Are the New York Liberty the 2023 WNBA title favorites now that Breanna Stewart plans to sign with the team? Stewart announced the move on Twitter on Wednesday.
After already adding an MVP this offseason by trading Jonquel Jones, the Liberty added a second via free agency on Tuesday, landing two-time WNBA Finals MVP Stewart. With Sabrina Ionescu, the second team already on the roster, New York now boasts 30% of last year’s All-WNBA selection — equivalent to the Las Vegas Aces total — and may not be done with it, star players to add.
Let’s take a closer look at how the Liberty Project is doing with their new star-studded forecourt, especially compared to the Aces after the defending champion was charged with Candace Parker.
Also, 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 like an option as swapping is out of the question. But the Storm will have a very different look in 2023 following the departure of Stewart and the retirement of legendary point guard Sue Bird.
How do Stewart and Jones fit together?
2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones and 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart are likely to have fewer touches and shots together on the same frontcourt. But they will be an impressive duo at both ends of the pitch. Joshua Huston/NBAE via Getty Images
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, prior to this year only two former MVPs had switched teams before the age of 30: Tina Charles when she was traded to the Liberty in 2014, and Elena Delle Donne when she joined the Washington Mystics in 2017.
In 2008, Seattle added two former MVPs in Yolanda Griffith and Sheryl Swoopes. However, Griffith was 38 when she joined Storm and Swoopes was soon to be 37. At this stage in their careers, both were role players and not anchor characters like Jones and Stewart.
Undoubtedly, the collaboration will require Jones and Stewart to make some sacrifices – Stewart likely more as Jones has already seen her usage decline after hitting a career-high 27% during her MVP campaign. Despite this, Jones ended 24% of the Connecticut Sun’s plays last season with a shot, a shot at the free-throw line, or a turnover. Stewart was up 29% in Seattle.
Some of those New York opportunities come from replacing Natasha Howard, who had a 26% utilization rate and was traded to the Dallas Wings as part of the Jones deal. But the Liberty’s other starter was center Stefanie Dolson, who is likely to go to the bench, and Dolson’s utilization rate was a modest 17%. That was a combined 43% share of offense for last year’s New York frontcourt starters, compared to 53% for Jones and Stewart with their previous teams.
As long as Jones and Stewart are happy with fewer touches and shots, and Ionescu is certainly dialing back their offense as well, the fit should work just fine. Jones and Stewart are both capable of moving off the basket and each have enough gravity as outside shooters (Stewart is a career 37% 3 point shooter while Jones hit 38% at lower volume) to to cover the floor while the other books or pick-and-rolls with Ionescu.
On the other end, Jones and Stewart were among the seven players named 2022 Defensive Player of the Year, with Stewart making the All-Defensive First Team and Jones making the second team. Both players have guarded multiple frontcourt spots throughout their careers, giving Liberty coach Sandy Brondello the flexibility to make the most of them.
For now, I would keep the Aces as WNBA championship favorites because it should be easier for them to integrate Parker than for New York to get acquainted with multiple new starters. The terrifying possibility for the rest of the league, however, is that the Liberty aren’t quite finished expanding the roster.
Could New York Add Another All-Star?
Breanna Stewart, right, has played her entire WNBA career with the now-retired Sue Bird. Could Stewart team up with legendary point guard Courtney Vandersloot (left) in 2023? Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported earlier this month that Courtney Vandersloot’s free hand would be a factor in Stewart’s decision. The Liberty were among four teams Vandersloot was scheduled to meet with before making her own pick. Could New York add Vandersloot as well?
Yes, especially when Stewart and Vandersloot are willing to take less money than their maximum possible salary. If Stewart signs the $202,154 maximum for players switching teams alongside a sign-and-trade, the Liberty would leave about $160,000 to offer Vandersloot, per salary data from HerHoopsStats.com.
|2008||Sheryl flies to Seattle
Yolanda Griffith to Seattle
|2009||Yolanda Griffith to Indiana|
|2011||Sheryl flies to Tulsa|
|2014||Tina Charles to New York|
|2017||Elena Delle Donne to Washington|
|2020||Tina Charles to Washington|
|2021||Candace Parker to Chicago|
|2022||Tina Charles after Phoenix|
|2023||Jonquel Jones to New York
Candace Parker to Las Vegas
Breanna Stewart to New York
By forgoing reserves Michaela Onyenwere and DiDi Richards, New York could get that $180,000 offer, in the ballpark of what Vandersloot did with the Chicago Sky ($195,000) last season. To offer more, New York would have to trade a player with a protected contract.
A wildcard for the Liberty 2023 squad: The team has two key international players – guard Marine Johannes and center Han Xu – who are reticent, meaning they can only negotiate with New York. If those players re-sign for minimum wage, it will be much easier for the Liberty to fill the roster with Stewart and another high-paying free agent.
From a fit standpoint, Vandersloot would make sense in New York given the success Ionescu enjoyed after Liberty point guard Crystal Dangerfield signed midseason and put Dangerfield in the starting lineup. Relieved of primary distribution responsibility, Ionescu emerged as a nighttime 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
Stewart on Liberty move: ‘I want to keep being great’
Breanna Stewart explains the thinking behind her decision to play with the New York Liberty.
We watched a Seattle team without Bird and Stewart make the playoffs in 2019, when both missed the season through injuries. The Storm even won a playoff game before being eliminated by the Los Angeles Sparks in the second round.
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Along with overtakers Loyd and center Mercedes Russell, this team also included Howard, who became Defensive Player of the Year and received All-WNBA first-team honors. If Seattle is to repeat their 2019 success, a similar breakthrough from fourth-year Ezi Magbegor will likely be required as Han and Johannes are reserved players this offseason.
As a starting center during last season’s All-Star hiatus, Magbegor appeared to be on such a path. 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 line-up as their minute averages and less playing time dropped.
There’s plenty to do for the Storm, who only has Loyd and Russell under contract but also has the most spot in the WNBA. Seattle in particular needs to find a replacement for Bird at point guard. A Seattle-area native, Vandersloot could still be in the mix there. Otherwise, the Storm will likely consider a dropoff at point guard for restricted free agents Natisha Hiedeman and Marina Mabrey or unrestricted option Moriah Jefferson.
With so many roster spots open, it’s hard to tell how competitive Seattle can be without Stewart. For now, Loyd’s presence, Magbegor’s development, and Storm’s ability to land past-seasoned free agents suggest the team should still be in the mix for the playoffs.