Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve is convinced the WNBA will be OK this summer, even without Diana Taurasi.
“It’s not the first time — and it won’t be the last time — that we’ve had a star player miss a season,” she said.
This time, though, it isn’t an injury or pregnancy keeping out a star.
Taurasi, as big a star as the league has, announced Tuesday she was being paid by her Russian team to forgo the WNBA season to rest her 32-year-old body. A first overall pick by the league out of Connecticut, she helped lead the Phoenix Mercury to three league titles, the third last year.
In the wake of her decision, the big question is whether this might become a trend among the league’s top players, particularly for the Lynx, who have a trio of stars in Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen.
Reeve believes the answer is no, and cites several reasons.
For starters, success in the WNBA is still a prerequisite for players looking for lucrative overseas deals. The WNBA remains the world’s most competitive league for women, which makes it a draw for top players.
And there still is a strong feeling among most players that playing at home is important both for them and the game.
“Players value the balance of earning an income, playing a game they love and also growing the game,” Reeve said. “They have a responsibility to the game. We’re only 17 years young [as a league]. Even though we’re the longest-running women’s league, we’ve seen teams go away. … So it’s very real for us that we have a long way to go. We have a responsibility.”
Still, for top players who have built their reputation, there is a lot of money to be made overseas. Taurasi is getting paid $1.5 million by her club, which is also paying her more than her WNBA salary of $107,000 — the maximum the league cap allows — not to play this summer.
So it’s not unlikely that another star could make the same decision. But not a lot of players will have the option to earn the sort of money Taurasi is making.
As WNBA President Laurel Richie said, there are several stars who aren’t even playing in Europe this year, mentioning Elena Delle Donne, Skylar Diggins, Swin Cash and Tamika Catchings. “They decided to do their training here and explore opportunities and interests outside of basketball,” she said.
Taurasi, again, is a special case. She is one of the most recognizable players in the world. She plays on an Italian passport, which allows her Russian Premier League team — UMMC Ekaterinburg — not to count her against the league-imposed limit on U.S. players, increasing her value.
“There are situations [overseas] where contracts are not paid out; we’ve seen that with our own players,” Reeve said. “And the idea that there is so much money over there and so many jobs is not accurate. The jobs are decreasing. The amount of money, overall, for those jobs is on a decline.”
But what about the Lynx?
Whalen is only playing a halfseason overseas this year; she left after the holidays. Moore plays in China instead of Russia. For a player so conscious of building her brand — and with a lucrative deal with Nike — playing in the U.S. is likely a priority. Augustus, Whalen and Moore all have strong ties to family and friends that should help keep them playing summers in the WNBA.
“I completely understand and respect Diana’s decision to take a season off and rest,” Richie said. “I am very confident the 2015 season will be a terrific one, based on the depth of talent in the league.”
There’s no question Taurasi’s decision will impact the WNBA’s Western Conference. Taurasi finished second to Moore in MVP voting last year, and was the MVP of the WNBA Finals. It was the Mercury that prevented the Lynx from advancing to a fourth consecutive league championship series.
The Lynx will be healthier than last year. The Mercury will return four starters from the title team, including center Brittney Griner.
“It would be naïve to say it wouldn’t impact them,” Reeve said. “That it won’t be challenging for them to be as successful as they were last year. That’s a statement of how good Taurasi was, particularly last year. It will be wide open. … We’re confident in who we are. But we also know it’s going to be hard.”
The Lynx on Wednesday signed former 2012 second-round pick Nika Baric, a 5-7 guard from Slovenia. She is averaging 11.2 points and 3.5 assists this season in the Russian league.