WNBA free agency went next-level in 2023, tossing away the idea of parity and replacing it with a teenager's NBA 2K fever dream. Other teams will be competitive in their own right, but if we're being real with ourselves two teams — at least as currently constructed, barring injuries of course — appear to have the best title chances: the New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces.
The question is which team has the upper hand, and though we won't for sure until the teams play each other in June, let's go through the motions of what we know and what we don't on paper.
Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot have made their announcements known, Jonquel Jones has already had her press conference after her late-January trade, and it feels impossible that the Liberty would part with 2020 No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu. There is no understating how historically good that group can be. All are electrifying scorers and playmakers with shooting range, size and speed.
That's a mighty starting four, but the Aces have a mighty starting five, and then some.
Who that fifth starter is still isn't clear, and it's not because of talent, but rather because of financials. Stewart is going to take a pay cut — to which degree we can only guess for now. We've already seen new Aces acquisition Candace Parker ink a deal at $100,000, which is less than half of her WNBA maximum, to make Vegas' superteam work — and there's a chance Vandersloot does the same. (Liberty fans can thank Fenerbahce, the Turkish EuroLeague team who employs both Stewart and Vandersloot in the winter for what's probably a nice sum of cash.)
Will those cuts be enough to keep presumptive fifth starter and 2021 All-Star Betnijah Laney, a two-way guard who'd be the team's best option against Chelsea Gray should a New York-Las Vegas playoff series come to fruition?
Stacking this collection of talent together is a tight squeeze made even more difficult by the WNBA's hard cap. While wealthy owners in the NBA can pay a "luxury tax" to spend more than the salary cap gives, all W teams are limited to the same spending, which this year amounts to just north of $1.4 million.
Jonquel Jones is signed to the max of $211,150, Laney is set to earn $201,984, Stefanie Dolson $160,000, and Kayla Thornton $109,716, per Her Hoops Stats. That's already half the salary cap in just four players, not including Stewart or Vandersloot or reserved free agents Marine Johannes (an elite shooter) and Han Xu (a 23-year-old, 6-foot-10 center who looked All-Star caliber in spurts last season). Reserved free agents can only negotiate with their prior team, meaning the Liberty get first dibs, and New York should want to retain both players.
Ionescu is in the final year of her rookie contract ($86,701) as is Jocelyn Willoughby ($79,690). Rookie of the Year in 2021, Michaela Onyenwere, and Didi Richards are also signed to unprotected contracts worth $75,407 and $69,053 respectively, meaning they can be cut.
Per ESPN's Holly Rowe on Wednesday, this was an option. And with the Liberty's lack of a formal announcement on social media for Stewart's commitment, one can assume it's a serious one. It may be the only way for the Liberty to make enough room to sign both Stewart and Vandersloot anywhere near their worth.
This option should excite Storm fans, since it means they'd get something for losing Stewart, hopefully including some draft capital. We'll just have to sit and wait on who the Liberty will ship out to make it happen.
By moving Dearica Hamby to the Los Angeles Sparks — a decision that has the former All-Star accusing the franchise of unethical treatment, bullying, manipulation and discrimination — the Aces were able to keep their four best starters from the Finals and slot in Parker as the fifth at a ridiculous discount.
Then they upgraded the bench by adding defensive stalwart Alysha Clark alongside bucket-getter Riquna Williams. (Though they traded for Amanda Zahui B in the Hamby trade, she was subsequently moved to the Washington Mystics in a trade for two second-round picks).
Last year's championship-winning team got unquestionably stronger no matter how the rest of the end of the bench shakes up.
These Aces are deeper than before and anchored by one of the game's best-ever in Parker alongside the reigning Finals MVP, reigning MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, reigning Most Improved Player, and last year's second-leading scorer.
Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young, Candace Parker and A'ja Wilson could be the best starting five to ever touch the court. Hell, four of those players broke league scoring records last year en route to a championship.
The Liberty are a worthy challenger though, and how they're able to manipulate the cap could determine just how tight this rivalry gets.