo of Las Vegas or New York. — Pelton

How big an impact can Charles have in Atlanta?

Charles’ statistics have been very good and consistent through her 12-season career. She’s 35 now, and while she didn’t play in the WNBA last year, she played overseas, and the three-time Olympic gold medalist is still a force in the paint offensively and defensively.

Charles led the league in scoring as recently as 2021, her lone season with the Mystics. She ended the 2022 season with the Storm after a contract divorce with the Mercury midway through the season.

Between 2017 and 2022, the Dream made the playoffs just once. They returned last season. The franchise is still in the process of remaking the entire organization from the top down since new ownership took over in 2021, and the hope is that a veteran such as Charles — who has won NCAA and Olympic titles but not a WNBA championship — can add to a core that includes All-Star guards Allisha Gray and Rhyne Howard.

The Dream also traded for Canada and signed free agent guard Aerial Powers. Canada had a career year last season, while Powers was unhappy with the Minnesota Lynx. Can Atlanta coach Tanisha Wright help keep Charles and Powers — who have some history of becoming disenchanted with other teams — contributing positively to the Dream’s chemistry? Wright, who played with Charles with the Liberty, believes she can. There’s no doubt the Dream have improved their overall talent. — Voepel

What direction are the Sparks heading?

Los Angeles has been busy making trades this offseason. After adding the fourth pick from the Storm to go along with the Sparks’ own No. 2 pick, they swapped up from No. 12 to No. 8 and brought former Arizona point guard Aari McDonald back to the West Coast in exchange for Canada as part of a sign-and-trade with the Dream.

With Ogwumike having already bid farewell to Los Angeles, the Sparks are getting far younger this offseason. As the other three lottery teams (the Indiana Fever, Phoenix and Seattle) look to return to the playoffs, the Sparks could be well positioned to finish with the highest odds of winning the 2025 draft lottery thanks to the WNBA’s system using record over the previous two seasons.

The Storm’s willingness to move the No. 4 pick seems to signal that WNBA teams expect at least some of the top draft prospects with an extra year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic will return to college and be part of the 2025 draft. If that’s the case, Los Angeles has a chance to add another young star to this year’s three first-round picks as the core of the next Sparks team.

The clock is already ticking, however. Los Angeles gave up its unprotected 2026 first-round pick in the deal with Seattle, meaning the Sparks will feel urgency to get back to the playoffs in 2025 rather than sending the Storm a lottery pick. — Pelton

Where should Nneka Ogwumike sign? Chiney Ogwumike said Chicago, New York and Seattle are on the short list.

There’s more of an obvious need for Nneka Ogwumike in Seattle, but I lean toward New York because she’ll have a chance to win another title sooner than later. The Liberty have to get better defensively on the perimeter; that was an issue in their WNBA Finals loss to the Aces.

Ogwumike isn’t a guard, but she’s an all-around strong defensive player who could mesh well with Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones and Betnijah Laney. Ogwumike has more than paid her dues with loyalty to the Sparks for 12 seasons. Can she get another championship somewhere? — Voepel

The question with New York is how much Ogwumike is willing to sacrifice in terms of minutes, touches and role. I have a hard time believing a former MVP still playing at a high level would come off the bench, but even if Stewart shifts to small forward, there are still a lot of players deserving touches between her, Jones and Sabrina Ionescu. We saw how difficult that adjustment was for Jones while she was coming back from injury in the first half of last season.

The Storm and Sky are cleaner fits, and Seattle is closer to contention after adding Diggins-Smith. — Pelton

Have the Aces held their ground as the league’s top team?

I think so. They didn’t have a lot of free agency work to do or holes to fill. But retaining Kiah Stokes and bringing in Megan Gustafson are both solid moves at the center position. As long as the Aces stay healthy and motivated, they are the favorites whether or not Candace Parker (who missed the second half of last season because of injury) returns. At this point, Parker is expected to be back, which would make the Aces even more formidable. — Voepel

Agreed. Only a super team built by Ogwumike’s move would have a chance of moving the two-time defending champs out of their position as preseason favorites, and even in that scenario Las Vegas would have a massive advantage in continuity and understanding how everything fits together. — Pelton

Which team made the best moves and additions so far this offseason?

It’s tough to say, mainly because we don’t know where Ogwumike is going. If she goes to Seattle, she and Diggins-Smith represent a strong offseason for a Storm team that needed help for Loyd.

If the Mercury add another standout, along with a key addition in Cloud, that’s huge for a squad that seems really focused on putting last season’s struggles in the rearview mirror.

And you have to say the Dream are willing to make big moves and roll the dice a bit, and it could pay off. — Voepel

It’s a bit quieter, but I like what Minnesota has done adding Alanna Smith and Courtney Williams as free agents from the Chicago Sky and Natisha Hiedeman via trade with the Connecticut Sun. A Lynx team that has been in search of a point guard since Lindsay Whalen retired now has a couple of capable options in Heideman and Williams, while Smith’s versatility fits well in the frontcourt alongside Napheesa Collier and Dorka Juhasz. Until other teams are a bit more complete, I’m going with Minnesota. — Pelton



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