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Tanking, Coring, and Getting Paid: A proposal for increasing free agent movement while keeping talent in small market teams

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There has been much debate here at Swish Appeal about whether teams like the Seattle Storm and Washington Mystics should try to build contenders through acquiring veterans in free agency, or by tanking* for draft picks.

While many (understandably) find constructing a team to lose to be distasteful, it's also true that the last five WNBA championships have come on the backs of homegrown superstars:

  • 2009: Phoenix with Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter
  • 2010: Seattle with Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson
  • 2011: Minnesota with Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus
  • 2012: Indiana with Tamika Catchings
  • 2013: Minnesota with Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus
  • 2014: Phoenix with Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner

Take home message: You need two superstars to win a WNBA championship (or one if it's Tamika Catchings.) It's worth noting that the runner-ups in each of these years all had one or two superstars as well.

So how do you get a superstar? All of the last five WNBA champions have gotten their superstar by drafting them. Of the 11 players named to All-WNBA First or Second team in 2014, 9 are still playing for the team that drafted them. The two not playing for the teams that drafted them are Tina Charles, who infamously forced a trade to New York in 2014, and Lindsey Whalen, in what at the time was lauded as a rare everyone-benefits star-for-star swap.**

One of the major factors contributing to lack of star free agent movement is "Coring," which allows WNBA teams to designate a single player who cannot negotiate with other teams. Teams can't do this to a player indefinitely, but between rookie contracts, restricted free agency, and coring, teams can hold onto their stars for a large part of their primes. The justification for coring is that it protects small market teams: If Skylar Diggins wants to leave the Tulsa Shock after her rookie contract is over in 2016, she will have to force her way out Tina Charles-style.*** Small market teams losing the talent they draft is a legitimate concern: WNBA franchises-particularly those in small markets-are vulnerable, and we do need to protect them.

How do we increase superstar player movement while still protecting small market teams? Abolish coring and double the veteran maximum salary.

The veteran maximum salary has come under discussion lately after Diana Taurasi's Russian team offered to pay her essentially the equivalent of her WNBA salary to sit the season out. Kate Fagan at ESPN pointed out that there are forty WNBA players making either the maximum or near-maximum deals. That's over three max or near-max players per team. Leaving aside for a moment that some players are overpaid while others are underpaid, that means the 40th best veteran free agent in the league makes the same amount of money as players like Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker. Fagan suggested doubling the max contract for purposes of dissuading players like Taurasi from taking the summer off. But increasing the max contract would have another effect: It would give small market teams like Tulsa something to offer All-WNBA Team-quality players that other teams couldn't. If, as Fagan suggests, teams can only afford one maximum contract (or near-maximum-contract) player, while the overall WNBA salary cap remains the same, the top 12 or so unrestricted free agents will likely spread themselves out across the league's 12 teams.

This creates a league where 1) Teams can build championship contenders through free agency. Tanking is no longer the only realistic path to being elite. 2) Small market teams (and by extension the stability of the league) are still somewhat protected, given that the large market teams can only afford one max player at a time.

Caveat the First: I am hopelessly, shamelessly pro-player movement. I realize this is probably not a universal, but as a fan I think it would make the league more exciting. I also think we need to give WNBA teams more than one way to build a contender. So as you probably noticed, more player movement being a good thing is an underlying assumption of this proposal.

Caveat the Second: I'm working off of the assumption that the majority of players won't choose to be underpaid to play on a stacked team/a large market. I think this is a fair assumption both because they don't do that now (Diana Taurasi could play for the vet minimum and have an extra stacked team around her, but she doesn't). WNBA players such as Maya Moore and Britney Griner make around $600,000 a year in China. Assuming that's typical overseas pay for a player of their caliber, I think the possibility of getting paid $200,000 a year for their summer job would be enough to persuade them to play for small market teams if those were the only teams able to pay them the max.

* Here defined as more-or-less Leonsis ten-point plan-style rebuilding.

** Also a fan-friendly trade that sent both Whalen and Montgomery back to their college towns, which probably helped.

*** This year, cored players are Candace Parker, DeWanna Bonner, Sylvia Fowles, and Erika DeSouza. Take a minute to think about what the WNBA offseason would be like if Parker and Fowles were fielding offers from other teams.