WNBA offseason's pressing questions: Prioritization, Breanna Stewart's free agency and more

It's about to be a wild 2023 offseason that will shift the landscape of the WNBA. There's prioritization, the potential for more legendary figures entering retirement and a lot of salary cap room for a few iconic franchises.

But while things will look a lot different come tipoff of the 2023 season, the end result might look the same in Las Vegas. The Aces have none of the aforementioned problems and are the favorites to run it back with all of their starting five locked in for next year. Yikes.

The Aces' situation is one of the storylines leading the WNBA into its 27th season next spring. Now that Team USA has popped the champagne on another World Cup gold medal — riding the key performances of WNBA champions days after the Finals concluded — it's time to look at the biggest questions only the passing of time will answer.

What impact will prioritization have on the season?

The topic of prioritization, a clause in the collective bargaining agreement passed in January 2020 that requires players to prioritize the WNBA, came into sharper focus last year. It could lead to athletes playing only overseas and omitting the WNBA, nearly opposite of what the clause meant to accomplish.

Prioritization requires players with more than two years of WNBA experience to report to training camp on time or be fined 1% of their base salary for every day missed. Previously, players showed up late to camp and even missed considerable regular season time while with their overseas clubs for playoffs. The clause does not stipulate players cannot compete overseas in the league's offseason, but that they return in time.

In 2023, the player will be suspended without pay for the entire season if they do not report by the start of the regular season or by May 1, whichever is later. Beginning in 2024, players who do not arrive by the start of training camp or at least May 1 will be suspended for the entire season.

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said ahead of the WNBA Finals the prioritization clause was bargained by team owners in return for higher compensation levels. The maximum base salary nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020. She said the focus is for veterans "to come back and be with the team and build the chemistry needed for a championship culture." It improves competitiveness and keeps more positive fan attention to have stars back on time.

Some players have spoken openly about possibly not returning to the WNBA and instead playing only overseas, where they can make more money. Storm forward Gabby Williams said in her exit interview she's "shying away from the W because teams aren't touching what I'm making in Europe." She made $144,000 in WNBA base salary in 2022.

Where will Breanna Stewart sign, if she stays in the WNBA?

Breanna Stewart, a two-time WNBA champion with the Storm, is the most lauded free agent of 2023, at least of those who might leave their franchise. She is also the most notable name who could skip the WNBA because of the clause.

In the 2021-22 Euro League season, she made approximately $1.5 million playing for UMMC Ekaterinberg in Russia. Stewart, who played on a $228,094 supermax contract in the WNBA, is signed to play for Fenerbahce in Turkey, which is a far shorter plane ride from Seattle to her wife's family in Spain. As for any future plans, she said in last month's exit interviews that she was first focused on the World Cup and her overseas season. Prioritization was "a whole other ballgame."

If she returns to the WNBA, the Storm have plenty of cap space to sign her to a supermax deal. The New York Liberty are also in the running after Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes reported their front office met with Stewart last year when she was a free agent.

The Liberty are working with less cap room, but still enough to sign Stewart to a maximum deal or a supermax if she were to force a sign-and-trade. She would rejoin Natasha Howard, who won two titles with her in Seattle, and World Cup teammates Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney. New York would become immediate title contenders.

Her Hoop Stats analyzed a potential sign-and-trade situation that included Nneka Ogwumike (another heralded free agent). They also speculated on opportunities for Minnesota and Chicago to sign Stewart.

Will more legends head into retirement?

It was a brutal September for the sports world as four-time WNBA champion Sue Bird, two-time WNBA champion Sylvia Fowles and 23-time tennis Grand Slam champion Serena Williams all played their (presumably) final games. Briann January, a heralded veteran point guard in the W, and Kia Vaughn also retired. It all came on the heels of track and field star Allyson Felix running her final race earlier in the summer.

There could be more to come. Candace Parker, a two-time WNBA champion, has said she'll wait to see how she feels before making a decision on retirement. Parker has a growing analyst career on the NBA on TNT set and welcomed a second child this year. She ranks third in career rebounds (3,370, trailing first-place Fowles by 637), fifth in blocks (603, 274 behind Margo Dydek) and 10th in points (6,412). She remains the only player to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season.

Allie Quigley, her Chicago Sky teammate, has also been open about a potential retirement. Quigley and Parker are each 36, making them the second-oldest rostered players. Diana Taurasi, a three-time WNBA champion, is a free agent and said in July seeing how "happy [Bird] is going through her retirement years made me really think about that long winter." Taurasi, 40, missed the end of the season with a quad injury.

Alysha Clark (free agent), DeWanna Bonner (Sun) and Kristi Toliver (free agent) are all 35 years old. Toliver has missed time recently with injuries and her commitments to the NBA's Dallas Mavericks as an assistant coach.

How will more games fit into an already contentious schedule?

The 2022 season expanded to 36 games and concluded a month earlier than usual because of the FIBA World Cup, but players competing in the Finals still arrived late to Australia. The scheduling issue between WNBA and FIBA was called out by players on Twitter amid the tournament.

This on the heels of the league taking a month off last summer for the rescheduled 2020 Tokyo Olympics. League stars compete not only on Team USA, but on various national teams around the world. Now another schedule expansion plus the prioritization clause is bound to draw more criticism.

In announcing a move to 40 games at the All-Star Game, Engelbert noted that while 2023 offers a "great footprint," future seasons will be a challenge around those international tournaments. The CBA allows for a schedule up to 44 games. She said the league will not expand the length of the season and instead will simply "be able to play at a nice cadence."

Will they, though? Teams played roughly 2.57 games per week in the 14-week 2022 season that ran from May 14 through Aug. 14. They will play roughly 2.35 games per week in 2023, presuming the season starts on May 12 and runs through Sept. 8. It could begin a week later as it did in 2019. It always needs to be noted that players still fly commercial, so they can't leave and land when they want, and have run up into travel problems that leaves team personnel scrambling for alternatives.

Can the Aces be the first repeat champions since the Sparks?

The Aces are in a great spot to become the first repeat champions since the Los Angeles Sparks did it in 2001-02. But as the Chicago Sky showed this past season, it's incredible difficult to do. The Aces will have a target on their back from everyone, though if there was ever a coach to game plan for that the best it's Becky Hammon. All five starters are back, led by their two-time MVP A'ja Wilson, and seeing as they relied on them for 86% of their points, the bench returner situation is one easy to handle.

The most interesting aspect of a repeat might be one of the most celebrated moments of their parade. Dearica Hamby, their two-time Sixth Player of the Year who moved into the starting lineup, announced she was pregnant with her second child. The veteran missed a month with a right knee bone contusion and played limited minutes in her return during the Seattle series. It turns out she was throwing up through the semifinals, Hamby wrote on Twitter after the parade. A week later, she proved clutch in the Aces' opening win of the WNBA Finals.

It's unclear when her son, Legend, is due. A possible timeline would put the birth as late as April or May, meaning at minimum she would miss a few weeks. But she could be out for a more extended period, leaving Hammon to find a longer-term solution.

The rest and recovery process after giving birth is different for everyone. When Hamby was pregnant with Amaya, she played until she was about four months pregnant. After giving birth in early February, she started the first preseason game of the year less than three months later on April 29.

Napheesa Collier gave birth to her daughter in May and returned for the final stretch of Lynx games in August. Parker returned approximately 53 days after giving birth to her daughter, Lailaa, in May 2009. Sheryl Swoopes came back six weeks after giving birth to her son to play in the league's inaugural season.

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