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What is the salary cap situation for each WNBA team heading into free agency?

If they aren’t cored, Tina Charles and Maya Moore will be unrestricted free agents. Even without them, there will be significant player movement.

Tina Charles New York Liberty WNBA
New York Liberty center Tina Charles will be an unrestricted free agent if the front office does not core her on January 15.
Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The WNBA free agency season begins on Jan. 15, when teams can negotiate contracts with free agents and, if necessary, core key players who would otherwise be unrestricted free agents. In past seasons, salary data wasn’t widely available, which made covering the league a bit difficult during this time.

Today, Howard Megdal of High Post Hoops has an updated salary database of all WNBA teams, the salary cap for 2019 and the number of players with cap holds at the present time. This data increases transparency in the league and interest in what WNBA teams may do over the next month.

Free agency FAQ

First, let’s go through the some of the most frequently asked questions regarding WNBA free agency, the core player designation, salary cap and salary amounts.

What types of free agency are there?

There are three types of free agents in the WNBA. The first group is unrestricted free agents. These players generally have over five years of WNBA experience and may sign with any team they want. These players also are not given the core player designation, which will be explained below.

The second group is restricted free agents. Most of these players generally have played four years in the league on a rookie-scale contract and may sign an offer sheet with any team. If a restricted free agent signs an offer sheet with a team that she didn’t play for last season, then her last team may match the offer within four days, which allows them to keep her. First-round picks from the 2015 WNBA Draft class are generally in this category.

Finally, there are reserved players. These players have three years of experience or less and can only negotiate with the team they played on last year. Reserved players are mostly younger and undrafted so they usually don’t play many minutes. It is possible that these players could be signed and released, which make them true free agents.

What is the core player designation?

This is a provision that allows teams to prevent one player who would otherwise be an unrestricted free agent from signing with another team. It can be used up to four times in a player’s career. In exchange for a player being “cored,” she is offered a maximum-level salary for at least one season, though it can be longer. Generally, teams core an All-Star-level player.

What is the WNBA salary cap and the roster limits?

According to Megdal’s database, the WNBA has a hard salary cap of $976,300 for 2019. Every team must have at least 11 players on the roster, but no more than 12.

What is the maximum and minimum WNBA salary for free agents?

According to the WNBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, the maximum one-year salary for a player who is re-signing with her previous team is $117,500 in her first year. If a player signs with another team, the maximum first-year salary is $115,000. The minimum player salary for players with 0-2 years of service is $41,965, and $56,375 for players with three or more years of service.

How much will the rookies make?

All teams have cap room, but should leave some room to sign rookies, including draft picks. Once teams finish signing most of their free agents, each team will try to have at least $50,000 to $100,000 in cap space after free agency to ensure that they have room to sign draft picks. The first through fourth picks in the 2019 WNBA Draft will earn $53,537, the fifth through eighth picks will earn $49,539 and the ninth through 12th picks will earn $44,207. Second round picks will earn $42,570. Third round picks will earn the minimum of $41,965.

Who will be the most sought-after unrestricted free agents in 2019?

The answer to this question depends on which players are cored. Assuming no one is cored, New York Liberty center Tina Charles, Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore, Phoenix Mercury forward DeWanna Bonner, Chicago Sky guard Allie Quigley and Chicago Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot will be the most sought-after free agents.

However, WNBA unrestricted free agent classes usually do not have the amount of star power that NBA free agent classes do because of the core player designation. Therefore, it is unlikely that Charles, Moore and Bonner will be unrestricted free agents. However, at least Vandersloot or Quigley will be. New York Liberty guard Sugar Rodgers will also be an unrestricted free agent, assuming the Liberty core Charles or another player who is expected to be a free agent.

In summary, this free agent class will probably be a bit deeper than a typical year.

WNBA team salary cap analysis

Please note that all the free agents listed are not broken down into the unrestricted, restricted or reserved categories. Also, no players have been cored yet, so it is assumed that every potential free agent is a free agent for the time being.

Atlanta Dream

The Dream have very little room to sign free agents. Atlanta also has most of its salary cap tied into six players who make over $100,000 each. They will have to trade someone to make a significant change to their roster, but it’s unlikely that Atlanta will trade McCoughtry or Hayes.

Chicago Sky

After two consecutive years of missing the playoffs, the Sky have a chance to start a rather clean rebuild if they do not core Quigley or Vandersloot and let both walk in free agency. However, Quigley and Vandersloot are now married and both probably want to stay in Chicago. So if they both re-sign at the maximum level, the Sky should still have the cap room to sign a significant free agent. However, is a core of Quigley, Vandersloot, Dolson and Diamond DeShields attractive enough for a star free agent?

Connecticut Sun

The Sun basically has a full roster and is cap-tied. Like Atlanta, they will have to trade one or more of their younger players on rookie-scale deals to make any significant roster changes. Connecticut’s roster is still very young and they are coming off consecutive 20-win seasons, so it may not be a surprise if they don’t make any major moves during free agency.

Dallas Wings

At a glance, the Wings don’t appear to have much room to re-sign other players besides their own free agents. But Diggins-Smith is pregnant with her first child and Cambage isn’t committed to returning next year (or ever). If both miss all of 2019 and Dallas knows this early in the winter, the Wings could have up to $602,005 in cap space, which would make them major players in free agency. Dallas would be wise to core Johnson instead of Christmas-Kelly this season because of their need to shore up the low post in anticipation of Cambage not returning.

Indiana Fever

The Fever were the worst team in the 2018 season, so it isn’t much of a surprise that they will have plenty of cap room. Shenise Johnson didn’t play last season after suffering an ACL tear in 2017 but it’s doubtful that the Fever will core anyone. The big picture for a team like Indiana isn’t to try to win games immediately, but build around their top younger players right now like Kelsey Mitchell and Victoria Vivians. Indiana will be back in contention sooner than most think. But it’s also important for the Fever not to go after veterans, especially if they get in the way of Mitchell’s and Vivians’ progress.

Las Vegas Aces

  • Total cap holds in 2019: $776,057 to 11 players
  • Cap room: $200,243
  • Players making over $100,000: Kayla McBride ($115,000), Kelsey Bone ($112,000)
  • Notable free agents: Dearica Hamby ($58,569 in 2018)

The Aces have a very young roster and most players, including 2018 Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson, are on rookie scale contracts. On the surface, the Aces don’t have much room to do more than re-sign Hamby and their top draft picks. However, head coach Bill Laimbeer is someone who is quick to trade players as he sees fit. The Aces may not be able to sign players outright, but perhaps a sign-and-trade deal is in the cards.

Los Angeles Sparks

The Sparks are due to retool their roster after a 19-15 season. The biggest decision Los Angeles will have to make is whether to core Alana Beard or Essence Carson. Beard is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, but she is also in her late 30s. Carson, meanwhile, is getting a near-max contract as a reserve. Gray is a restricted free agent, so the Sparks should have little trouble re-signing her. Los Angeles should have enough room to sign one free agent at a near-max salary, but beyond that, they may have to make a trade.

Minnesota Lynx

The Lynx plan to retool after a down 2018 season. Fortunately, they will have enough space to sign a major free agent outright. The first move Minnesota should do is to core Moore. But from there, head coach Cheryl Reeve will have to decide whether to re-sign Augustus and Brunson to a near-max salary. Both are in the twilight of their careers and this team needs reinforcements for the future.

New York Liberty

The good news for the New York Liberty after a 7-27 season is that they have plenty of cap space to start over. However, the 2018 roster is also very similar to the 2017 team that made the second round of the WNBA Playoffs. Tina Charles is the top free agent here and will likely be cored. However, if she is unhappy with the team’s progress, the Liberty could be involved in a major trade later this winter.

Phoenix Mercury

The Mercury have tweaked their roster regularly in recent years and have made significant signings to build around their veteran core of Taurasi, Griner and Bonner. Expect Bonner to be cored once again out of the group of free agents. Also, don’t expect Sancho Lyttle to return due to her ACL injury last season, at least initially.

Seattle Storm

The WNBA’s defending champs have limited cap space, which they will have to save for their rookies next year. On the free agency front, Seattle cored Langhorne last season. However, given that she was replaced with Natasha Howard as the team’s starting center, it’s unlikely that Seattle will core anyone this season, and they won’t have to re-sign Breanna Stewart until next year. But if there’s a player who could be traded away to a team for cap space, it’s Paris, given that she is making a near-max-level salary and was also a reserve last season.

Washington Mystics

The Mystics’ first priority this offseason will be to re-sign Cloud, who will be a restricted free agent. Given her performance last season, Cloud is likely getting a near-max salary, whether from the Mystics outright or as an offer sheet. However, Washington doesn’t have enough cap room to re-sign all of their free agents at their current levels, so expect some of their free agents to go to other teams this winter.