The biggest news of the WNBA’s draft night this year had nothing to do with the players being selected. The Connecticut Sun had the #1 overall pick, and everyone had known Chiney Ogwumike was heading there from the moment the lottery ping-pong balls handed it to them. But the Sun still managed to be involved in the central story of the night, sending malcontented star center Tina Charles to the New York Liberty for center Kelsey Bone, the #4 pick (which immediately became Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas), and New York’s first-round pick in next year’s draft.
Charles being traded wasn’t really a big surprise. Last season in Connecticut was an absolute disaster, with several players upset about Mike Thibault being fired as head coach, Anne Donovan unable to take control or win key players over after being handed the reins, and then various injuries (and ‘injuries’) piling on top. As a result, a franchise that had won 25 games and been inches away from the WNBA Finals in 2012, finished with the worst record in the league and became a punchline in 2013.
Charles herself had a dismal season last year. She looked half-interested much of the time (at best), and reluctant to join the scrap under the basket when she had limited help around her. Donovan’s schemes, which seemed to encourage her to play further away from the basket, didn’t help. The raw numbers of 18 points and 10 rebounds per game were pretty impressive in a strange way – Charles was still piling them up even while playing on auto-pilot. The 40% field-goal percentage, for a freaking center, was staggeringly atrocious.
Some of her quotes towards the end of last season showed how unhappy she was with the way the year had gone, and hinted at a wish to get out – or to sit out. As always, that’s the primary negotiating tool for any WNBA player remotely near star-level. They make significantly more money overseas, so simply sitting out the WNBA season to rest their bodies before heading back to Europe or Asia is always an option. More often, it’s a threat. Trade me (sometimes ‘trade me to the specific city I want to play in’) or I just won’t play, has become a fairly common refrain around the WNBA.
According to the Sun, Charles didn’t make that demand for the vast majority of the offseason. They spoke to her, talked about the players they were pursuing and the plans for the future, and how she was going to be part of that. She listened. Then in the days leading up to the draft, through her agent, Charles communicated that she wanted out. It’s a childish, depressing way to go about things. If she’d been up-front and honest from the start about what she wanted, rather than messing the Sun around and forcing them into a move late in the process, many people would’ve understood. Waiting that long to make her demands does not leave Charles looking great at the end of this process.
But of course, Bill Laimbeer and the Liberty were more than happy to take advantage. There are only so many star players in the women’s game, and it’s not easy to acquire them, so when one becomes available who wants to play for you, you get the deal done. Despite last season, Charles is still that calibre of player. One of the top two or three centers in the women’s game, the obvious hope is that she’ll return to her previous levels of efficiency now that she’s escaped from Donovan’s coaching and will hopefully return to playing like she gives a crap.
The only real question that could be thrown at Laimbeer is whether they could’ve gotten her cheaper. If New York was the only place she wanted to play, maybe the Liberty could’ve played a bit more hardball and avoided giving up essentially three first-round picks to acquire her (Bone was their first-rounder last year). Still, the history of trades where teams receive a superstar for a collection of prospects suggests that the team gaining the star almost always comes out on top. Usually by a long way. Paying a somewhat reasonable price was worth it for Laimbeer and the Liberty. It leaves them a little thin and a little old, but Bill will back himself to build a team around Charles and Cappie Pondexter much faster than he would have around Pondexter and prospects.
But it’s still a pretty nice haul for the Sun, considering the corner Charles backed them into. Bone is a big body, who showed some promise in the post for New York last season as a rookie. She also spent the offseason winning everything in sight with Galatasaray in Turkey, looking like she was continuing to develop while surrounded by other stars. She’s the young center prospect that Connecticut needed to get back if they were giving up Charles – not a direct replacement, but at least someone young who can develop in the same spot.
When the trade started leaking out (after initial worthless trickles that it was Charles straight up for the #4 pick), the feeling was that it would be Notre Dame’s Kayla McBride that headed to Connecticut with New York’s selection at #4. Then San Antonio took her at #3, which shook things up a little. The Sun will have been perfectly happy to take Alyssa Thomas instead. She’s a very interesting pro prospect, because it’s hard to offer up a direct analogy for her in the WNBA. She’s something of a 3/4 tweener, but she can handle the ball, create off the dribble for herself and her teammates, and generally did everything for Maryland. The key flaw in her game coming into the pros is a lack of shooting range. For a player who’ll likely spend most of her time at small forward, you either have to be an exceptional driver/creator to overcome that (like an Angel McCoughtry), or you have to work damn hard on your shot. Otherwise you’ll fall swiftly back into the pack of ‘good but not great’ players. Thomas has the reputation of someone who’ll work hard to reach that next level, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how she translates to the pros. If she or Bone can become a true star, history will look much more kindly on this trade from the Sun’s perspective.
The 2015 first-rounder that finished off the package probably sounds nicer than it actually will prove to be. While there are still plenty of question marks around what the Liberty will produce this year, most would expect them to be a playoff team, which would drop the pick to #5 at absolute best. Even if New York are a mess again, the 2015 draft class is generally considered very weak, so while UConn’s Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis would be a big prize for Connecticut, there’s not a lot of runners-up prizes that would excite anyone. It’s a nice extra piece to have in the bag, but the Sun can’t expect too much to come from it.
So all sides come out of this process feeling at least moderately happy. Connecticut may have lost their star, but at least they turned her into solid pieces for a young squad that has the chance to rebuild quickly. New York got their second superstar. And Charles got exactly what she wanted, and probably won’t be too worried about the boos she’ll hear when the Liberty open their season on the road in Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Arena on Friday night.
Grade for New York: B+ – when you can add a star, you make the deal seven days a week and twice on Sundays. But maybe Trader Bill could’ve stolen her even cheaper, and she does need to bounce back from that 40% debacle last season.
Grade for Connecticut: B- – they’re the ones who dumped Thibault and began this whole downward spiral that eventually led to Charles wanting out. But once they were backed into a corner, they got a pretty nice collection of pieces in return.
Grade for Charles: A- – she got what she wanted, and goes home to play in New York, for a coach who’ll probably have the sense to demand she actually plays in the post. But outside of Pondexter, that’s still a lot of holes on that Liberty roster. We’ll see if Charles is still happy if the wins don’t start flowing.
Grade for Bone: C+ – after a rookie year fitting into one team and one system, now she has to start again. And hopefully Donovan does a better job of utilising her than she did with Charles last season. At least it’s a young team Bone can grow with, and having Chiney Ogwumike alongside her in the post isn’t going to hurt.
Grade for Thomas: B- – it’s a little crowded on the perimeter in Connecticut at this point, but she should get the chance to play enough to make an impact. New York might’ve been a better fit for her, but we’ll never know.