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What is the Mystics’ situation heading into the WNBA free agency signing period?

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WNBA Free Agency starts later this month and we’ll know about moves in February. Let’s take a look at the Mystics’ situation and their cap situation.

WNBA: Finals-Washington Mystics at Seattle Storm
LaToya Sanders earned a max level salary last season and could be an unrestricted free agent next month.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

WNBA free agency negotiations begin on January 15 and contracts can be signed starting on February 1. The Mystics are coming off a WNBA Finals appearance and tied a franchise-best 22-win regular season last year. This year, the Mystics figure to be in the conversation for the title once again, but standing pat isn’t an option. There are many other teams who either have more young talent than Washington, or have more cap space to attract more free agents. Here is a guide on what to expect.

Who is under contract?

Before answering this question, I want to give a big thanks to Howard Megdal of High Post Hoops for creating a list of WNBA salaries for every WNBA team. It’s just like HoopsHype’s NBA salary database but just for the W. Now, fans and writers can now write about free agency and trade ideas with more accuracy than in the past. Click on the link below to see it. Salaries are listed through the 2021 season.

Based on Megdal’s list, each WNBA team has a hard salary cap of $976,300. Every team must also sign at least 11 players but no more than 12 with that amount.

The Mystics have nine players under contract for 2019 with a total cap hold of $665,051. They have $311,249 of cap room to sign free agents and their draft picks. That isn’t very much because they will have to re-sign their own free agents as well. We’ll get into that later.

The players under contract in 2019 are:

  • Ariel Atkins, $49,611 (rookie contract expires in 2021)
  • Elena Delle Donne, $115,000 (contract expires in 2019)
  • Rebecca Greenwell, $42,027 (rookie contract can last through 2021)
  • Myisha Hines-Allen, $42,632 (rookie contract expires in 2021)
  • Emma Meesseman, $117,500 (contract expires in 2019)
  • Aerial Powers, $59,718 (contract expires in 2019)
  • Kristi Toliver, $115,000 (contract expires in 2019)
  • Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, $53,561 (contract expires in 2020)

Of the nine players, four of them: Delle Donne, Meesseman, Powers, and Toliver have contracts that expire after 2019 which makes next season very important for them. Since Delle Donne and Toliver are the veteran foundation of the Mystics, Washington will do whatever it takes to assemble a roster that can win the 2019 WNBA Finals. Just contending won’t be enough now.

Emma Meesseman will miss a part of the 2019 season due to the 2019 Women’s EuroBasket. How does that affect her cap hit?

The 2019 Women’s EuroBasket tournament is from June 27 to July 7, 2019 in Serbia and Latvia. The Mystics will play three games in that timeframe, but it’s more likely that Meesseman could miss up to the first half of the season due to national team training. The 17th game of the season is on July 19 when Washington is on the road to face the Fever.

When Meesseman plays in EuroBasket, she will likely be put on the suspended list where a portion of her salary will not be paid. If she misses half the season (17 games), Meesseman forfeits $58,750 of her 2019 salary. That unpaid portion also turns into additional cap space the Mystics can use to sign free agents, generally on short term contracts.

How can the Mystics get additional cap space?

The nine players under contract have cap holds. While some players’ contracts are effectively guaranteed, like Elena Delle Donne and her $115,000 cap hold, many players can also be waived and their teams wouldn’t owe them a penny for 2019. Here are the two ways that the Mystics can get more cap space to sign free agents.

  • They cut players on rookie contracts - Unlike NBA first round draft picks’ rookie contracts whose rookie contracts are guaranteed, first round picks in the WNBA are cut regularly, especially those drafted in the mid to late first round. So Atkins and Walker-Kimbrough could be cut in training camp this spring and their current cap hits won’t hold. Also, Hines-Allen and Greenwell (a 2018 third round pick) could be cut before opening day. Of course, Atkins won’t be cut because of her breakout rookie season. But Walker-Kimbrough’s future is uncertain given that her playing time dipped last season.
  • Emma Meesseman sits out the 2019 season AND announces this early - Meesseman pledged to return in 2019, but if she gets a serious injury before or during EuroBasket, she wouldn’t return. Also, Meesseman could have a sudden change of heart now that she spent one summer in Belgium. Or she could be unhappy with a potential smaller role in Washington despite her individual improvement. If Meesseman sits all of next year out AND makes an announcement early in the free agency period, then the Mystics could have $117,500 more in cap room to sign an unrestricted free agent. If she holds off on this decision until mid summer, then the Mystics would be in a stickier situation. Our hope is that she misses minimal time and plays most of 2019 with the Mystics.

Who is an unrestricted free agent?

The simple answer is that even with salary data, we don’t know for sure. This is because WNBA teams can core one player who would otherwise be an unrestricted free agent. This provision helps keep some high performing players and in return, cored players get a maximum level contract.

Here are the players who are unrestricted free agents if the Mystics do not core anyone:

  • Monique Currie
  • Tierra Ruffin-Pratt
  • LaToya Sanders
  • Krystal Thomas

Any restricted free agents?

Yes. Natasha Cloud is a restricted free agent. She earned $50,330 last season where she quickly became the team’s starting shooting guard or second point guard alongside Toliver.

The Mystics didn’t sign an early extension with Cloud so she can sign an offer sheet with any team. If so, the Mystics have four days to match it.

We discussed that the Mystics have $311,249 in cap room to sign free agents and rookies. That sounds like they have room to sign two players on max deals, but that also includes the need to re-sign Cloud. If another team lets her sign an offer sheet where she earns at least $100,000, the Mystics could match it. But doing so also means they have very little room to maneuver.

I don’t think the Mystics will let Cloud leave for nothing. So she will be back.

Which player would the Mystics core?

The Mystics have not cored any player since 2012 when they used this provision on Currie in her previous stint in D.C.

So far in the Thibault era, no Mystics player has been cored. The players who formed the team’s foundation from 2013 through last year were younger players on rookie contracts or the team itself wasn’t contending. But things have changed now that the younger players like Ruffin-Pratt, Meesseman, and Cloud are seasoned veterans themselves.

But because they do not have much cap room, I don’t think the Mystics will core anyone. If they do core a player ($117,500) AND re-sign Cloud at a 2019 salary of $100,000 or more, they will have less than $100,000 in cap room left assuming the cap holds for Atkins, Walker-Kimbrough, Hines-Allen, and Greenwell hold. Then the Mystics would check in with Meesseman to see if she is still planning on coming back next season. At a minimum, Atkins’ cap hold will remain of course.

You can never say never of course. So if the Mystics core any player, it’s probably LaToya Sanders. Last season, she scored a career-high in points and rebounds, filling in the center position when Krystal Thomas suddenly declined and Sanders took a role that Meesseman would have otherwise had. However, Sanders was injured in Game 3 of the Finals and the Mystics are likely trying to figure out what Meesseman will do next year. The center position could be very thin so coring Sanders is a way to solidify it.