What do the 2023 WNBA offseason’s biggest deals mean for the league this season and beyond?
Starting with the trade sending 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones from the Connecticut Sun to the New York Liberty with a third team (the Dallas Wings) involved, we’re seeing blockbuster moves that alter the balance of power in the WNBA.
For the first time, ESPN grades the biggest deals, breaking down the implications in terms of the league’s hard salary cap and teams building out their 2023 rosters.
Which teams got the best deals to set themselves up for success? And which others might have missed out on better opportunities? Check out our analysis.
Atlanta Dream get:
F/G Allisha Gray
Dallas Wings get:
2023 No. 3 pick
2025 Atlanta first-round pick
Atlanta Dream: B-
Dealing for Gray is an aggressive move for the Dream as they build back toward the playoffs after four seasons spent in the lottery. The most recent of those, the first year for new Atlanta leadership in GM Dan Padover and coach Tanisha Wright, saw dramatic improvement. The Dream won the equivalent of five more games, accounting for the schedule increase to 36 games, and missed the playoffs by just one win.
In the long term, returning to the lottery might not have been so bad for Atlanta. It gave the Dream the No. 3 pick, two spots higher than they would have selected had they reached the postseason. That’s the centerpiece of this deal, which also takes advantage of a WNBA rule change allowing teams to trade picks two years into the future. Previously, they were limited to dealing picks from this year and the next.
Adding Gray, who could easily have been an All-Star last season while averaging a career-high 13.3 PPG, accelerates Atlanta’s building process. Because Gray is capable of creating with the ball in her hands and is a dangerous spot-up threat (a career-high 41% from 3 last season; 38% over the last four years), she’ll fit well on the wing alongside 2022 Rookie of the Year Rhyne Howard.
Add in point guard Aari McDonald, who improved dramatically in her second season under Wright’s tutelage, and the Dream hope they have their perimeter trio for years to come. Cheyenne Parker was a solid starting center for Atlanta, leaving only power forward as a key need the Dream will look to fill in free agency. Add in the No. 8 pick, which Atlanta still has, and some veteran additions, and the bench should be playoff-caliber as well.
Gray’s modest salary ($169,600 salary, per HerHoopStats.com) will help the Dream continue shopping. Even after adding Gray and veteran guard Danielle Robinson via trade, Atlanta still has nearly $700,000 in remaining cap space.
At the same time, Gray’s salary affects the risk of giving up a top pick for a player heading into a contract year. Gray is eligible for an extension, but because the maximum possible 20% raise off her salary is still a few thousand below next year’s standard maximum salary, she might be better off waiting for free agency next offseason.
Dealing the No. 3 pick for a rental would be a tough pill to swallow, especially with an additional pick headed to the Wings in 2025. Atlanta is surely hoping that Gray will still be part of the core by then, while McDonald and Howard will be entering their prime, making the Dream contenders — and that pick a late one in the first round.
Dallas Wings: B
From a value standpoint, this deal looks pretty good for the Wings. The No. 3 pick should yield one of the prospects in this year’s top tier, a player who will be on a bargain rookie contract for the next four seasons. I’d consider this far more of a premium pick than when Dallas acquired the No. 1 overall selection in the weak 2021 class.
With Aliyah Boston certain to be the No. 1 pick if she enters the draft as expected, the Wings are probably looking at one of Maryland’s Diamond Miller, Stanford’s Haley Jones or Tennessee’s Rickea Jackson, projected in the top four in M.A. Voepel’s post-lottery mock draft. Any of the three would address the void at forward left by Dallas trading both Gray and Kayla Thornton in the past week.
Cycling in another rookie contract will help the Wings as their recent draft picks graduate off them and earn higher salaries. Arike Ogunbowale begins a supermax extension this season, while Satou Sabally will be eligible to sign an extension prior to the last year of her rookie deal. An extra first-rounder will also be helpful in 2025.
Still, dealing away another player in her prime has to be frustrating for Dallas fans. Gray follows Liz Cambage and Skylar Diggins-Smith away from the Wings, and the timing is especially tough after the franchise’s first .500 finish since 2015. Adding Natasha Howard in last week’s three-team deal eases the blow a bit, and adding Howard’s salary is easier without Gray on the books, but Howard is three years older.
Following those deals, Dallas still has work to do. Guard Marina Mabrey and center Teaira McCowan will be in demand as restricted free agents this offseason. If the Wings intend to roster both of this year’s first-round picks (No. 3 and No. 11), that leaves about $350,000 in cap space to re-sign Mabrey and McCowan or replace them in free agency.
Although the Sun didn’t get another All-Star player in return, completing the deal now will allow Connecticut to use the core spot — previously occupied by Jones — to keep unrestricted free agent Brionna Jones, as ESPN’s Alexa Philippou reported they plan to do.
The Liberty have landed a superstar interior player to pair with budding star guard Sabrina Ionescu. Remarkably, this deal not only gives New York at least two rotation players but also additional cap space, meaning it’s still possible for the Liberty to pursue fellow MVP Breanna Stewart in unrestricted free agency.
Two years after Natasha Howard went to New York in a sign-and-trade deal as the Seattle Storm‘s core player, she’s on the move again, headed to Dallas. Just how Howard fits in with the Wings remains to be seen based on their other offseason moves, but for now this looks like an opportunistic move for Dallas.
Dallas Wings get:
G Crystal Dangerfield, F/C Natasha Howard (from Liberty)
New York Liberty get:
F/C Jonquel Jones (from Sun)
F Kayla Thornton (from Wings)
From the Liberty’s perspective, we can sort of think of this as two separate trades. First, New York dealt Howard, Crystal Dangerfield and the No. 6 pick in this year’s WNBA draft for Jones. Second, the Liberty also swapped Rebecca Allen for Kayla Thornton.
The Howard-Jones swap is unambiguously an enormous win for New York. After she was limited to 13 games in her first season with the Liberty, Howard was an All-Star last year. But she has scored with average efficiency during her three seasons as a go-to scorer, including a .551 true shooting percentage (TS%) in 2022, when the league average was .541.
By contrast, Jones has proved capable of combining efficiency with high-volume scoring. During her 2021 MVP campaign, Jones posted a .614 TS% while finishing 27% of Connecticut’s plays with a shot, trip to the free throw line or turnover. That stayed at .615 last season, when Jones’ usage rate dipped to 24% with the return of Alyssa Thomas to the Sun’s lineup.
An All-Defensive first team pick in 2021 and second team last season, Jones is, at worst, in the same ballpark as Howard, who was voted Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 but wasn’t able to lift the Liberty’s defense above seventh last season. (Connecticut, by contrast, had the WNBA’s second-best defensive rating.)
Looking forward, Jones — who turned 29 earlier this month — is more than two years younger than Howard, making her a better long-term option. Add it up, and any team would happily make that swap.
The undercard is interesting in its own right. Allen has been a good role player in New York, combining above-average 3-point shooting (37% career despite last season’s 31% accuracy) with solid perimeter defense. At 32% career shooting beyond the arc, Thornton offers a slight shooting downgrade in favor of more toughness.
Perhaps most importantly, Thornton’s $109,716 salary (all salaries per HerHoopStats.com) is about $27,000 less than what Allen will make in 2023. Since Jones took less than the supermax to re-sign with the Sun as a core player last offseason, New York also saves more than $16,000 on that swap. So the Liberty’s cap space has increased to more than $300,000 with this deal.
With a minimum of three roster spots to fill, the Liberty could sign a player for the max and still have about $160,000 to offer another free agent. New York doesn’t yet qualify as a superteam with Ionescu and Jones, but stay tuned on that front.
The moves did cost the Liberty Dangerfield, whose arrival helped turn around their 2022 season by moving Ionescu to an off-ball role. Still, Dangerfield’s own performance in New York was unspectacular. Her .490 TS% was poor for a player with a small 13% usage rate. The Liberty could look to find another point guard in free agency or hope Ionescu is more comfortable handling that role with more talent around her.
Trading star players for equivalent value is always a challenge in the WNBA because teams need them much more than stars need the league. We’ve already seen Jones opt out of the 2020 Wubble season, so sitting out if she was dealt to an undesirable destination was a credible threat. Rachel Galligan reported Connecticut allowed Jones to meet with teams and she picked New York.
Additionally, the Sun needed to save money in this deal to create cap room if they wanted to use the core designation on Brionna Jones — who assuredly would have drawn max offers elsewhere as the No. 2 free agent after Stewart by my projections.
Those caveats noted, this return still seems disappointing in contrast to past star trades. Connecticut doesn’t end up with either of the two best players in this trade — those being Howard and Jonquel Jones. And the Sun end up with only one draft pick in the middle of the first round.
On the plus side, Connecticut should be deeper than in years past. The Sun previously had just one first-round pick on a rookie contract (2022 selection Nia Clouden) and can now add two first-rounders to the mix, having already held the No. 10 pick.
How well Tyasha Harris fits in Connecticut is a key wild card. The No. 7 overall pick in 2020, Harris never emerged as a starter in Dallas and showed little statistical improvement after a solid rookie campaign. On a Sun team that was starved for playmaking from the point after Jasmine Thomas‘ ACL tear, Harris’ 6.5 assists per 36 minutes could be helpful. Alyssa Thomas was the only Connecticut player to average more.
Ultimately, this looks like a step back for Connecticut. Granting Brionna Jones has improved since then, we saw how a team starting her, DeWanna Bonner and Alyssa Thomas looked in the bubble. The Sun went 10-12 in that regular season before pulling a pair of upsets to reach the semifinals. Connecticut might be a deeper and more modern WNBA team in 2023 with Allen supplying more shooting. Yet, it’s still unlikely the Sun will be better in the short or long term without Jonquel Jones.
Dallas Wings: A-
Amusingly, this is the second time the Wings have jumped into a multiteam trade involving Natasha Howard and the Liberty. Two years ago, they got the No. 1 pick from New York via Seattle. This time, Dallas is landing Howard in exchange for role players.
Kayla Thornton will be missed, particularly if the Wings ultimately trade starting small forward Allisha Gray. But going from Thornton to Howard is an upgrade, possibly a big one if Dallas sees moving Tyasha Harris‘ $83,194 guaranteed salary as a positive.
Given new Wings head coach Latricia Trammell’s preference for versatile defenders, Howard looks like a fit. The interesting question is where Howard, who has played both power forward and center, slides into the Dallas lineup. Both Wings centers, Isabelle Harrison and Teaira McCowan, are free agents. (McCowan is restricted, meaning Dallas can match any offer to her.)
At 6-foot-2, Howard is undersized for a center, but that’s where she started in Seattle when Stewart was healthy, and the Wings could similarly put size next to her with 6-4 Satou Sabally. So we’ll see whether Dallas brings back either of its incumbent centers, who are less capable of defending on the perimeter than Howard.
There’s still plenty more to shake out from the Wings’ offseason, including another key restricted free agent (starting guard Marina Mabrey) and the possible Gray trade. For now, Dallas seems to be starting free agency in a more favorable position with Howard’s addition.