The WNBA offseason officially kicks off on January 1st, when teams are allowed to begin extending qualifying offers to restricted and reserved free agents. Beginning January 15th said players will be allowed to negotiate longer-term deals with their teams, and on February 1st, the floodgates of free agency fully open.
The Minnesota Lynx enter the 2022 offseason at a crossroads. The team has over $400,000 in cap space and possess two of the top 13 picks (Nos. 8 and 13) in the upcoming draft; Sylvia Fowles and Layshia Clarendon — key members of the 2021 team — are unrestricted free agents; and Napheesa Collier is expected to miss much, if not all, of the next season due to pregnancy and the subsequent recovery.
With that in mind, below are my educated guesses on how the Lynx’s offseason will unfold.
Sylvia Fowles Re-Signs on a Multi-Year, Supermax Deal
Even at age 36, Fowles remains one of if not the best centers in the WNBA. She’s coming off a season in which she ranked in the 94th percentile in the post (1.241 points per possession) and the 91st percentile during transition (1.375 ppp) opportunities, according to Synergy, while being recognized as the 2021 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year. She’s a menace on the glass — on both ends of the court — and is highly respected both by her teammates and the coaching staff.
Simply put, if Fowles wants to return and play at least one more season for the Lynx, head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve will likely hand her a blank check.
Of course, there is a ceiling to how much money Minnesota can offer their former MVP. Due to her years of service in the WNBA, Fowles is eligible to sign a supermax contract with Lynx worth $228,094 this coming summer with 3% increases annually. (Note: She can only sign a maximum contract with other teams, which would be $196,267 in 2022.) She is undoubtedly worth every penny based solely on production, let alone the leadership she provides both on and off the court.
It makes little sense for the Lynx and Fowles not to come to a multi-year agreement if she determines that she wants to participate in the 2022 season. If she retires after the season, her contract becomes void, her salary wiped from the books. If she returns for 2023, well then the Lynx have their starting center spot locked up during an offseason in which Damiris Dantas enters unrestricted free agency and Collier receives a maximum-level contract as a restricted free agent.
From a political perspective, the WNBA Players Association would likely want Fowles to sign for as much money as she can. Doing so sets a precedent for fellow athletes to follow and delivers a message to front offices that they won’t sign for less than their worth (or maximally allowed, in Fowles’ case). While this means little to the fan, signing for maximum value is an important move that helps transition power from the front office/ownership into the hands of the players, which ultimately helps move the league forward.
Predicted Deal: 2-years, $463,030; Both years fully protected
Layshia Clarendon Re-Signs on a Multi-Year Deal Worth At Least $100,000 Annually
One could make the argument that no individual player was more important to the Lynx’s success last season than Clarendon, which is an incredible statement given the presence of Fowles, Collier, and Kayla McBride on the roster.
Minnesota started the season 0-4 before Clarendon made their team debut on May 30, after which the Lynx proceeded to rattle off three straight wins and finished the season with a 22-10 record. They were third on the team in plus/minus at +121, trailing only Collier (+153) and McBride (+122).
Clarendon is a whiz in the pick-and-roll (0.918 ppp; 83rd percentile) and solid in transition (1.105 ppp; 58th percentile), making them a perfect pairing for Fowles and Collier, in particular. They’re also a strong, cerebral defender, which allows them to defend bigger guards more effectively than lead guard contemporary Crystal Dangerfield.
What will be interesting to gauge is how the unrestricted free agent market values someone like Clarendon. They’re not a superstar by any means but have proven to be an athlete who makes good teams better. Clarendon may not elevate the floor — or even the ceiling — of a bad team, but they definitely do for good teams. In the end, I can’t see them signing for anything less than $100,000 annually, and if they do, the team they sign with will be getting an absolute bargain.
Predicted Deal: 2-years, $100,000; At least 2022 protected
Bridget Carleton Re-Signs on a Multi-Year Deal
Carleton will be a reserved free agent beginning on January 1st, which is essentially the same as restricted free agency but for undrafted athletes. Minnesota will undoubtedly extend her a qualifying offer — one year at the league minimum salary — but I could also see them trying to work out a multi-year deal with the former Iowa State Cyclone.
Carleton has been surprisingly valuable for the Lynx over the past two seasons due in large part to her positional versatility, ability to hit 3-pointers at an above-average clip (39.5% for her career), and solid defense. Like Clarendon, Carleton isn’t a superstar and will likely never be. But she is a good bit player who excels in her role with the Lynx and provides much-needed depth.
Predicted Deal: 2-years, Veteran Minimum; Unprotected
Rachel Banham Re-Signs, Jessica Shepard Gets Cut
Bottom line: Banham is a known quantity who can knockdown 3-point field goals, execute in the pick-and-roll, and adopt some lead guard duties, while Shepard has struggled with injuries and is stuck behind Fowles, Collier, Carleton, Dantas, Natalie Achonwa, Aerial Powers, and the newly healthy Rennia Davis on the depth chart.
Unless Fowles retires, the Lynx will likely have to cut to trade away somebody currently on the roster in order to make finances work as Collier’s salary will remain on the team’s books next summer, even if she misses the entire season due to recovering from her pregnancy. Shepard, unfortunately, makes the most sense as her contract is unprotected, she’s buried in the rotation and will make only $60,471 in 2022.
Predicted Deal: 2-years, Veteran Minimum; Unprotected
Lynx Trade Out of the First Two Rounds In Exchange for Future Draft Capital
For starters, if Minnesota’s offseason progresses as outlined above, well, they won’t have the available cap space to sign any of their draft picks or undrafted free agents. (Note: Teams are only allowed to surpass the salary cap if they’re granted a hardship or emergency exception. The Lynx will be eligible for a hardship exception if one player sustains an injury that will sideline them for at least three weeks as Collier will likely be out all season.)
Additionally, the current Lynx roster is built to win now versus later, and, traditionally, rookies don’t perform consistently well enough to influence winning. Minnesota likely views future drafts as containing more value for the franchise, not necessarily because of the talent in the 2022 draft, but rather due to the construction of the current roster. The Lynx only have one athlete — Davis — on the books for the 2024 season and will likely have at least one roster spot available to be filled by a rookie in 2023.
Packaging picks No. 8 and No. 13 for an additional first-round pick in the 2023 draft makes sense for the Lynx, both for the immediate and not-so-immediate futures.