Are the New York Liberty the 2023 WNBA title favorites now that Breanna Stewart plans to sign with the team? Stewart announced the move Wednesday on Twitter.
Having already added an MVP this offseason by trading for Jonquel Jones, the Liberty added a second via free agency on Tuesday, landing two-time WNBA Finals MVP Stewart. With second-team pick Sabrina Ionescu already on the roster, New York now boasts 30% of last year's All-WNBA selections -- matching the Las Vegas Aces' total -- and might not be done adding star players just yet.
Let's take a closer look at how the Liberty project with their new star-studded frontcourt, particularly in comparison to the Aces after the defending champions loaded up with the addition of Candace Parker.
Additionally, let's consider what's next for the Seattle Storm after Stewart's departure. With All-Star guard Jewell Loyd still in Seattle, rebuilding doesn't seem to be in the cards, barring a trade. But the Storm will have a very different look in 2023 after the departure of Stewart and retirement of legendary point guard Sue Bird.
How do Stewart and Jones fit together?
It's safe to say that adding two former MVPs, both in their prime, during the same offseason is unprecedented in WNBA history. In fact, before this year, just two former MVPs had ever changed teams prior to age 30: Tina Charles when she was traded to the Liberty in 2014 and Elena Delle Donne upon her trade to the Washington Mystics in 2017.
Back in 2008, Seattle added a pair of former MVPs in Yolanda Griffith and Sheryl Swoopes. However, Griffith was 38 when she joined the Storm and Swoopes was soon to be 37. At that stage of their careers, both were role players, not anchor pieces like Jones and Stewart.
Undoubtedly, teaming up will require some sacrifice for Jones and Stewart -- probably more so Stewart since Jones already saw her usage drop after it reached a career-high 27% during her MVP campaign. Still, last season Jones finished 24% of the Connecticut Sun's plays with a shot, trip to the free throw line or turnover. Stewart was at 29% in Seattle.
Some of those opportunities in New York will come from replacing Natasha Howard, who had a 26% usage rate and was traded to the Dallas Wings as part of the Jones deal. But the Liberty's other starter up front was center Stefanie Dolson, who will likely head to the bench, and Dolson's usage rate was a modest 17%. That was a 43% combined share of the offense for last year's New York frontcourt starters, as compared to 53% for Jones and Stewart with their former teams.
So long as Jones and Stewart are comfortable with fewer touches and shots, with Ionescu surely dialing back her offense as well, the fit should work well. Jones and Stewart are both capable of stepping away from the basket and each has enough gravity as an outside shooter (Stewart is a career 37% 3-point shooter, while Jones has hit 38% on lower volume) to space the floor while the other posts up or runs pick-and-roll with Ionescu.
At the other end, Jones and Stewart were among seven players to receive votes for Defensive Player of the Year in 2022, with Stewart making the All-Defensive first team and Jones on the second team. Both players have guarded multiple frontcourt spots over the course of their careers, giving Liberty coach Sandy Brondello flexibility in how to deploy them for maximum benefit.
Right now, I'd keep the Aces as WNBA championship favorites because it should be easier for them to integrate Parker than it will for New York to get comfortable with multiple new starters. Still, the terrifying possibility for the rest of the league is the Liberty aren't finished adding to the roster.
Could New York add another All-Star?
ESPN's Ramona Shelburne reported earlier this month that Courtney Vandersloot's free agency would be a factor in Stewart's decision. The Liberty were among four teams Vandersloot was expected to meet with before making her own choice. Could New York still add Vandersloot, too?
Yes, particularly if Stewart and Vandersloot are willing to take less money than their maximum possible salaries. If Stewart signs for the maximum $202,154 for players changing teams besides a sign-and-trade, that would leave the Liberty about $160,000 to offer Vandersloot, per salary data from HerHoopsStats.com.
By waiving reserves Michaela Onyenwere and DiDi Richards, New York could get that offer above $180,000, in the ballpark of what Vandersloot made last season with the Chicago Sky ($195,000). To offer more than that, New York would have to trade a player with a protected contract.
One wild card for the Liberty's 2023 roster: The team has a pair of key international players -- guard Marine Johannes and center Han Xu -- who are reserved, meaning they can negotiate only with New York. If those players re-sign for the minimum salary, it will be much easier for the Liberty to fill out the roster with Stewart and another highly paid free agent.
From a fit standpoint, Vandersloot would make sense in New York given the success Ionescu enjoyed after the Liberty signed point guard Crystal Dangerfield midseason and moved Dangerfield into the starting lineup. Freed from primary distribution responsibilities, Ionescu emerged as a nightly triple-double threat. Adding Vandersloot would make New York my favorite to win the first title in franchise history.
What's next for the Storm
Breanna Stewart explains the mindset behind her decision to play with the New York Liberty.
We saw a Seattle team without Bird and Stewart reach the playoffs in 2019, when both missed the season due to injury. The Storm even won a playoff game before being eliminated in the second round by the Los Angeles Sparks.
Besides holdovers Loyd and center Mercedes Russell, that team also featured Howard, who won Defensive Player of the Year and earned All-WNBA first team honors. If Seattle is to replicate its 2019 success, a similar breakthrough will probably be required from fourth-year post Ezi Magbegor, like Han and Johannes a reserved player this offseason.
As a starting center through the All-Star break last season, Magbegor seemed to be on that kind of trajectory. She averaged 11.3 PPG and 6.5 RPG as a starter while leading the league with 2.3 BPG. Magbegor struggled to make the same impact after Charles replaced her in the starting lineup, seeing her per-minute averages fall in addition to less playing time.
There's much work to be done for the Storm, who have just Loyd and Russell under contract but also possess the most cap space in the WNBA. In particular, Seattle needs to find a replacement for Bird at point guard. Vandersloot, a native of the Seattle area, could still be in the mix there. Otherwise, the Storm are likely looking at a drop-off at point guard to restricted free agents Natisha Hiedeman and Marina Mabrey or unrestricted option Moriah Jefferson.
With so many open roster spots, it's tough to say how competitive Seattle can be without Stewart. For now, Loyd's presence, Magbegor's development and the Storm's ability to land veteran free agents in the past suggest the team still should be in the mix for the playoffs.