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Larry Stone

Larry Stone: Breanna Stewart and other stars are forming super teams, but is that good for the WNBA?

When Breanna Stewart signed with the New York Liberty last week, on the heels of another women’s basketball superstar, Candace Parker, announcing her intention to sign with the Las Vegas Aces, it caused a nationwide chorus of the same two-word phrase.

Super teams.

This had been largely an NBA concept — the notion of a group of elite players orchestrating their way onto one team with the design of clustering so much talent together that a string of titles would inevitably flow.

And now, it seems, the WNBA is following suit — much to the chagrin of the Storm, among others. With Sue Bird’s retirement and Stewart’s departure, the Storm — perennial contenders, heretofore — would seem to be in distinct rebuilding mode, suddenly occupying a talent tier well below that of the Stars and Liberty. Seattle still has a bona fide star in Jewell Loyd, but general manager Talisa Rhea now is trying to build a roster around Loyd without the Storm’s longtime anchors. They’ve announced a string of signings since Stewart’s departure, none of which had commensurate impact.

Meanwhile, to say New York and Vegas are loaded is an understatement. With the Liberty, 2018 WNBA Most Valuable Player Stewart joins 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones, recently traded to New York from Connecticut per her request, and guard Courtney Vandersloot, who was long believed to be a package deal with Stewart. Vandersloot shunned Seattle for New York shortly after Stewie did the same. Oh, the Liberty also have rising star Sabrina Ionescu, one of the best guards in the league.

Then there’s the Aces, the WNBA’s defending champions whose lineup reads like an All-Star team — 2022 (and 2020) MVP A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum, Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young, for starters. Add to that two-time MVP Parker, and you have an embarrassment of riches — four players who were once the No. 1 overall draft pick.

Between those two teams, you have seven of the 10 All-Star starters last year, and six out of 10 members of the All-WNBA team. The reigning league MVP (Wilson), Finals MVP (Gray), scoring champion (Stewart), most improved (Young) and active assists leader (Vandersloot) are all represented.

Does the rest of the league even have a chance?

In part, this trend is a byproduct of the new collective-bargaining agreement signed in 2020 that facilitated player movement by virtue of more distinct salary tiers. Previously, there was little financial incentive for players to leave, and you had star players such as Bird, who played her entire two-decade career in Seattle. The “W25,” an unveiling in 2021 of the 25 best players in league history, included 10 players who never left their original team.

It appears to be a whole new world now. That’s not to say super teams didn’t exist in the WNBA before the new CBA. With just 12 teams and roughly 150 players in the league each year, there are more stars than teams. That means there have always been clusters of star talent — including in Seattle with first Bird and Lauren Jackson, and then Bird, Stewart and Loyd. The Storm got four championships out of it.

The WNBA, in fact, was launched in 1997 with a classic super team — the Houston Comets, who won the first four league titles behind superstars Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson. And the Minnesota Lynx racked up four titles in seven years behind a core of Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles. The Los Angeles Sparks, with Lisa Leslie leading the way, had their run, too.

But in many of those cases, the talent glut was organic, not orchestrated. Bird, Stewart, Jackson and Loyd, for instance, were all No. 1 overall draft picks by the Storm. And if there were impact players bolting one team for another, it was usually done by forcing a trade (Fowles, Elena Delle Donne, Skylar Diggins-Smith, for example), not free agency.

What’s different now, it seems, is the intentionality of team-stacking largely through free agency. It mirrors what we’ve seen in the NBA — sometimes successfully executed, sometimes wildly disastrous. The Celtics got a title when they bunched Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. The Heat got two when LeBron James took his talents to Miami with Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade. But more recent super-team attempts involving the Clippers and Nets have yet to yield similar results — and LeBron’s latest laboratory experiment, the Lakers, is in disarray after netting one title.

Is this foray into the world of super teams good for the WNBA? It certainly fosters debate, which is never a bad thing. And it creates what should be an electric rivalry between the Liberty and Aces for their two regular-season meetings — and, presumably, a Finals matchup.

It also leaves the rest of the league seemingly as also-rans before any games are even played — though as the NBA has shown, it doesn’t always work out as well in reality for the super teams as it looks on paper. It’s not always easy integrating superstar talent — and egos.

Pro leagues have often thrived when there’s an elite team or teams for the rest of the league to gun for. But if that attempt proves futile, it could greatly diminish interest around the league. The WNBA is about to find out if super teams in Las Vegas and New York are good or bad for business.

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