As the WNBA reaches the conclusion of its 27th season, stakeholders have differing opinions on how to grow the game — and the league. In the past decade alone, the WNBA has cycled through multiple collective bargaining agreements and even playoff formats in hopes of improving the business and player experience.
The Athletic surveyed the league’s general managers, who are the top basketball executives on their team, to get their thoughts on a wide range of WNBA issues. Topics include which players and coaches to build, rules you’d like to see, and the always-interesting expansion question. All 12 CEOs were asked to participate in the exercise on the condition of anonymity to speak freely, and all nine participated. Some of the nine declined to answer specific questions, but this is still an overview of how the league’s leading decision-makers think about the WNBA’s present and future.
GMs cannot select a player on their current team.
The most important task any general manager faces is building a roster, and the key to a competitive team in the WNBA is having at least one franchise-changing talent. In the words of one executive, “One is a unicorn, and I think we have a couple in our league. It’s clear that most CEOs would choose someone from their own organization if we didn’t increase the qualifications – and we deserve it!
For reference, this is what WNBA players said in a recent anonymous player poll about who they think will be the league’s best player in five years. Clearly some GMs were thinking about the future in selecting Caitlin Clarke.
Here’s how the eight GMs who answered the question explained their choices.
“Two years younger than Stevie and probably one of the best two players in the world right now.”
“She’s a consistent (healthy) superstar who has a big impact on winning. She continues to add to her game and gets better every year.
“She is our Olympic point guard. She is big. She is strong. I like a big keeper. Love her versatility. She can play one, two, three. She’ll wait for four, if you will.
GMs cannot select a player on their current team.
Defenders have different responsibilities at each position, making it challenging to focus on an individual player. And sometimes defensive stats can be deceiving because, according to one general manager, teams tend to target weak matchups and avoid using great defensemen.
Aja Wilson was named the 2023 Defensive Player of the Year, earning that honor for the second consecutive season. This award is voted on by the media, but WNBA general managers seem to have more love for the perimeter players than the voting body that didn’t choose the second-team All-Defensive guard. This year’s DPOY still made the general manager’s list, and she joins two other first-team All-Defensive selections.
Aja Wilson named WNBA DPOY for second straight year
“I think she’s diligent. I think she’s very athletic. I think her athleticism allows her to guard bigger players, but her quickness allows her to guard smaller players. I think she’s very versatile.”
When she shuts down, she can do as good a job as anyone in our league at minimizing what the other team’s best guard can do.
“She is strong. She is also persistent. She is physical. She takes a hit. She gives a kick. I love that kind of strength. “
When I think of the biggest impact player, it’s probably Alyssa Thomas. I think about her physicality and how she can’t get people in transition and in the half court.
Who makes the best new head coach in the league?
More than half of the WNBA’s 12 teams are now out, and eight franchises already face the reality that next year’s rosters will look different. The Phoenix Mercury and Chicago Sky have yet to hire a full-time coach, and more sideline opportunities may open up. We asked the current head coaches in the league who they thought would become head coaches who weren’t on your team’s staff. While we’re asking for a single name, many general managers have thrown out a number of candidates, offering some names to watch this summer and for seasons to come.
Chris Koclanes was one of the two most common responses from the three GMs who dropped his name. It’s worth noting that our conversation took place before USC women’s basketball announced its hiring as an assistant Tuesday after eight seasons in the WNBA. Koclanes most recently served as an assistant for the Sparks. After seven seasons with Miller and the Connecticut Sun, he followed Kurt Miller to Los Angeles. Koclanes has good play-calling responsibilities, and several general managers have cited that authority under Miller. “I think it gave Kurt a lot of autonomy,” one said. Another added: “They bring him up at quarterback or when he’s creating something for the team, so I think it’s great that he gets that position to show his coaching skills.”
Resume of our new assistant coach, Chris Cochlins! ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/orxoDtAHut
— USC Women’s Basketball (@USCWBB) September 26, 2023
Current Suns assistant coach Brian January was also mentioned three times. Although she was only in her first season as a WNBA assistant in January, one general manager said: “She definitely has that leadership, I think, and she could be a good head coach. Another praised her leadership, “I think this experience as a player will earn the respect of our players when you get the chance to be a head coach.”
Several other former WNBA players came up for discussion, including Kareema Christmas-Kelly (Indiana Fever) and LaToya Sanders (Washington Mystics). At the end of the season, six current head coaches were former WNBA players, with every team having at least one former player on the coaching staff, so it shouldn’t be surprising to see more former players getting coaching opportunities in the future.
Another general manager said Las Vegas Aces assistant coach Natalie Nakase could be in line for a head coaching position after the acquisition’s championship and success with the NBA. Liberty assistant coach Olaf Lange has been mentioned as an open candidate in the future due to his experience not only in the WNBA, but internationally. Current Washington Mystics assistant Shelly Patterson has more than 20 years of experience in the WNBA, has worked for more than half a dozen franchises, and, as one general manager put it, has been “overlooked” for jobs inside. The past.
And even though the athletic question is geared towards first-round draft picks currently in the WNBA, two general managers have mentioned current Indiana Pacers assistant coach Jenny Busek as another option. A former WNBA player, Bouceck was previously the head coach of the Seattle Storm and Sacramento Monarchs. Katie Smith, currently an assistant with the Minnesota Lynx, has also been mentioned by two GMs. “She was the head coach in New York during a very difficult time for that franchise,” one said, “when they changed ownership, so I think Katie deserves another shot.” Pokey Chatman, Seattle Hurricanes assistant general manager, was another head coach worth mentioning.
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(Image: John Bradford/The Athletic; Photos by Aja Wilson, left, and Caitlin Clark: Candice Ward, C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images)