The past few days have been filled with talented players — highly drafted rookies and veterans alike — getting cut from rosters across the WNBA, sparking debate about team salary caps, expansion and more opportunities for development.
The Minnesota Lynx sent shockwaves through the league on Tuesday when they waived six players, including 2020 Rookie of the Year and former UConn women's basketball star Crystal Dangerfield, veteran guard Layshia Clarendon and both of their recent draft picks, Kayla Jones (22nd overall) and Hannah Sjerven (28th overall).
Former UConn Star Evina Westbrook (21st overall) was waived by the Seattle Storm on Wednesday, and the team waived their top draft pick Elissa Cunane (17th overall) earlier in the week. The Las Vegas Aces cut draft picks Mya Hollingshed (eighth overall) and Khayla Pointer (13th overall) as well.
The Connecticut Sun parted ways with Kaila Charles, who had been a solid rotation player for the franchise over the last two seasons. Te'A Cooper being cut by the Sparks was another surprising move, as she averaged 9.1 points per game in 2021. And those are just a few examples.
This was always a difficult league to make, with just 144 women across 12 teams. Now it is even more of an uphill climb to make a roster, with the number of total players in the 130-range as many teams elect to carry less than 12 players to fit under the team salary cap, which is a hard cap that franchises can't go over, unlike many other sports leagues.
The WNBA increased player salaries in accordance with the most recent collective bargaining agreement (CBA), signed in 2020 and set to last eight years, bringing the supermax individual salary from $117,500 in 2019 to $215,000 in 2020, and the minimum for rookies up from $41,965 to $57,000. The team salary cap went from $996,100 in 2019 to $1.3 million in 2020.
Fast forward to 2022 and the highest-paid players in the league — Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi and Jewell Lloyd — make $228,094, the minimum is up to $60,471 and many teams have multiple players with salaries in six figures. The maximum salary increased by 94.1% from 2019 to 2022, but the hard cap has only increased by 38.5% to $1,379,200 during that span, which has been creating issues for teams as they construct their rosters for this season.
Connecticut Sun general manager and head coach Curt Miller told The Hartford Courant on Tuesday that the hard cap had a direct impact on his decision to waive Charles, who would have made a salary of $67,042. Miller has six players — Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones, Alyssa Thomas, DeWanna Bonner, Jasmine Thomas and Courtney Williams — on guaranteed contracts totaling $1,051,900. He only planned to keep 11 players on the Sun roster, so that left him with just $327,300 to spend on five players.
"The underrated part is the hard salary cap," Miller said. "And after your six guaranteed contracts, there's a ton of different combinations of how those other five fit the puzzle pieces of your salary cap. And there were combinations that didn't allow you to keep everybody, there were combinations that included Kaila [Charles] that then would prohibit you from keeping other people. And so you had to play into fact all those combinations that either work together or didn't work together.
"And so what the general public forgets at times, it's not always about the best 11 players, it's the best 11 players that fit under your salary cap. And that is two different statements. The best 11 players aren't always the best 11 that fit under the salary cap. So you have to make tough decisions to fit under a league that has a hard salary cap."
Two-time WNBA Finals MVP and former UConn star Breanna Stewart took to Twitter on Wednesday to raise issues with the hard salary cap, suggesting the league take immediate action.
"I hate seeing so many great players being cut from WNBA teams," Stewart said. "Salaries went up, but a very restrictive hard cap has put teams in a bind. We need to soften it to allow our league to grow. The WNBA needs to adjust ASAP (before the next CBA) to allow teams more flexibility to keep rookies contract players on the roster. Call them practice players and make sure they don't hit the cap. We need to be developing young talent and taking advantage of the momentum newly drafted players bring from the college game.
"We're at a tipping point. Interest in the WNBA is higher than ever. And without some easy tweaks, we are no longer a league that has 12 teams and 144 players — it's more like 133."
Chiney Ogwumike, who serves as vice president of the Women's National Basketball Players Association, also took notice of all of the talented players being cut and had a suggestion on how to fix the issue.
"[The WNBA] could benefit from like a G League, right, like a developmental league," Ogwumike said. "I was just looking at some of the names that have been cut … like high draft picks. In no circumstance should we have a league where top draft picks aren't on a roster."
Between the league's inaugural draft in 1997 and 2021, 42% of players drafted never made a roster, according to a graphic from ESPN that was shown during this year's WNBA draft on April 11.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert was asked about the possibility of a developmental league during the draft.
"We are 25 years in. I would love to be 75 years in and have a very, very great development feeder into our system," Engelbert said. "... We'll look at all that kind of stuff as we get into Phase 2, once we transform the league, get our economic model right, get our current owners in the right place who are working very hard and investing now.
"... But again, we're not there today, and we don't want to burden the current owners or any new owners with a model that's not going to work for them. Because guess what, sports leagues have done that — they've expanded in the hopes that they get the economics right. We're not going to jeopardize the momentum we have and the economic model we're actually building right before our eyes right now positively in order to accelerate anything like that."
There has also been a lot of discussion from players, coaches and media in recent years on league expansion, both in regards to the number of teams and roster size, as an effort to both grow the game and give more opportunities to players as the talent pool continues to increase.
Engelbert said the WNBA is doing a "whole data analytics exercise" to examine metrics of 100 cities to determine which ones might work best for expansion franchises.
"I think it'll be a conversation we'll be having over the course of the season as we get into hopefully having much bigger fan bases, our owners feeling more confident," Engelbert said. "We want to have any new owners coming into the league faced with the potential of a successful franchise.
"We're still building that economic model I've been talking about, but we'll definitely be talking about this more this summer. I know the challenges of the rosters, but I think it just shows the depth and quality of the league. … I wish I could be in a different position to talk about it, but we're going to get there and it's definitely in our future."
For now, though, talented players across the league find themselves without a place to play for the 2022 season.
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