Cutdown Day is especially brutal in the WNBA compared to the major men’s pro sports. College programs are producing more players than ever with pro potential, but the WNBA hasn’t expanded to keep pace. With a hard salary cap, no injured list and no inactive list, there aren’t enough roster spots among the 12 teams to guarantee that even every first-round draft pick will have a seat on the bench.
Months ago, Lynx Coach and General Manager Cheryl Reeve knew she faced a roster crunch. With beloved future Hall of Famer Sylvia Fowles entering her final season, Reeve spent right up to the $1.379 million cap to try and send Fowles out with one more WNBA title. Reeve signed unrestricted free agent Angel McCoughtry, a five-time All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, and brought back point guard Layshia Clarendon, whose arrival five games into last season helped the Lynx overcome an 0-4 start to reach the playoffs for the 11th consecutive year.
Those and other moves left the Lynx exactly $622 under the cap going into training camp according to Reeve. Spending big on veterans meant the Lynx could only carry 11 players instead of 12. One of those, star forward Naphessa Collier, is due to give birth this month and may not play until August.
Eight of the remaining 10 spots appeared spoken for — Fowles, McCoughtry, Clarendon, Kayla McBride, Bridget Carleton, Damiris Dantas, Aerial Powers and Natalie Achonwa. Point guards Crystal Dangerfield and Rachel Banham, along with forwards Jessica Shepard and Rennia Davis, appeared to be vying for the last two places.
Clarendon seemed fully recovered from the stress reaction in her lower right leg that hampered her late last season. Then more than a week ago, Reeve said, the leg started giving Clarendon problems. Clarendon sat out a scrimmage and exhibition game in Washington, worrying Reeve. Facing a season that’s expanded and condensed at the same time — a record 36 games plus playoffs jammed in before the FIBA World Cup in late September — Reeve felt she couldn’t go into it with a starting point guard who might miss drills or a game here and there managing a sore leg.
“Washington scared me,” Reeve said.
Until Tuesday, Reeve never hinted Clarendon’s spot on the team was in danger. That’s what made the team’s Cutdown Day move such a shocker.
Never in their history had the Lynx put as many talented players in the street as they did Tuesday: A starter (Clarendon); the 2020 Rookie of the Year (Dangerfield); their 2021 first-round pick (Davis, who missed last season with a stress fracture in her left foot); speedy veteran guard Yvonne Turner, another free-agent signee; and 2022 draft picks Kayla Jones and Hannah Sjerven. Then, in another surprise, Reeve re-signed former Lynx Odyssey Sims to start at point guard.
“It wasn’t that Lay (Clarendon) became a bad basketball player,” Reeve said. “It has nothing to do with Lay’s ability to not lead or play. I just feel like to start the season, (they weren’t) in a good enough place physically.”
Clarendon acquired an immense social media following as the first openly non-binary player in WNBA history, meaning a person who does not identify exclusively as male or a female. (Clarendon uses he, she and they pronouns; MinnPost is using they.)
Cut by New York three games into last season, Clarendon joined the shorthanded Lynx on a series of hardship exception contracts before signing for the rest of the season. Hardship exceptions allow teams to go over the cap to sign replacements for players injured or playing overseas.
Basically, Clarendon saved the season. They averaged 10.4 points and 5.7 assists while shooting 51.7 percent from the field, helping the 22-10 Lynx surge late to secure the No. 3 playoff seed. The Lynx won 16 of the 21 games in which Clarendon appeared. But the stress reaction idled Clarendon for seven of the last eight regular season games, then limited Clarendon to 11 minutes in the 89-76 second-round loss to eventual league champion Chicago.
“It was a magical time what (Clarendon) did for us in 2021,” Reeve said. “It’s a story I’ll always tell and never forget. But this is 2022.”
None of the waived players were around Tuesday when the Lynx opened practice to the media. On Twitter, Clarendon responded to the news with “Sighhhhh” and a series of emojis, none of which featured a smile. In a follow-up tweet, Clarendon wrote, “I have no comments other than I am 100% cleared to play and practice. I’m feeling strong and ready to play!”
The waiving of popular former UConn star Dangerfield evoked strong social media reaction as well. Dangerfield arrived late to camp after leading her team in Israel, Elitzur Ramla, to a league championship. But Reeve instead chose Banham, the former Gopher who moved exclusively to point guard at the start of camp, as the backup to Sims.
“I told her (Dangerfield), she did everything right. She didn’t do anything wrong,” Reeve said. “She went overseas and played just like we asked her to do, brought them a championship. She missed some training camp as a result. At the end of the day, that’s not a factor. The numbers were what the numbers were, and the decisions were going to have to be made. Again, not an easy one.
“She has a really special season in 2020 and was a part of our Big Three. That’s how fast things change.”
Sims’ availability offered another view of the same problem. Sims started 21 games for Atlanta last year, but was let go at the end of the season. Though she played well over the winter in the fledgling Athletes Unlimited league, no WNBA team invited her to training camp.
It’s no secret the WNBA needs to expand, but it’s easier said than done. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told The New York Times in January that expansion can’t happen until the league generates more revenue. “We’re going to absolutely expand down the road,” she said, “but we don’t just expand for expansion’s sake until we get the economic model further along.”
Until then, there will be more rough days like Tuesday all across the league.
“It’s really hard to see anybody go, people we really love, people we built relationships with,” Banham said. “I feel very, very grateful to be on this team. It’s a tough situation. We all knew it was going to happen, but it’s hard.”
So are these Lynx any better than the group Chicago ran off the floor in the playoffs last year?
We may know more after this weekend; the Lynx open the season Friday night at Seattle before returning to the Target Center Sunday night to face Washington. One plus: The Washington Mystics aren’t bringing two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne, who’s taking occasional games off after two years of back problems.
The fast start Reeve hoped for now appears unrealistic. Like last year, the Lynx will start the season short-handed. McBride is overseas with her team in Turkey and probably won’t be stateside for another two weeks. McCoughtry, still building strength in her surgically-repaired right knee, received a platelet-rich plasma injection this week to speed the healing and didn’t make the trip to Seattle. Dantas (sore right foot) is out indefinitely. With no cap room to add anyone, the league granted the Lynx two hardship exceptions to bring back Turner and add free agent center Nikolina Milic from Serbia.
“When you make the type of changes we made a couple of days before you start, you probably should expect it’s going to take a little bit of time,” Reeve said. “I’ll have to be a little more patient than I would ordinarily be.”