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Reevaluating under-the-radar offseason additions for the WNBA’s top teams

With little activity expected in anticipation of next week’s trade deadline, let’s revisit the less-heralded but potentially playoff-pivotal offseason moves made by the Aces, Liberty and Sun.

New York Liberty v Las Vegas Aces
Don’t be surprised if Alysha Clark drains a key bucket for the Aces during their chase for a second-straight championship.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The WNBA trade deadline is one week away. But don’t expect to be enraptured by transactional tick tock.

Unless the Skylar Diggins-Smith scuttlebutt shared by B. Terrell materializes into a league-shaking blockbuster, significant activity — if any activity — is unlikely.

Last season featured no deadline deals. So far, only one trade has been completed this season, with the Indiana Fever sending Queen Egbo to the Washington Mystics in exchange for Amanda Zahui B. The league’s hard salary cap, in combination with roster limitations, works to inhibit in-season activity.

This reality places extra importance on the team-building transactions that take place in the offseason. Thus, we saw several teams make headline-stealing swings, highlighted by the New York Liberty trading for Jonquel Jones before signing free agents Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot. Eyes also widened when Candace Parker chose to take her talents to Las Vegas to play for the Aces.

Those moves were clear declarations of championship-chasing aspirations.

However, hoop heads know that role players, whose acquisitions are less celebrated, often prove pivotal to capturing a championship. Since contenders are unlikely to make a deadline trade for such a contributor, let’s look back at few of the less-heralded offseason additions, spotlighting three players who just might be key to their team winning a(nother) ring.

Las Vegas Aces: Alysha Clark

With the Aces’ excess of talent, the signing the free-agent Clark originally seemed like an unnecessary luxury.

However, recent developments suggest she could be critical to a second-straight title. With Candace Parker out indefinitely due to a foot injury and the return of the Riquna Williams, out all season with a back injury, out of the question because of her legal situation, the Aces have lost playoff-caliber depth.

Enter Clark, a vet with title-winning experience whose 3-and-D skillset has fit seamlessly with the defending champs.

On offense, she often is parked in the left corner, remaining ready to fire away as she provides spacing for her teammates’ offensive creation. From that left corner, Clark converts better than 45 percent of her 3-point attempts. Although she is stationed on the right side less frequently, she also is nails from that corner, making almost 43 percent of her 3s. While playing with multiple All-Stars makes things easier for Clark, she also makes things easier for them.

Overall, Clark is shooting 39.5 percent on a career-high seven 3-point attempts per 100 possessions.

On the other end of the floor, she might have lost some of the quickness she possessed at the peak of her defensive prowess with the Seattle Storm, but she retains a combination of intelligence and physicality that makes her far from a liability.

New York Liberty: Kayla Thornton

The optimization of the Liberty’s stars has been a steady, season-long process.

Within this coming together, Thornton has gotten a bit lost in the shuffle. Acquired from Dallas as part of the three-team blockbuster that brought Jonquel Jones to Brooklyn, Thornton seemed like the perfect role player for the star-studded Liberty — someone ready and wiling to do the defensive dirty work.

Yet, she has not had the opportunity to show her stuff. Not only is she averaging 17.5 minutes per game, her fewest since 2017, but her time on the court also has decreased over the course of the season. But maybe her moment is coming?

If the Liberty fail to advance to the WNBA Finals for an anticipated showdown with the Aces, their defense likely will be the culprit. New York is a middle-of-the-pack defensive team that fails to threaten opponents with turnover-inducing activity.

The physical Thornton can help address these ills. Among team members who have played in at least half the games, Thornton most improves the Liberty’s defensive rating. 101.1 overall, it drops to 92.5 when Thornton is on the court. The points New York gives up in transition, off second chances and in the paint also all decrease when she gets the opportunity to flex her defensive muscles.

The other end of the floor does raise concerns. As Thornton is a low-usage, limited offensive player, opposing defenders often do not guard her closely, causing her presence to cramp the court for the Liberty’s offensive orchestrators. New York’s offensive rating plummets from 107.8 to 99.5 when Thornton is playing.

But Thornton is not totally incapable on offense, and she has proven that she is unafraid of the playoff stage. Last postseason, when the Dallas Wings stole a game from the Connecticut Sun in their first-round series, Thornton took six 3-pointers and made four of them on her way to 20 points. She also added four assists.

Connecticut Sun: Rebecca Allen

After the season-ending injury to Brionna Jones, head coach Stephanie White inserted Allen, who arrived in Uncasville as part of the Jonquel Jones exchange, into the starting lineup.

Instantly, it was easy to imagine Allen, then shooting better than 43 percent from 3, juicing the Sun’s offense by serving as a floor spacer. That’s not how things have played out. Since joining the starting group, Allen has hit a cold spell, converting only 27 percent of her 3s.

Yet, the offensive rating for Connecticut’s starting unit still has improved, jumping from 104.0 to 108.3. The increase is a testament to her shooting threat, which will only be supercharged once her 3s start falling again.

On the other side of ball, there’s been a slight slippage; however, the offensive improvement outpaces any defensive drop off, with the Allen-included starting five representing the Sun’s best lineup among combinations with significant minutes.

As a starter, Allen also has increasingly shown why she is nicknamed “Spida,” snaring more steals and swats in her long-armed web. Per 100 possessions, she is averaging 2.2 steals and 4.1 blocks. Although her blocks number is admittedly inflated by her six swats in a recent win over the Atlanta Dream, her starting stats highlight how she can accelerate the active, aggressive ethos of the Sun defense.

In a vacuum, Brionna Jones, a two-time All-Star who, if not for her injury, likely would have earned a third selection this season, is a better player, and Connecticut has achieved notable playoff success with her. However, it is possible that Allen’s skillset better complements the best version of the Sun — a high-activity team that can turn a stop into a score in a flash — and makes them more dangerous in the postseason.

Stats collected from and current as of July 29.