The Seattle Storm got 2012 off to a surprising start in the WNBA on Monday, sending Swin Cash, Le’coe Willingham and a late-second round pick in the 2012 draft (#23 overall) to Chicago for the #2 overall pick in that same upcoming draft. It’s been pretty apparent for a while that Seattle needed to freshen up their roster and get younger, but this was still a somewhat shocking way to open up the offseason transactions. Two key parts of your rotation for a pick in what’s generally seen as a weak draft class – for a coach/GM who’s shown no interest in using any young, inexperienced players in recent years – is a bold step. Time will tell whether it’s one step back to eventually move two forwards, or just a hop in the wrong direction.
Cash didn’t have a great season in 2011. She went through long stretches where she wouldn’t have hit water shooting off the side of a boat, and the 41% three-point shooting she discovered in the Storm’s 2011 championship season disappeared entirely. But she was still a strong defender, a physical presence who could defend the perimeter and fight down low on switches, and occasionally her scoring touch returned, leaving her overall 2011 numbers at nearly 40% from the floor and right around her career average of 13 points per game. At 32 years old, and with a chequered injury history, she’s probably starting the downslope of her career trajectory, but there’s a good few years left on those legs. Big, true small forwards aren’t easy to find in this league – just look how long Chicago have needed one, for example – and the Storm could have serious problems replacing her.
Willingham has played herself into being a solid role player in this league, surviving years on the end of Connecticut’s bench before establishing herself in Phoenix and then providing two solid seasons as Seattle’s first post off the bench. Some of her skills overlapped with starter Camille Little, but when those attributes are hustle, energy, grit and toughness in the paint, you don’t mind a little duplication. It’s perfectly possible that she could be the starting power forward for Chicago come opening day alongside Sylvia Fowles, and even if she doesn’t win that spot, she’ll again be one of the more reliable bench posts in the WNBA. Yes, she’s only a complementary role player, but think about how many bench players in this league you actually trust to come into games and not give anything away. Exactly. Those complementary role players don’t grow on trees.
There’s a lot more to come from Seattle this offseason. Well, there kind of has to be, seeing as their current list of contracted players reads something like this: Camille Little, Ashley Robinson, Lauren Jackson (who won’t be showing up until after the Olympics). That’s it. From a Storm fan perspective, obviously you hope the remaining key parts are coming back. Sue Bird is priority number one, closely followed by Tanisha Wright, with another year of Katie Smith trailing in third. After that, you have to hope there are other moves in the offing as well.
This trade dumped upwards of $200,000 of salary in return for just one rookie deal (if we assume that they’ll be keeping the pick), which will cost them just $47,589 in 2012. The trade becomes far more palatable from a Storm perspective if something significant happens in free agency with all that space. Cathrine Kraayeveld’s ties with the Seattle area have long led to speculation that she’ll end up in Storm green now that she’s an unrestricted free agent, but you’d be hard-pressed to count that as significant given her last couple of barely-mediocre seasons. She could replace Willingham, but that’s about it. Beyond that, you wonder where Agler’s looking. A flyer on an injury-plagued Shameka Christon or Alana Beard? An effort to poach someone like Erika de Souza or Monique Currie away from their current homes if their teams decide not to core them? Maybe even a sign-and-trade for someone like Crystal Langhorne if she’s grown so tired of the shambles in D.C. that she demands a move? Or a somewhat outside the box move like talking Belgian center Ann Wauters into actually showing up and eschewing San Antonio for the Pacific Northwest. Wauters is still a top-quality big, is currently playing with Lauren Jackson in Spain, and Agler’s shown a knack for bringing in talented international players in the past, so you never know. You have to hope something’s coming, because right now that Storm roster looks desperately thin, even if their own free agents re-sign. And the #2 pick isn’t going to fill all those holes on her own.
So what of that potential rookie? I don’t pretend to be an expert on women’s college basketball, but the universal view is that Stanford’s Nneka Ogwumike will go #1 (even though lottery-winners LA aren’t exactly in need of yet another power forward). After that, it’s generally considered a pretty open field, and not one heavily stocked with overwhelming talent. Shenise Johnson of Miami and Shekinna Stricklen of Tennessee have probably been the most regularly mentioned options after Ogwumike’s off the board. One presumes that Seattle have decided that someone who’ll be available at #2 can come in and help them right away, and was worth making this move. Both Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne could declare for the 2012 draft if they wanted to under WNBA rules, instantly making that #2 pick significantly more valuable, but neither has given any indication that they’re thinking of turning pro in about three months. Agler’s always seemed desperate to avoid using young players during his time in Seattle, but a central part of that has been that their continued success meant they were always drafting low, so the young players coming in weren’t necessarily that great. Anyway, he’d have to use the kid if there isn’t anyone else on his roster worth playing ahead of her, and until those theoretical free agency moves come to fruition, this rookie’s looking like a starter on opening day. At the same time, given that it’s Agler, don’t be too surprised if this pick is moved again by the time the season tips off. It could easily be used as a trade chip to try to help the Storm a little more immediately than the rookie might manage.
Now to swing things around: this looks like a great move for the Sky. You never really knew who or what they’d be getting from the small forward position last year. Before she was waived in preseason, it was supposed to be Shameka Christon. Then it was Cathrine Kraayeveld for a while in a big lineup that didn’t really work. Tamera Young and her inconsistent, unpredictable game got the rest of the starts, while Shay Murphy was added for the second half of the season to offer a bit of undersized spark. It was hit or miss, with a fair bit of extra weight on the ‘miss’ side of the scales. Now they’ve got a strong, mobile, veteran 3, who’s used to winning and can play 30+ minutes a night (and who’s not missed many games in the last six years, despite her injury history). It fills a clear hole on the Sky roster and looks like a great fit. Of course, Christon looked like a good fit two years ago in the exact same spot, but hopefully Swin can keep her noggin away from Big Syl’s elbows and stay on the court. Willingham is an extra bonus, another proven winner with multiple teams who can play composed, smart basketball. She also offers some extra veteran nous on a team that often looked like it didn’t know quite how to win last year. This team was already very young, with their Courtney Vandersloot/Epiphanny Prince backcourt, so another unproven kid wasn’t really necessary. Turning that #2 pick into two solid veterans makes an awful lot of sense.
On a side-note, it’s also simply nice to see Chicago involved in the market so quickly. Having a coach/GM supposedly running your franchise while she’s also coaching Spartak Moscow has always been a little worrying, but obviously she’s still working on improving the Sky at the same time. And now that they don’t even have a pick in 2012 until #23 (their own second-rounder went to LA in the Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton trade last year), it barely matters whether she watches any college basketball for the rest of the season. The only way this trade ends up looking bad for Chicago in future years is if someone at that #2 spot turns out to be unexpectedly very, very good. Without the benefit of hindsight, it looks like a very positive move. And for the record, Cash’s teams haven’t missed the playoffs since her rookie year in 2002, while Willingham has been in the postseason seven of her eight years in the WNBA. With their help, maybe the Sky can finally snap their playoff drought in 2012. It’s been a long time coming.
When I first heard about this trade, I instantly though Seattle had to be getting more back. Surely the #2 pick in this draft wasn’t enough for both Cash and Willingham? Turns out, they were even throwing in a second-rounder to complete the deal. That tells me that Agler must have big plans for that cap space (even though he isn’t really meant to be talking to free agents yet). Because the effort to turn over your roster and get younger doesn’t mean you should be overpaying in trades and throwing the baby out with the bathwater
It’s a smart, sensible move for Chicago, and shows centerpiece Sylvia Fowles that they’re trying to put the pieces around her to make this into a winning franchise. It should also save them from wildly overpaying Young and/or Murphy to fill that small forward slot. All they need now is a little bit of luck, and some maturing and development from their nascent backcourt, and they might have something. Wow, hope and optimism for the Chicago Sky – 2012 really is a brand new year for the WNBA.
Seattle (negative outlook): D They gave up two central pieces of their rotation, including a key starter, for a complete unknown (who’s the #2 even going to be?)
Seattle (positive outlook): Incomplete Once we hit free agency and see what Agler’s actually going to do with that cap space, maybe all will become clear. Plus Stricklen and Johnson both have their fans.
Chicago: A You could even argue A+. Hard to fault a move that adds two solid veterans, fills a glaring need, and gives up only a pick in a draft full of question marks.
Cash and Willingham: B Hard to grade. They’re going from a perennial winner to a consistent loser, but their new home has the potential to be just as strong. Cash seems happy enough on Twitter (Willingham doesn’t have an account, as far as I know), and it’ll be interesting to see how they work out back in the East.