SEATTLE — As WNBA fans watched recent high draft picks and big names like 2020 Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield and 2017 All-Star Layshia Clarendon get waived this week when teams set their final rosters, a Twitter thread by two-time Finals MVP Breanna Stewart on Wednesday struck a chord.
“I hate seeing so many great players being cut from WNBA teams,” Stewart wrote in part. “Salaries went up, but a very restrictive hard cap has put teams in a bind. We need to soften it to allow our league to grow. The WNBA needs to adjust ASAP (before the next CBA) to allow teams more flexibility to keep rookies contract players on the roster.
“Call them practice players and make sure they don’t hit the cap. We need to be developing young talent and taking advantage of the momentum newly drafted players bring from the college game.”
I hate seeing so many great players being cut from WNBA teams. Salaries went up, but a very restrictive hard cap has put teams in a bind. We need to soften it to allow of our league to grow. The WNBA needs to adjust ASAP (before the next CBA).
— Breanna Stewart (@breannastewart) May 4, 2022
Chiney Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks had a similar message talking to reporters on Tuesday, advocating for a developmental league similar to the NBA’s G League.
“In no circumstance should we have a league where top draft picks aren’t on a roster,” Ogwumike said.
On Thursday, Stewart expanded on her thoughts exclusively to ESPN.
“I think it really resonated this year because this is year three with the new CBA,” Stewart said. “Now as those contracts are being negotiated, being renegotiated, everybody’s getting a little more expensive, I guess I would say. That creates fewer roster spots and fewer spots in the league in general.”
Stewart’s own team is an example. Last year, the Storm had enough cap space to keep 13 players to start the season through the use of the temporary suspension list with players who were late returning from overseas. This year, Seattle could keep only 11 players. The team waived both of its second-round picks, North Carolina State center Elissa Cunane and UConn guard Evina Westbrook.
Although the WNBA often likes to cite the 144 players in the league, as Stewart noted, that’s not typically the case to start the season. Back in 2019, the final year of the old collective bargaining agreement, only one team (the Las Vegas Aces) started the schedule with fewer than 12 players on the roster. That jumped to five each of the last two years and has increased again to seven this season, meaning fewer than half of the WNBA’s 12 teams are keeping a full roster.
When presented the choice between maintaining room for 12 players and paying higher salaries to a smaller group of 11, WNBA contenders have consistently chosen smaller rosters. None of the five teams keeping at least 12 players to start this season finished with a winning record in 2021.
“The sad part is that there’s talent that needs to get developed,” Storm guard Sue Bird told ESPN, “and they’re never going to get that chance if they never can make a roster.”
Storm center Mercedes Russell went through that process. A second-round pick in 2018 who was waived by the New York Liberty early in the season, Russell caught on with Seattle as the team’s 12th player. She played sparingly as a rookie, seeing just 101 minutes of action as the Storm won the championship, but has subsequently developed into a key starter. Russell re-signed with Seattle as a restricted free agent, getting a raise, but will miss the start of the season due to a non-basketball injury.
“I think ‘Cedes is a prime example,” Stewart said. “It was a learning experience, small minutes and then she came in and every year has grown up and stepped up even more. Now she’s our starting center and we’re going to miss her while she’s out. It just goes to show if someone puts the time and effort into you, what can transpire from that.”
Under the current WNBA CBA, it’s possible Russell would never have gotten that opportunity.
“To get that developmental role plus the experience and having someone take the time out to really help develop them over the summer, I think it’s really important,” Stewart said. “A lot of these kids that get these opportunities — they get drafted, they get picked up for training cap — it’s a really short window to be able to judge someone. I think a lot of them need more time. It’s just about the two-week mark that they’re getting comfortable and then you have to make decisions.”
Having extra players available for practice also has benefits for the veterans who are on the roster. Teams like the Storm dealing with an injury to one of their 11 players can find it more difficult to pit two units against each other, particularly on the road where it’s not possible to use a practice squad of male players to supplement numbers.
Bird shared that issue came up in Thursday’s practice, when Seattle video coordinator Yoni Afework had to step in when Stewart was briefly off the court to get retaped.
“That’s been the story of the WNBA since we reduced the roster spots,” Bird said. “Not ideal, but I think every team does what they can. It felt like the bubble, actually. There were times in the bubble where you were lucky if your coaches were still mobile and they could jump in practice. Or maybe you have someone in practice like a trainer or an equipment manager who could jump in. It’s the same when we go on the road.”
The challenge, and the reason behind the WNBA’s hard salary cap — which can’t be exceeded except for injury hardships, unlike the soft salary cap utilized by the NBA — remains a financial one.
“I think everyone realizes that it would benefit the league a lot,” said Stewart. “More eyes, more viewership, fans from different places, bridging the gap between college and WNBA. It’s just about money. How do we get the extra money to be able to provide for a developmental player or have a roster be a little bigger, whatever the case may be.
“That’s what the WNBA needs to work out and try and figure out the logistics because you see all over the place that the WNBA needs to expand teams, but I think before we even expand teams, we need to expand roster sizes.”
In her role helping negotiate the current CBA as part of the WNBPA’s executive committee, Bird saw the issue of roster spots come up. With players focused on the important goals they did achieve in the new CBA, including increased maximum salaries for players, improved travel and benefits for the league’s mothers, roster sizes weren’t addressed this time around.
Stewart is hopeful that raising the issue now means the league might not wait until the next round of CBA negotiations to address it.
“I think they’re just aware of the situation that’s happening,” Stewart said. “I don’t know if things can change this season, but hopefully they’ve got some people working on it.”