The offseason activity in the WNBA continued yesterday with more trade movement, this time with an extra level of complexity. In fact, it’s complex enough that the various press releases don’t entirely agree on the finer details. The Washington Mystics, Connecticut Sun and Atlanta Dream combined on a three-way trade (or two two-ways) that relocated a trio of guards to new homes, with a couple of minor draft picks thrown in to theoretically even the scales. Washington received Kara Lawson from Connecticut; the Sun got Alex Bentley from Atlanta; and the Dream collected Matee Ajavon and the #18 pick from the Mystics. Either Washington or Connecticut got the virtually-worthless #32 pick from Atlanta, depending on which release you believe.
Typically, you come out ahead in these multi-piece deals when you gain the best player involved – so let’s start with Washington. The Mystics were something of a surprise last season, with new head coach Mike Thibault engineering a turnaround from being the laughingstock of the league to a solid, competitive .500 team. But while they did a lot with organisation, effort and depth last year, Thibault knew as well as anyone that his roster needed more talent if they wanted to take the next step. His team also had a pretty glaring hole. Ivory Latta came in and did a useful job as the point guard last season, but it was a constant patchwork effort alongside her in the backcourt. They drafted Tayler Hill with the #4 pick, but she was a complete bust early on and only mildly useful off the bench as the season progressed. She’s now pregnant and due to give birth in May, so will probably be even less useful on a basketball court in 2014. The alternative last year was Ajavon, whose speed, aggression and willingness to take the big shot can be valuable – but her tendency to take a lot of bad shots and miss most of them distinctly mitigates that value.
Lawson always seemed a likely option to fill that hole. She grew up in the D.C. area; she has a relationship with Thibault from their time in Connecticut, where she had some of her best years; and her relationship with the Sun organisation broke down to such a degree last year that everyone knew she was going somewhere. She’s a superb outside shooter, 40% for her WNBA career from beyond the arc, including 43% over the last three years in Connecticut. But she can also be a steadying influence on an offense, running the pick-and-roll and getting the ball where it needs to be. Obviously, she’ll also be comfortable with Thibault’s sets and system after three years playing for him with the Sun. Playing alongside Latta could be a good fit, because neither will have to take on all the ballhandling responsibilities. Latta’s improved as a distributor but still likes to look for her own shot; Lawson had her best season in Connecticut when Allison Hightower was taking some of the point guard requirements off her hands – between them, they should be able to find a balance and help each other out.
Of course, as with Phoenix’s acquisition of Erin Phillips yesterday, there are one or two risks attached. Lawson’s 33 years old, and she’s already got an established presence on ESPN as an analyst that she could switch to as a full-time gig at some point – so she might not play for that many more years. That said, she takes care of her body and her diet, and hasn’t made any noises about considering retirement, so she could be around for a while yet. Her age also makes injuries more likely, and last year in Connecticut also raised some issues about her character. Her father fell ill during the season, which was obviously a factor in the number of games she missed, but there were already rumblings about her unhappiness behind the scenes (and how vocal she’d been about those issues). Some niggling injuries also didn’t seem to want to go away – although it was never entirely clear how much she was actually hurt, and how much she was ‘injured’ as part of her disagreements with the franchise. But her problems with the organisation seemed to begin with their decision to fire Thibault, so hopefully she’ll be happy again now they’ve been reunited. Her defense is pretty poor too, and she won’t have Hightower to help cover for her in Washington, but Thibault should be able to find ways to cover for that.
When it comes down to it, the Mystics have acquired a very good player at a position of need, who had the best season of her life just two seasons ago in 2012. If they get anything like that version of Kara Lawson it’ll be a major upgrade, without having to give up an awful lot. In fact, when most theoretical trades were proposed sending her to Washington, the Mystics were giving up either the #6 pick in the draft or one of their younger players. Getting her for nothing more than a second-rounder and the player whose minutes she’d be taking anyway feels like a steal.
Grade for Washington: A
So what about the team that gave Lawson away? After dumping Thibault and hiring Ann Donovan to take his place, Connecticut were supposed to be looking to take the final step towards a championship last season. Instead, injuries, mismanagement, poor coaching and poor play left them as the worst team in the league. The positive to come out of that was the #1 pick in the upcoming draft, but they still have a lot of decisions to make in building their roster heading into the 2014 season. The last thing they want is a repeat of last year.
Lawson was never going to play for the franchise again after last season’s debacle. She didn’t want to be there, and the Sun hierarchy didn’t want her there either. So it was a matter of making the best deal they could, when everyone else around the league knew the position they were in. It probably isn’t a coincidence that this deal was consummated a day after Phillips landed in Phoenix – maybe Lawson could’ve gone there and netted the Sun the #9 pick in the upcoming draft. When the Mercury gave that pick up for Phillips instead, Connecticut settled for Bentley from the Dream.
Bentley is no Kara Lawson – even Donovan and the Sun front office would probably admit that. But she did at least show some flashes of promise last season in Atlanta. She shared the point guard responsibilities with Jasmine Thomas for a team that made it all the way to the WNBA Finals, showed some quickness and offensive aggression, and shot 40% from the field and 33% from beyond the arc. She didn’t set the world on fire by any means, but there’s some potential to work with.
Those numbers are a little deceptive, however. She opened the season 13-25 from three-point range, including a remarkable sequence where she hit 10 in a row across five games. Then she shot 19-81 (23%) from outside for the rest of the year. She’s going to need to work on her consistency from the perimeter, and on her ability to create for others rather than just her own shot, but there’s some talent there. She’s also nearly a decade younger than Lawson, and about $70,000 cheaper, which are positives.
Maybe the Sun could’ve waited around to see if a better deal materialised later in the offseason, but undoubtedly they called around everywhere to see who was interested and what might be on offer. It’s a talent downgrade, but they turned Lawson into a young guard who can at least be part of their rotation, and might develop into something more given some nurturing. That’s not too bad for a player everyone knew they had to get rid of.
Grade for Connecticut: B- (you have to at least consider that part of the fault for the breakdown of the relationship with Lawson – and the resulting need to trade her – falls on the franchise)
And finally, the team whose presence in this transaction makes far and away the least sense. Atlanta gave up Bentley, a young point guard with some promise (and admittedly some flaws), for an older, far more expensive shooting guard who’s proven her mediocrity over a considerably longer period.
I’ve defended Ajavon in the past. There’s a place in the game for aggressive, score-first guards who aren’t necessarily efficient, but are fearless and can get hot on any given night. But she’s been in the WNBA for six years. We know what she is. She’s shot 35% from the field, 28% from three-point range in her career, which are bad, bad numbers for a player that likes to fire away as much as she does. She had a good year in 2011, where it looked like she might’ve taken a step forward and learned how to harness her talents better – but even that season she only shot 39%, and most of the improvements have faded in the years since.
It’s hard to see why Atlanta would want to swap Bentley for Ajavon (and that #18 pick isn’t enough compensation to make any meaningful difference). It leaves them with only Jasmine Thomas as anything resembling a point guard on the roster, which probably means they’ll be searching for one in the draft again (another team that might be hoping to land UConn’s Bria Hartley). It’s hard to add starters in free agency, but maybe they’ll chase someone like Candice Wiggins or Allison Hightower. The move could, scarily for Dream fans, be a preemptive attempt to fill a different hole. Armintie Herrington is an unrestricted free agent, and if she leaves there’ll be an open spot on the wing. Maybe they’re hoping Ajavon can combine with Tiffany Hayes to fill that shooting guard spot.
It’s a whole lot of maybes without a lot of answers at this stage, and an inauspicious start to the Michael Cooper/Angela Taylor era in Atlanta. They weren’t even in town for Bentley’s rookie campaign, so for whatever reason they’ve moved her on without even taking a close look for themselves. And received a conscience-less gunner who misses a lot more than she hits in return. It’s a move that’s hard to understand.
Grade for Atlanta: D
Lawson got out like she wanted, is back playing for the head coach who drew her best basketball out of her, and in her old backyard. Outside of being a little further from the ESPN studios, everything’s coming up roses for her.
Grade for Lawson: A
Bentley goes from the Eastern Conference champions to the team picking first in the upcoming draft, which seems a little unfair. She’ll also have to learn another system in just her second year as a pro. But there should be opportunities to earn minutes in Connecticut, and with defenses being drawn to Tina Charles (and probably Chiney Ogwumike) she should have plenty of open looks.
Grade for Bentley: C
A change of scenery might be good for Ajavon, who’s been doing the same old things for largely forgettable Mystics teams for five years. She also lives in the Atlanta area, and it’s the team she signed with as a restricted free agent a couple of years ago, before Washington matched the offer. But they still play basketball with just one ball, and Angel McCoughtry’s the dominant force on the Dream roster (with several other players also higher in the pecking order than Ajavon). There might not be quite so many opportunities to fling up shot after shot in Atlanta as she found back in D.C.
Grade for Ajavon: B