Why the WNBA trade deadline is just another day

For the Sky — a team who, if the season ended today, would just narrowly make the playoffs — a trade should, at the very least, be a consideration.

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Seattle Storm’s Jewell Loyd (24) drives to the basket as Chicago Sky’s Courtney Williams defends during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 28, 2023, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) ORG XMIT: ILCA102

Charles Rex Arbogast, AP Photos

ARLINGTON — Last week before the Sky’s victory against the Mercury, interim coach/general manager Emre Vatansever had a concise -response to a question about whether they would be active in the trade market.

“No,” Vatansever said. “We’re just trying to play our best.”

Midseason trades are common everywhere except the WNBA. For the Sky — a team that, if the season ended today, would just narrowly make the playoffs — a trade should, at the very least, be a consideration.

But, Vatansever, who stands alone as the last remaining coach and general manager in the WNBA and NBA, is not alone in his lack of concern about the Monday trade deadline. In the WNBA, it’s next to impossible to make a trade happen because of the league’s hard salary cap.

Each of the league’s 12 teams has a salary cap of $1,420,500 to work with for the 2023 season. The only time teams can go over the cap is when they utilize a hardship replacement contract, which comes in many forms, such as when a team falls below 10 available players or players are out on maternity leave. This season, the league has seen an unprecedented number of hardship contracts signed.

The Sky have signed multiple replacement contracts to navigate injuries to Isabelle Harrison, Rebekah Gardner and even Morgan Bertsch, who missed an extended period at the beginning of the season with an ankle injury. They also signed Kristine Anigwe temporarily as their designated pregnancy replacement player when Ruthy Hebard worked to make her return following the birth of her son, Xzavier, on April 11.

These contracts are added to the cap sheet, resulting in the Sky’s being $53,455 over the hard salary cap.

This might seem irrelevant to a trade, but in the WNBA, teams can only make trades that keep them within the cap space when all moves are finalized. The option of cutting players to bring a team under the salary cap is also no longer an option, as all non-guaranteed salaries became guaranteed at the halfway mark of the season.

According to herhoopstats.com, five teams still have cap space to work with: the Dream ($51,895), Sun ($2,695), Wings ($741), Fever ($106,844) and Storm ($19,043.)

Wondering how a team could execute a trade while being over the cap space? The Mystics’ trade of Amanda Zhaui B. to the Fever for Queen Egbo offers an explanation. It required the Mystics to release two hardship contracts, and Egbo’s contract was slightly less than Zhaui B’s. Herhoopstats detailed the exact math that went into the trade’s being successful, which left the Mystics $118 under the cap. Another key was they carried out the trade before all non-guaranteed salaries became guaranteed.

There’s a clear case to be made for an update to the CBA that would allow for a more active trade deadline, starting with teams’ roster size. Players and coaches have continuously advocated for expansion in the form of roster size, which would require a higher salary cap.

Most teams in the WNBA carry 11 players because under the new CBA max salaries went up 82% while the cap saw a 30% increase. As a result, teams pay more at the top of their roster and cut at the bottom. This also requires teams to utilize replacement contracts more frequently because teams fall below that 10-player requirement more often.

Free-agency buzz is a great example of how the WNBA would benefit from necessary changes to its CBA by bringing another layer of excitement and attention to the league. Speculation exists about whether the Storm would move Jewell Loyd instead of risking losing her as an unrestricted free agent.

Beyond the risk of moving a player with just over 10 games left in the season for most teams is that it is next to impossible to execute financially.

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