All-WNBA center Liz Cambage has requested a trade from the Dallas Wings, per a Tuesday report by Rachel Galligan of WNBA Insidr and Hero Sports.
Let’s dive into what the request means for the Wings, Cambage and the league at large, along with some fake trades that might make some sense given the circumstances.
Cambage returned to the WNBA for the first time since the 2013 season. The 6’8” center did not disappoint, leading the league in scoring an earning All-WNBA honors. But the Wings struggled down the stretch, managing to nab the final playoff spot after losing nine of their final 10 regular season games.
The team parted ways with head coach Fred Williams the day after a reported altercation with team president Greg Bibb. The incident occurred after an August 12 contest in Washington DC, the team’s eighth straight loss at the time.
A tumultuous time for the club quickly reached near-crisis mode days later.
“We’ll see how I’m feeling,” Cambage told ESPN back in August on a potential WNBA return in 2019.
Two names come to mind in recent memory when it comes to frontcourt stars requesting a trade: Sylvia Fowles and Elena Delle Donne. The former sat out, and the situation dragged on into the 2015 season before Fowles was acquired by the Minnesota Lynx in a three-team deal. Delle Donne made her preferred destination known and was dealt to the Washington Mystics prior to the start of the 2017 season.
Cambage is under contract through the 2019 season per the High Post Hoops salary database. Still, the Wings have little reason to think they stand to benefit with time. They will be without All-WNBA point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith for at least part of the upcoming season. She announced in an Instagram post in October that she and her husband are expecting.
As of Tuesday, no report indicates that Cambage has cited any preferred destinations.
If she does, the offers will only get worse.
Throwing out fake trades for Cambage isn’t nearly as fun of an exercise when you consider the numerous variables at play. Unless Cambage indicates she’s willing to commit long-term to her next team, there’s great risk in giving up a star-level player to get her.
The league’s hard cap will be an obstacle to some teams looking to put a package together. I’ve previously projected the 2019 salary cap to come in at $996,100. Many veteran players sign in the $90,000-$110,000 range. Those near-max salaries add up quickly.
The Los Angeles Sparks, for example, would have $742,500 committed for 2019 to their top seven returnees. That estimate may be on the low side. It slots All-Star Chelsea Gray at the max coming off her rookie deal and each of Alana Beard, Essence Carson, Riquna Williams and Odyssey Sims at numbers similar to what they received in 2018.
The Sparks would be left with $253,600 to fill five more roster spots, or $50,720 on average. The veteran minimum salary for 2019 is $56,375.
It’s difficult to build a winner while paying your veterans accordingly. Alana Beard, reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year and only active player capable of making Maya Moore uncomfortable on a basketball court, did not even earn her max last season. The Sparks only carried 11 players for most of last season because of cap concerns. Sims re-upped on a below-market one-year deal, which ultimately made room for Cappie Pondexter.
Hanging on to enough talent to win now
If a team were to send out a bigger salary in a Cambage deal, that player would likely be one that could have helped them win now. Multiple rotation players and/or prospects may be mandatory just to get a seat at the table for the Cambage sweepstakes. Her new team will need to weigh the downside of losing multiple pieces to net the star center.
Star talent is spread evenly because the WNBA is a 12-team league that happens to have its own version of a franchise tag. The core designation can be applied to the same player as many as four different times. Restricted free agency through a player’s fifth season plus four core designations guarantees a franchise at least nine seasons with any star player that they draft.
More than two or three teams will be capable of winning the title in 2019. The defending champion Seattle Storm’s two biggest additions were head coach Dan Hughes and Natasha Howard. Cambage is a better player than Howard, but the Storm did not have to give much up in either case. (Howard was acquired for a 2018 second round pick and a conditional 2019 first round pick swap.)
CBA negotiations looming
Cambage’s status for 2019 has been up in the air. “I’ve said this many times: [The WNBA] doesn’t pay my bills … playing here doesn’t pay my bills,” Cambage told ESPN’s Sean Hurd. “We make more money overseas.”
Cambage and her peers are right to command higher salaries. The WNBA is the best women’s basketball league in the world, yet its best players are paid more year after year to spend the majority of each year playing for somebody else in another country.
That said, her next team has to wonder if she’ll waver on 2020 and beyond. Atop those concerns are her potential commitments to the Australian national team. Players as recently as 2018 have missed entire WNBA seasons to train and compete with their national teams in preparation for the World Cup or Olympics.
The WNBPA opted out of its current collective bargaining agreement (CBA), meaning it will terminate at the conclusion of the 2019 league year. Changes to the new CBA may affect the salary cap and freedom of movement for the league’s top stars.
The 2020 free agent pool could in turn be rich with more star talent than we’ve seen in any previous offseason. Teams hoarding cap space will need to weigh the potential of what they could land then as they piece together potential offers to go get Cambage right now.
Searching for suitors
Connecticut, Minnesota, Phoenix and Los Angeles already have stars at the position. Somebody at the core of what has made those teams (along with Seattle or Washington) competitive would either need to be in the deal or fade into the background to a certain degree.
That’s half the league. None of them should be ruled out, but without a long-term commitment, it’s difficult to see an overwhelming reason for any of those six to throw any of their best chips on the table.
2019 lottery teams
New York cored Tina Charles, who’s entering her age 30 season. The Liberty need a second star to do some of the heavy lifting for them to compete at the highest level. Kia Nurse and the No. 2 overall pick would be an appealing offer. Should they be willing to ship out their best young player and the means to draft another? If they bring everybody back and some of their veteran guards return to form, you can begin to see the outlines of a winner.
Chicago is currently balancing two timelines between their backcourt stars (Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley) and their recent draftees (including 2018 lottery picks Diamond DeShields and Gabby Williams) with an owner dead-set on getting back to the playoffs. They cored Vandersloot and Quigley is an unrestricted free agent. A team can’t trade a player with DeShields’ ceiling for anything less than a sure thing. Coach/GM James Wade does hold the No. 4 overall pick. That and some of their bench pieces might get close, especially if another lottery pick isn’t on the table.
Indiana holds the No. 3 overall pick and has 2018 first round picks Kelsey Mitchell and Victoria Vivians as its three biggest assets. Candice Dupree still adds value, but there’s too much positional overlap there with younger Wings players, namely Azura Stevens and Kayla Thornton. Dealing the lottery pick and one of its youngsters would leave the cupboard too bare for the Fever to load up for a serious playoff run this year.
One piece away?
Atlanta quickly established an identity around their defense and the ability of Tiffany Hayes and Angel McCoughtry to wreak havoc at the rim. They already have one big ‘if’ at play with McCoughtry’s timetable as she works her way back from an ACL tear suffered back in August. The Dream don’t have a back to basket scoring presence, something that would certainly diversify and boost their offense in a big way. Hayes feels like too big of an ask for a player that has requested a trade. Would an Atlanta offer of Elizabeth Williams, Brittney Sykes and a first round pick be competitive with what else is out there?
That leaves Las Vegas and Bill Laimbeer, sitting on the franchise’s third No. 1 overall pick in as many years. The thought of A’ja Wilson paired with Cambage is tantalizing. That’d give Laimbeer two players that can draw double teams on command. Both can put the ball on the floor, mitigating the age-old concerns that bigs can’t enter the ball to themselves. Getting it to them a stone’s throw from an elbow would do in a pinch.
2018 All-Star Kayla McBride may have another leap in her with the presence of another premier scoring threat in the starting lineup. The No. 1 pick plus a point guard—Moriah Jefferson or Kelsey Plum—would have to rank quite high on the list of potential offers. Jefferson returned from injury to play 16 games in 2018. She and Plum logged just 94 minutes together per Positive Residual. Plum’s shooting would make her a nice running mate with Skylar Diggins-Smith.
Laimbeer’s read on this year’s draft class and the likelihood of any Cambage deal happening before draft night would be key. If he’s all in on Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, her decision to declare early or stay in school could determine the availability of that pick.
The Aces’ ownership group, MGM Resorts, would certainly have the means to make an appealing pitch for Cambage to play in Vegas for many years to come. MGM flexed the willingness and general infrastructure to market the team and their players in the club’s initial season out west.
Wilson and Cambage are stars in every sense of the word. If Laimbeer finds a deal, that pairing would elevate another team into championship contention and give the Aces extra pull in their efforts to draw in new fans in their second season in Vegas.