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Sky, Lynx, Aces and the early winners of WNBA free agency

WNBA free agency doesn’t get official until Feb. 1 when players can begin inking deals. But what’s already been reported could have a big effect on the league’s power structure.

It’s been a gloriously busy week in the WNBA offseason, although no players can actually change teams until Feb. 1.

But thanks to intrepid reporters and a leaguewide growing understanding that stories about the offseason, players and teams alike, are good for everyone, we’ve seen a number of the moves already confirmed.

Accordingly, while there is much we don’t know — the full extent of New York’s plans, who the Indiana Fever will bring in, what Los Angeles can do to compensate for their losses, among many other unresolved issues in the days leading up to contracts getting signed — we can declare some entire-too-early winners, some teams who have managed to secure vital reinforcements, no matter what comes next.

Minnesota Lynx finish their starting 5 in WNBA free agency

We know a pair of new members of the Minnesota Lynx, and they are vital ones: Kayla McBride, most recently of the Las Vegas Aces, and Natalie Achonwa, who’d spent her career with the Indiana Fever.

In McBride, the Lynx got precisely what they needed in a starting lineup that looks set at four other positions. Crystal Dangerfield solidified her spot at point guard as a rookie, a second-round steal. A frontcourt with Sylvia Fowles at the 5, Damiras Dantas as the prototype stretch-4 and Napheesa Collier, a top-10 player in the league capable of playing 3 or 4, gives Cheryl Reeve options.

Now she adds an All-Star-level shooting guard in McBride, a strong 5-foot-11 defender and elite 3-point shooter who can score at all three levels.

That’s before we get to Achonwa, a skilled big with a soft touch from midrange who gives the Lynx yet another look upfront. And with a depth that includes people like Swiss Army knife and 2020 revelation Bridget Carleton and the instant scoring of Odyssey Sims, not to mention guard depth from Lexi Brown and Rachel Banham, this is now a Lynx team prepared to build on last season’s, let’s remember, 14-8 finish. Are they a title contender? It’s hard to see how they won’t be.

Chicago Sky land their hometown hero

Speaking of title contenders, James Wade built most of one, but still didn’t have a consistent 5 presence at the defensive end, with both Cheyenne Parker and Stefanie Dolson more productive offensively, and the young Ruthy Hebard still learning the league. He also needed someone who knew how to win it all, and a go-to scorer who would finish regardless of how many defenders were thrown at her would help, too.

Enter Candace Parker, the icon returning home to Chicago to bring the Sky a title. The drama of it alone is intense, but I’m here for the revision of the Candace Parker narrative, which somehow always seems to focus on what she hasn’t done, instead of the fact that she has done, essentially, everything: winning in college at Tennessee, winning with the Sparks, Rookie of the Year and MVP the moment she arrived in the WNBA. Candace Parker led the league in block percentage two years, assist percentage another year, and finished as high as second in the league in rebounding percentage — last year, at age 34, when she won Defensive Player of the Year honors, too.

Wade has been steadfast from the moment the Sky hired him: he had a playoff team, a championship is the goal. There’s no single move, after two years in the playoffs, that could have gotten him to that last goal faster than adding Candace Parker.

I once asked Mike Thibault how good his Washington Mystics needed to be defensively to win it all. His estimation was the top half of the league, and he’d win a title by being the best offensive team. Chicago was fourth in offensive efficiency last year, eighth defensively. This year, tops in offense and top half in defense is well within reach.

Las Vegas Aces pick up the perfect point guard

The fantasy for years around the league has been, maybe we can add Chelsea Gray. You have, in one player, an excellent 3-point shooter, an impossibly strong penetrator who understands the game’s big moments as well as anyone. (If you’re calling “game”, you should probably call out “Chelsea!”). And now she’s the missing piece of a Las Vegas Aces team that has, it seems, everything else.

To take nothing away from Danielle Robinson, who gave the Aces vital two-way work at the point guard, but the addition of Gray instantly changes the scouting reports on how to handle the Aces. They can move Kelsey Plum off the ball, which is not the optimal use of Plum but is certainly one that helps the Aces win, with Plum a dead-eye shooter from the perimeter. And now that defenses have to account for both Plum and Gray, that creates additional space for the expected return of Liz Cambage to pair as a high-low threat alongside A’ja Wilson. That lineup completes with Angel McCoughtry, strategic ideal small forward, who had her most efficient season in years in a supporting role, Bill Laimbeer pulling exactly what he needed out of her.

It’s simple: the most coveted point guard on the market signed with a team that went 18-4 last year and was already expecting to add Liz Cambage to the roster. Whatever else happens after that, Las Vegas is a winner in free agency.


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