Less than four months after the Chicago Sky beat the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA Finals to win the first championship in franchise history, the two teams have partnered in a three-team trade -- along with the Indiana Fever -- that could determine whether they get back to the Finals again this season.
For Phoenix, a sign-and-trade means landing restricted free agent Diamond DeShields without having to worry about the possibility of Chicago matching an offer sheet to her. The Mercury also managed to create additional cap space by sending back guard Bria Hartley, rerouted to the Fever, who have plenty of room to spare.
In addition to facilitating DeShields' departure, the Sky also added to a growing Belgian contingent on the roster. Julie Allemand, who started all 22 games for the Fever in 2020 before sitting out last season to play in the Tokyo Olympics, is headed to Chicago to join new Sky assistant coach Ann Wauters -- plus, reportedly, free-agent forward Emma Meesseman.
We break down what the trade means for all three teams and who came out on top.
Phoenix wins by adding star talent -- and could get more
Nobody has been bolder in the WNBA's modern era of free agency than the Mercury. In 2020, the first offseason after a new collective bargaining agreement cleared the way for stars to change teams more frequently, Phoenix dealt for Skylar Diggins-Smith to join Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi and was hailed as the WNBA's first superteam.
It took a while for that star talent to get enough support to look super on the court. The Mercury went 32-22 during the past two regular seasons, the league's fifth-best record in that span. After an early exit from the 2020 playoffs, however, Phoenix caught fire late in 2021 and advanced through the opening two single-elimination rounds before upsetting the Las Vegas Aces in a thrilling, five-game semifinals matchup.
Now, ahead of what might be Taurasi's final season, the Mercury are doubling down on star talent in an effort to win a fourth championship in her Hall of Fame career.
DeShields is the first intriguing step. An All-Star in 2019, when she averaged 16.2 PPG and seemed well on her way to big things at age 24, DeShields hasn't been the same player since. She was ineffective while recovering from a knee injury in the Wubble in 2020 and lost her starting job in Chicago late last season in favor of veteran Allie Quigley and Finals MVP Kahleah Copper.
Presumably, DeShields will fill the role Kia Nurse played last season for Phoenix at small forward, with Nurse unlikely to play after suffering an ACL tear in the conference finals. (Rehab time for such injuries is typically at least 11 months, a timetable that wouldn't put her back on the court until the Finals at best.) It's an interesting fit because, unlike Nurse, DeShields isn't built to play a role. She has never shot better than 33% from the WNBA 3-point line in a season and is most effective attacking with the ball in her hands.
Perhaps the addition of DeShields will shift Taurasi into a smaller role that relies more on her shot-making ability than shot creation during a season in which she'll turn 40. That could be particularly true if Phoenix completes the second half of its potential star additions.
The other component of this trade for the Mercury is that it saves money. Per Richard Cohen of HerHoopStats.com, DeShields signed a two-year contract that starts at $150K this season -- $46,100 less than Hartley was set to make in the last year of the deal she signed in 2020. Hartley got that deal when cap space was more plentiful, then suffered an ACL tear after a terrific start to her Phoenix career. The Mercury's success with Hartley in a bit role during the playoffs (9.6 MPG) made her expendable.
Before making this trade, Phoenix could afford to offer barely more than the minimum to a free agent. Now, HerHoopStats data shows the Mercury with enough cap room to spend $143,210 on a free agent. That could go up to $156,281 if Nurse decides not to sign this season and her qualifying offer as a restricted free agent lapses on March 7. (Nurse would remain a restricted free agent next year in this scenario.)
That at least allows Phoenix to make a competitive offer to Tina Charles after ESPN's Holly Rowe reported earlier this week that the former MVP is likely to join the Mercury as a free agent. A starting lineup of Diggins-Smith, Taurasi, DeShields, Charles and Griner would qualify as a legitimate superteam and likely would make Phoenix the title favorite.
The deal came at the cost of the Mercury's 2023 first-round pick and second-rounders this season and next. At some point, that will be an issue for Phoenix, which presumably won't have a single first-round pick on a rookie contract when Brianna Turner's deal expires after this season. But the cost is surely worth maximizing the Mercury's chances of winning with Taurasi. To both get DeShields and clear room to sign Charles makes Phoenix the winner here.
Question marks for Sky
The defending champs find themselves in a position of more uncertainty. Of the seven players who saw at least 30 minutes of action in last year's Finals, just two (Candace Parker and Azurá Stevens) were under contract for 2022. Chicago has secured a third by using the core designation on Copper and got a commitment from Quigley, per Rowe, but might experience a surprising degree of change.
Because of the salary cap, the Sky were always going to be hard-pressed to bring back DeShields and center Stefanie Dolson, who has signed with the New York Liberty, which also was announced Thursday. Losing the last free agent, All-WNBA point guard Courtney Vandersloot, would be devastating for Chicago's chances of repeating.
It's tough to say now whether Allemand is a replacement for Vandersloot or an understudy. She's overqualified for the latter role, and at 25 would make sense as a long-term option with Vandersloot (who turns 33 next week) at the tail end of her prime. However, Allemand isn't nearly the creator that Vandersloot is (for herself and for others) and would be a downgrade as a starting point guard.
Rowe reported that the Sky's initial offer to Vandersloot was "disrespectful" and that her Russian club, UMMC Ekaterinburg, is interested in paying her to sit out the WNBA season. (International teams like that because it keeps their stars fresh for the FIBA season, where those players make the bulk of their salary.) There's precedent for this happening with a defending champ: Ekaterinburg did the same thing with Taurasi the year after Phoenix won its most recent title in 2014.
Given all that uncertainty, it's unclear whether getting Allemand was worth the Sky giving up this year's No. 7 draft pick and swapping their own 2023 first-round pick for Phoenix's.
On the plus side, Chicago will get Allemand at a bargain price this year. Still on her rookie contract as a third-round pick, she'll make $61,049 -- barely more than the WNBA minimum. That will make it easier for the Sky to increase their offer to Vandersloot while saving room to sign Meesseman.
Opportunistic trade for Fever
To facilitate their deal, Chicago and Phoenix needed a third team capable of taking Hartley's contract. Enter Indiana, one of two realistic possibilities for such a trade. (The Atlanta Dream were the other.) It's the second consecutive year the Fever have used cap space in this manner. Last year, Indiana got the Minnesota Lynx's first-round pick (No. 10) in exchange for the Fever's second-rounder (No. 13 overall) to take back Odyssey Sims' smaller contract.
This deal looks like even more of a win for Indiana, which nets a pair of first-round picks from Chicago: No. 7 in this year's draft plus the Sky's 2023 first-rounder. (The Fever also land the Mercury's second-round picks both years, though those are likely to be less valuable to a team that already has so many draft picks.) Indiana now holds three of this year's top 10 picks: No. 2, No. 7 and No. 10.
As compared to using cap space to sign veterans such as Jantel Lavender and Danielle Robinson, who got lavish three-year contracts last year, weaponizing it to add draft picks is a far better strategy for the rebuilding Fever. They might even get useful production from Hartley if they decide to keep her on the roster.
Indiana is still a long way from competing with the Mercury and Sky for championships, but this year's draft can help point the Fever in the right direction.