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Phoenix Mercury Salary Cap Situation Worse Than Originally Reported

The Phoenix Mercury want to re-sign free agents Penny Taylor and Cappie Pondexter but doing so will leaving them no money for starting point guard Temeka Johnson or any other veteran players. (Photo by Max Simbron)
The Phoenix Mercury want to re-sign free agents Penny Taylor and Cappie Pondexter but doing so will leaving them no money for starting point guard Temeka Johnson or any other veteran players. (Photo by Max Simbron)

When Swish Appeal spoke with Phoenix Mercury General Manager Ann Meyers-Drysdale in December she indicated that the team would be hard pressed to return it's entire 2009 championship roster due to financial constraints resulting from a $52,000 reduction in this year's salary cap.

We have since learned from league and team sources that the Mercury situation may be worse than originally reported.

The Mercury currently have five players under contract (Taurasi, Smith, Mazzante, Ohdle, and Bonner) with Cappie Pondexter a restricted free agent and Penny Taylor, Le'Coe Willingham and Temeka Johnson unrestricted (according to her representative, the WNBA website incorrectly lists Johnson as a restricted free agent).

Ann Meyers-Drysdale previously indicated that both Pondexter and Taylor would return, "I don't even question that they'll come back. We'll have the salary for them."

The problem Ann faces is with the rest of the roster.

Based on confidential information obtained by Swish Appeal, the total salary for the five players already under contract plus Taylor and Pondexter would leave the team unable to re-sign two of last season's starters let alone any additional veteran players. That would leave the team without Temeka Johnson, Le'Coe Willingham and Ketia Swanier.

The approximately $145,000 left to spend after re-signing Cappie and Penny would barely be enough to fill the four remaining roster spots with un-drafted or late round rookie contracts. According to the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement the 2010 rookie scale ranges from $35,880 for a third round pick to $45,827 for the top four picks in the draft. The minimum for undrafted players with less than two years service is $34,500.

Can a trade be made to free up salary space?

All indications are that the team will attempt to trade one or more of its veteran players to make room for at least Johnson who Meyers-Drysdale previously called a "priority". Johnson is currently playing in France, but her representative said that they are confident "Meek" will return to Phoenix but stated her demeanor is that it's "in God's hands".

Meyers-Drysdale indicated in December that returning the core group was key to winning consistently for a franchise. If the Mercury does retain it's core group of Taurasi, Bonner, Taylor and Pondexter, that leaves three other contracts they might consider moving in order to free up space under the cap.

6'5" Center, Nicole Ohlde would likely be the most easily traded of those three. Her production dipped last season due a reduced role and two unrelated injuries, but in her five previous seasons, Ohlde never missed a game and is a solid post player. With Le'Coe Willingham unlikely to return, Ohlde was specifically named by Meyers-Drysdale as a player the team is counting on to rebound and provide interior defense.

6'4" Center/Forward Tangela Smith is a 12-year WNBA legend who ranks in the top 10 in WNBA history in six categories: points, rebounds, blocks, field goals made, field goals attempted and minutes. For the Mercury she provides a veteran presence who can stretch the floor. Last season she led the league in three-point field goal percentage (.452) and who can forget her two clutch threes at the end of game five of the Mercury's second championship. Smith was healthy all last season and is currently playing overseas and has given no indication that she's ready to hang up her sneakers.

6'0" Guard Kelly Mazzante is the most easily replaced player currently under contract. A three-point specialist, Mazzante only shot 34% from long range last season and in limited minutes did not impress with her defense, ball handling or other court skills. Those issues, of course, also make it unlikely any other team would be willing to take on her contract without additional compensation in the form of future draft picks or other considerations. To make matters worse, Mazzante is under contract for two more seasons with pay increases scheduled for each year.

It is not even clear that a trade would fully resolve the situation as any player moved would have to replaced on the roster so the potential savings is only the gap between the traded player and a minimum contract. Depending on the player moved that savings is estimated at only $30,000 - $60,000.

That might be enough to bring back Johnson and possibly Swanier who the team liked but it wouldn't leave enough for a veteran like Willingham and the team still wants to retain some space under the cap in case of mid-season injuries.

When the league cut the salary cap in a move to help teams save money, it left the Phoenix Mercury in a difficult situation. Even with the extra $52,000 in cap space the Mercury were going to be hard pressed to retain their key players.

Now, we have to wonder if a short-sighted attempt to save a little money could harm the quality of their best and most entertaining team.

The Phoenix Mercury declined the opportunity to comment on the record for this story.


After Thoughts

It remains a mystery to me why salary information in the WNBA is such a closely guarded secret. In the NBA, players' salaries are readily available. That information benefits fans by allowing them to fully understand the workings of their teams and it benefits the league by engaging fans in the process.

At Bright Side of the Sun (SBN's Phoenix Suns site) our most popular months in the past year were last February when trade rumors were heating up and again in July when the combination of possible trades, the draft and free agency combined to deliver the highest traffic month of the year.

Hopefully, the WNBA will come to understand that they have nothing to be ashamed of. The fact that their players are making between $35,000 and $100,000 to play the same game that men are being paid tens of millions for is a selling point for fans, not a detraction.

Are there people out there that will use salary information to "make fun" of the women's sport? Sure. But those knuckleheads (including Bill Simmons) are not going change their minds because they see how much money Becky Hammon makes.

The WNBA should be doing everything in it's power to help their core fans stay engaged in the long off-season. It is a time-tested fact that fans love to understand and dissect roster moves and salary information is a critical component of that.

Time for the folks in New York to stop living in fear of the negative. Be bold. Challenge your critics. And support your fans.


[Note by Seth Pollack, 01/26/10 3:45 PM MST ]

Since this story was published, both the league and Mercury contacted me to let me know that they believe Temeka Johnson to be a Restricted Free Agent as she has less than six years service. The legal department from the league is going to contact Johnson's agent to resolve this issue.

Regardless of her status as a Restricted or Unrestricted Free Agent, Johnson still wouldn't fit under the Mercury's remaining salary cap as reported above. The minimum salary for a player with more than two years service is about $51,000. Neither the team or the league has disputed this information.


[Note by Seth Pollack, 01/27/10 10:30 AM MST ]

Due to a miss-read of the CBA on my part, I believe that Ketia Swanier is not a "veteran" player as mentioned above. I've not been able to confirm these details but it seems that she is still considered under the rookie scale. As the 12th overall pick in 2008, this means she would be slated to earn about $40,000 according to the WNBA CBA.

The difference between the $51,000 I previously thought she would be entitled to and the approximately $40,000 is minimal but at this point, every little bit helps the Mercury.


I can also report that based on information from a reliable source, that Temeka Johnson is close to signing a deal somewhere. A deal could be in place as soon as next week. No word on which team the deal is with although if she is in fact a restricted free agent as the Mercury and league believe, it would either have to be the Mercury or it would be an offer sheet that the Mercury would then either match of decline.

It still seems unlikely that the Mercury would be able to keep Johnson based on the salary situation described above. I could be wrong on that and frankly as someone who follows the Mercury closely, I hope I am.