The last major domino of the WNBA offseason has fallen, and it’s a shocker.
Elena Delle Donne is taking a break from basketball, according to multiple reports. It is unclear if or when the 33-year-old — who does not play overseas — will return to the league. Although Delle Donne is a free agent this summer after completing a four-year supermax contract in 2023, the Mystics cored her, thus retaining the exclusive right to negotiate a new contract. If Delle Donne wanted to play for a new team, it would have to occur via sign-and-trade.
Over the past week, reports emerged that Delle Donne was interested in playing for Phoenix — where her former Washington teammates Natasha Cloud and Kristi Toliver (now a coach) moved this offseason — or Las Vegas, the defending champions. The Mercury used up their remaining assets for a potential sign-and-trade in a deal to acquire Kahleah Copper. The Aces don’t have any young players of value and would be unwilling to trade any of their core; furthermore, they are without a first-round pick in the 2024 and 2025 drafts, leaving them with minimal draft capital. It stands to reason that the Mystics would be unwilling to deal away Delle Donne for such a return and instead hold on to her until a better offer becomes available.
Washington had the option to core either Delle Donne or Cloud this offseason and chose the former, a two-time league MVP and one of the league’s 25 greatest-ever players. Cloud signed with Phoenix as an unrestricted free agent, but the Mystics may have been better off applying the core designation to her, given Delle Donne’s injury history and advanced age. Cloud drew real interest in free agency, and trading her would have netted Washington real value, as opposed to the awkward limbo the team now sits in with Delle Donne.
The Mystics entered the offseason knowing they had to either upgrade the core of the team that won the 2019 title or strip the team down to its studs. Given their cap inflexibility, the second option was more feasible. However, as things stand, two of their key players — Cloud and Delle Donne — won’t be suiting up for Washington in 2024, and the team has nothing to show for it. The team has signed several young second-draft candidates this offseason in the hopes of retooling, but carrying this roster will be a heavy lift for Ariel Atkins, Brittney Sykes, and Shakira Austin.
Delle Donne also had little agency in this situation. She was reportedly unsure about her future with the organization, but the Mystics tied themselves to her via the core designation. Other veterans in the latter stages of their careers — think Candace Parker joining Las Vegas in 2023 — have been able to take pay cuts to play for the team of their choice. Delle Donne was instead beholden to Washington’s wishes, which is perhaps why she chose to step away for the time being, though we don’t know her motivations. The problem is that whenever she chooses to return, the Mystics can core her again.
It should be noted that Delle Donne got to the Mystics via a trade demand, one that cost Washington a future Finals MVP in Copper. She had the power earlier in her career when she was an MVP-caliber player who could change the fortunes of a franchise. Now, the Mystics hold the cards.
Now that Delle Donne is sitting out, the Aces still have about $142,000 in cap space, a salary slot that seemed suitably earmarked for Delle Donne. It’s unclear what they will do with that money now, especially since the prominent unrestricted free agents are all off the board. Delle Donne was the last player available who could truly elevate a team’s ceiling. The WNBA will be worse off without her in it, and Washington has a tricky road ahead.
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