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Why the WNBA salary cap might be the Seattle Storm's most challenging opponent

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Bird hoists WNBA Finals trophy as Storm celebrate 4th championship win (0:34)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert awards the 2020 WNBA Finals trophy to Sue Bird and the Seattle Storm. (0:34)

Behind the WNBA's best starting five and a deep bench, the Seattle Storm weren't really challenged en route to their second championship in three seasons, going 6-0 in the playoffs, with the final five wins by double digits -- including a 33-point victory to close out the Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA Finals.

This offseason, the Storm might find a more challenging foe: the WNBA's $1.34 million salary cap, which could force the team to choose between its starting lineup and veteran experience on the bench. With starters Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard both unrestricted free agents and due for big raises because of their roles in the Storm's success, Seattle's front office will have tricky decisions ahead.

Clark and Howard poised to increase salary

One of the key changes to the WNBA salary cap during negotiations on the new collective bargaining agreement signed ahead of the 2020 season was dramatically increasing the maximum salary for individual players. While the cap grew, too (jumping by 31% from 2019 to 2020), max salaries went up more than 80% for players eligible for the league's "super-max" salary.

Though point guard Sue Bird was one of the players who jumped to the new super-max of $215,000 from her previous salary of $115,500, the Storm were able to afford a deep roster under the 2020 cap because several of their starters were still on contracts signed under the old structure. That changes this offseason, when only Jewell Loyd (due $121,500 in the last year of a rookie extension) will still be under an old-style contract. (Finals MVP Breanna Stewart is also under contract for $190,550, having re-signed last offseason but not yet with enough experience to qualify for the super-max.)

In particular, both Clark and Howard are poised to cash in. Howard was making the old max of $117,000 on a sign-and-trade deal when she joined the Storm prior to the 2018 season. Having since won Defensive Player of the Year and finished fifth in MVP voting in 2019, when she led a Storm team without the injured Bird and Stewart to the second round of the playoffs, Howard is all but certain to command the new, higher max.

So too might Clark, who was previously making less than the old maximum ($85,800) after extending her contract during training camp in 2018. That was before Clark earned recognition as one of the league's top defensive players, which culminated in unanimous selection to the WNBA's All-Defensive first team this season. Clark's efficient offense and versatile defense make her a fit for almost any team.

With Clark and Howard, the Storm's current starting five hasn't been beaten in a playoff series, winning titles in 2018 and 2020. That fivesome posted the best net plus-minus in the WNBA in both 2018 (plus-229, the highest single-season differential for any lineup in league history) and this season (plus-80 in the 11 games Bird played).

The Storm can afford to max out both Clark and Howard presuming one of them takes the smaller max amount, which is the most another team could offer them in free agency. They can even afford to make one of them a core player, which would take them out of the market entirely in exchange for guaranteeing the super-max salary. (Doing so and re-signing either Clark or Howard to a multiyear deal would prevent them from having the option of designating Stewart a core player when she becomes an unrestricted free agent after the 2021 season.) But bringing both back would mean sacrifices elsewhere.

Storm bench likely to look different

The flip side to higher maxes is less money to go around elsewhere. Fitting a starting lineup with four max players under the salary cap -- presuming a return by Bird, who said after Game 3 of the Finals that she wouldn't make a decision on her future until she begins training for the 2021 season and sees how she feels -- would force the Storm to spend far less on their bench.

In 2020, Seattle had three reserves making at least $100,000, per Richard Cohen of HerHoopsStats.com, who provided all the salary data for this piece: guard Epiphanny Prince and forwards Crystal Langhorne and Morgan Tuck. The Storm couldn't afford any in this scenario, which would mean waiving Langhorne and Tuck, whose 2021 salaries are non-guaranteed, according to Cohen. (Prince was on a one-year deal and will again be an unrestricted free agent.)

Given Langhorne and Tuck spent the playoffs out of the team's rotation and Prince was the Storm's fourth guard when Seattle was at full strength, those wouldn't be difficult sacrifices. The Storm might have a more difficult choice with Sami Whitcomb, a restricted free agent who led the team in bench scoring (8.1 points per game) while making the veterans minimum of $68,000. If another team offers Whitcomb a substantial raise, the Storm wouldn't likely be able to match the offer.

One WNBA team executive speculated that Whitcomb could be in line for an offer sheet starting north of $150,000 per season, which would put her well out of the Storm's price range if the starting five returns intact.

Other teams won't fret for the Storm, who still have two reserves with starting experience (Jordin Canada and Mercedes Russell, key figures in the Finals) under contract, along with promising 21-year-old Ezi Magbegor. But the Storm's bench is likely to be much less experienced in 2021, with 2020 first-round pick Kitija Laksa (who remained at home in Latvia this season) and their 2021 first-round pick replacing the proven veterans they had on their bench this year. The Storm might also be forced to play much or all of the season with just 11 players on the roster, compromising their depth in case of injuries.

All of this presumes the Storm's unrestricted free agents want to come back. We've seen as recently as last offseason that the core designation doesn't prevent free agents from forcing trades, albeit with their former team getting something in return. It's possible Howard would be interested in a bigger role like the one she played in 2019, when she averaged a career-high 18.1 PPG as the Storm's first option on offense.

One way or another, the Storm roster that goes for a third championship in four years in 2021 is likely to look different than the one that just completed one of the most dominant seasons in WNBA history.