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WNBA Offseason: Which Players Could Impact the 2023 Championship Odds?

Nneka Ogwumike

Nneka Ogwumike

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With the WNBA season at a close, the Las Vegas Aces have been crowned the WNBA Champions. The Aces will bring all five members of the core back for next season and opened as the +200 favorites to repeat, but some other contenders could look vastly different by the time 2023 rolls around. While the action and player movement won’t start until January, it’s never too early to look ahead and see which players could impact the futures market odds with a change of scenery this offseason. I picked five free agents who could swing the odds based on their respective landing spots, plus some other players who could move the market and should be monitored.

Breanna Stewart

While Breanna Stewart didn’t add any new hardware to her extensive collection of accolades this season, she was a worthy MVP candidate who faced off against another generational talent in A’ja Wilson. Following the first postseason series loss of her career, Stewie, one of the two best players in the world, will be hungrier than ever to capture another title and will hit free agency this offseason.

Stewart tied her career high with 21.8 points per game this season and led the W in scoring by more than 1.5 points per game. She reached another level in the postseason, with an average of 27 points per game and a 42-point game in her most recent performance, but Seattle still lost in a closeout matchup against the Aces.

With Sue Bird set to retire and various other Storm players up for new deals, there is plenty of chatter in WNBA circles about Stewart taking her talents elsewhere in the offseason. Seattle is listed with the third-best championship odds for next season (+500) but the Storm’s title chances would plummet if the 2022 MVP runner-up leaves as a free agent. The New York Liberty hosted Stewart for a meeting last offseason and a core of Stewart, Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney would vault the Liberty into championship contention from the team’s current +1700 price. No matter where Stewart ends up, the market is bound to move in favor of whichever team she chooses.

Nneka Ogwumike

Nneka averaged the second-most points in the paint per game in 2022 and can score from all over the floor. The former MVP hit 73% of her shots from the restricted area while knocking down more than 40% of her mid-range attempts this season.

In case getting an MVP candidate isn’t enough for potential suitors, there may be a “sign an Ogwumike and get one free” deal in free agency as her older sister, Chiney Ogwumike, told reporters following the season that she’s a package deal with Nneka. Chiney ranked in the top-10 for rebounding rate and is still among the top rebounders in the league.

Los Angeles opened with the second-worst championship odds for next season but bringing back Ogwumike and other free agents could improve those odds despite the Sparks not owning a first-round pick. If Ogwumike decides to leave LA to pursue another title, she’d instantly become one of the most coveted free agents on the market.

Brittney Sykes

The All-Defensive Team guard showed an impressive leap on offense this season as she posted her highest points average since her rookie season. Sykes also set a career-high with 3.7 assists per game and totaled the W’s 15th-most assists at the rim this year. The most impressive part of Sykes’s game is how she’s able to use her defensive prowess to generate easy offense for herself and teammates.

Sykes led the league in steals per game for a second consecutive season and ranked in the 96th percentile for transition frequency. The LA defense allowed an additional 5.4 points per 100 possessions with Sykes off the court as she was the leader of that unit. While the Sparks have the second-most cap space in the league this offseason, Sykes could end up signing elsewhere to fortify the defense of a championship contender.

Graphic showing room under salary cap of each WNBA team entering the 2023 offseason, with data from Her Hoop Stats

Graphic showing room under salary cap of each WNBA team entering the 2023 offseason, with data from Her Hoop Stats

Bri Jones

The Sixth Player of the Year won the award with 53 of the 56 available first-place votes and far exceeded the production of any other bench player in the league. Jones emerged as one of the W’s most dominant scorers from close range this season as she and Sylvia Fowles were the only players to average at least four buckets per game from the restricted area. Among the 66 players with at least 100 offensive possessions this season, Jones ranked second in efficiency and also placed in the top-five for free throw rate according to Synergy. Jones scored points on 55.8% of the offensive possessions she used this season, which led all qualified players.

WNBA 2022 leaders in Field Goals Made by Zone:  Data via  Chart by Jake Wolf  At the Rim: Brionna Jones, Sylvia Fowles, Alyssa Thomas  In the Paint (Non-RA): Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson, Nneka Ogwumike  Mid-Range: Courtney Williams, Chelsea Gray, Aerial Powers  Corner Three: Azura Stevens, Shey Peddy   Above-the-Break Three: Kelsey Plum, Diana Taurasi, Rhyne Howard, Sabrina Ionescu, Arike Ogunbowale

WNBA 2022 leaders in Field Goals Made by Zone: Data via Chart by Jake Wolf At the Rim: Brionna Jones, Sylvia Fowles, Alyssa Thomas In the Paint (Non-RA): Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson, Nneka Ogwumike Mid-Range: Courtney Williams, Chelsea Gray, Aerial Powers Corner Three: Azura Stevens, Shey Peddy Above-the-Break Three: Kelsey Plum, Diana Taurasi, Rhyne Howard, Sabrina Ionescu, Arike Ogunbowale

Connecticut opened with the second-best odds to win the 2023 WNBA Championship but the Sun could drop significantly if Jones departs in free agency. The Team USA member could command a contract elsewhere if a team offers her more money and a starting role. Only three teams will enter the offseason with less cap space than the Sun according to Her Hoop Stats and both of Connecticut’s starting guards need new contracts as well. Courtney Williams led the league in total points from mid-range during the regular season and is among the best rebounding guards in the W, while Natisha Hiedeman gives the team some much-needed shooting from outside. That could prevent Connecticut from retaining the All-Star center and Jones would be an impactful addition anywhere she lands.

The Chicago Sky

The Chicago Sky looked unstoppable at points during the regular season as the team posted a league-best +28 net rating in the clutch and tied Las Vegas for the top record in the WNBA. The 2021 WNBA Champions would be a steal at the current +550 championship odds if there was more clarity on the team’s 2023 roster. Almost all of the team’s core players are set to hit free agency, and there’s a chance Candace Parker or Allie Quigley decide to walk away from the game this offseason. Even if Parker and Quigley decide to come back, Executive of the Year James Wade will need to make some difficult decisions on how to pay so many high-quality players. All-Stars Courtney Vandersloot or Emma Meesseman could leave Chicago to find fair market value, while bench players Azura Stevens and Rebekah Gardner (reserved free agent) may prefer starting gigs with another team.

Ultimately, I expect Wade to put together a contending roster and Parker seems more likely to come back for one more season rather than ending with a semifinals exit. The Sky should be right in the mix for a 2023 WNBA Championship and I expect the odds to be more reflective of that once the regular season begins.

Non-UFA’s to Watch:

Two star players not on the free agency market could still move teams after rumors swirled about these elite guards leading up to the trade deadline. Khristina Williams reported Allisha Gray would likely be moved in the offseason and Gray would be a significant piece if she lands with a contender. Skylar Diggins-Smith also was involved in trade discussions before Phoenix decided to keep the All-Star guard according to Chris Haynes.

Another player who could move the championship odds this offseason hasn’t played a single minute in the WNBA and still has an entire season of college ball left before entering the W. Aliyah Boston has the potential to take the league by storm as she was among the most dominant players in the NCAA last season and led the country in rebounding rate. The South Carolina star is expected to be the first pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft and Boston could be a game-changer for whatever team is lucky enough to win the draft lottery.

Marine Johannes will miss the FIBA World Cup this fall due to injury but hopefully the French guard will be healthy in time for next season. Johannes was among the most electrifying players in the league after joining the Liberty mid-season as she led all qualified players in jump shot efficiency off the dribble. Johannes is one of a few international players who could miss the 2023 WNBA season due to the league’s new prioritization clause, which requires players with at least two years of service to be present in time for the start of training camp, regardless of any international commitments. Gabby Williams expressed concern with the rule following the season and losing the first-time All-Defense selection would be a big blow to Seattle’s roster.

Elena Delle Donne will not be changing teams this offseason, but her health will be a big story this offseason as a fully-healthy Delle Donne could be capable of winning another MVP award and leading the Mystics to contention. Washington could be a value pick at +700 if EDD can return to form.

While I’m excited for all the action this offseason, transactions and signings pale in comparison to the importance of Brittney Griner‘s safe release from Russia. Regardless of her skill on the basketball court, where she’s one of the most talented players in the world, Griner is also a world-class teammate by all accounts and deserves to be home with her family rather than being held in Russia. Griner’s safe release is by far the most impactful move this offseason could bring.

This will be my final article for the NBC Sports EDGE WNBA section. Thank you to everyone who kept up with our WNBA coverage and supported the game all season. For more basketball and betting analysis, follow me on Twitter at @JakeWolf13.