WNBA Future Power Rankings: Predicting best, worst franchises

  • Co-author, Pro Basketball Prospectus series
  • Formerly a consultant with the Indiana Pacers
  • Developed WARP rating and SCHOENE system

    M.A. Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

Which WNBA teams have the best outlook over the next three seasons?

We’ve answered the NBA version of that question with our Future Power Rankings, which evaluate teams on the basis of five categories — players, management, cap space, market and draft picks — to predict which teams are trending upward or downward in the not-so-distant future.

For the first time, our WNBA writers have undertaken the same exercise, with a slight tweak. Unlike the NBA Future Power Rankings, which are based on a formula that weights scores in the five categories, in the WNBA version they’re merely used as explanations of how we arrived at our overall 1-12 ranking.

WNBA teams have never had to be more conscientious of how they manage their salary cap and future draft picks, which makes this a fitting time to begin Future Power Rankings for the league. The current collective bargaining agreement signed in 2020 ushered in an era of increased player movement, but as old contracts have cycled off the books, cap space has become more precious than ever.

At the same time, trades reshuffled the order of this year’s WNBA draft, with two contenders (the Chicago Sky and Washington Mystics) adding picks last offseason that landed in the top five.

With that in mind, let’s look at the WNBA’s top contenders across the 2023-25 time frame.

Our unanimous No. 1 choice, the Aces look poised to contend for additional championships after bringing home the first in franchise history. Las Vegas’ core players — Chelsea Gray, Dearica Hamby, Kelsey Plum, A’ja Wilson and Jackie Young — are all under contract through next season, with all five taking less than they could have potentially commanded as free agents.

With five players making at least $165,000 next season, the Aces will continue to have to scrimp on their bench. Still, we trust our top-ranked management team to find solutions, particularly with the possibility of attracting players chasing rings to a market also ranked first. — Pelton

Admittedly, a lot depends on the health of Elena Delle Donne. But she got through the 2022 season successfully enough with strategic rest. Now 33, she has said she hopes to have at least a few more years playing. It’s uncertain how long Mike Thibault will stay as coach, but he’s expected to be replaced by his son, longtime assistant Eric Thibault, while remaining as general manager. So the brain trust that has kept the Mystics competitive should be in place a while longer.

Washington did well in picking center/forward Shakira Austin in the 2022 draft, and the Mystics have another lottery pick (via trade) in the 2023 draft. — Voepel

The Sun have made the playoffs in all but the first year of coach/general manager Curt Miller’s tenure, which began in 2016. There’s no reason to think they won’t be one of the title contenders again in 2023, with most of their core under contract. They might have an issue keeping Sixth Player of the Year Brionna Jones, though.

Star forward Jonquel Jones becomes a free agent in 2024, and that’s when the current window for the Sun could be closing. Miller acknowledges that there is always some conflict wearing both the coach/GM hats regarding the “win now” vs. “plan for the future” mentalities. — Voepel

It’s been 20 years and a lot of water under the bridge since New York was last in the WNBA Finals in 2002. Now the Liberty are under new ownership, play in Brooklyn and have a young guard in Sabrina Ionescu to build around. But the Liberty don’t yet have the talent to be a championship team.

That could change with trades and free agency — could Syracuse native Breanna Stewart end up back in her home state? — and there’s every indication that Liberty management wants the franchise to return to where it was in the WNBA’s early years. — Voepel

The change in ownership in 2021, the addition of new coach Tanisha Wright and the arrival of general manager Dan Padover all have had a rejuvenating impact on Atlanta. The Dream are a young team, led by 2022 Rookie of the Year Rhyne Howard, with a lot of cap room to make moves for 2023 and beyond.

The expansion Dream reached the playoffs six of their first eight seasons, making three trips to the WNBA Finals. But they have made the postseason just twice in the past seven years, falling short the past four seasons in a row. This past 14-22 season showed progress and some stability, and that is something to build on. — Voepel

The most difficult teams to rank in FPR are those with a marquee free agent whose decision will affect the franchise’s fortunes for years to come. Seattle and Breanna Stewart fit the bill. If Stewart returns and the Storm can successfully replace now-retired Sue Bird with a point guard via free agency, they’ll remain contenders behind the duo of Stewart and fellow All-Star Jewell Loyd.

Even if Stewart departs — or decides not to play in the WNBA next season because of the league’s prioritization rule — Seattle is unlikely to tumble to the bottom of the standings. The franchise received high marks for both market (ranking third) and management (fourth), testament to a track record of success, albeit all of it with Bird on the roster. — Pelton

Like the Storm, the Lynx are hoping to extend a successful run without a future Hall of Famer. Sylvia Fowles was the last link on the court to Minnesota’s dynasty, leaving head coach and GM Cheryl Reeve (the primary reason for our second-highest management score) to retool the roster around budding star Napheesa Collier.

Although the Lynx remained a playoff team until this past season, with Collier absent nearly the entire way after giving birth, Minnesota needs to find a long-term option at point guard after cycling through options rapidly the past two years. If that happens, the Lynx could quickly return to contention. — Pelton

The Sky surprised themselves a bit in a good way by winning the WNBA title in 2021, and in a bad way by losing their semifinal series this year. Depending on free agency and other moves, the 2023 Sky could look pretty similar to 2022 — or they could look really different.

How much longer will Candace Parker play? Will Courtney Vandersloot stay with the only WNBA franchise she has played with? Sky coach and general manager James Wade faces some of the same questions other teams do in building for the future while also trying to take advantage of the potential current window to win. — Voepel

After amassing a treasure chest of first-round picks during their rebuild, the Wings now find themselves at a key moment as most of those rookie contracts begin to expire. Dallas extended All-Star guard Arike Ogunbowale for the supermax, but actually played better without her when she was injured toward the end of the regular season and beginning of the playoffs.

Teaira McCowan’s dominance in the paint largely fueled that late surge, and the center is now one of key restricted free agents for the Wings along with productive guard Marina Mabrey. Given likely raises for both players, Dallas no longer scores as well in terms of future cap space. — Pelton

The Wings also must find a new coach after deciding not to exercise an option on the final season of Vickie Johnson’s contract despite Johnson leading the team to back-to-back playoff appearances.

Since Diana Taurasi sat out the 2012 season, giving Phoenix the No. 1 pick the following year, the Mercury have been perhaps the WNBA’s most consistently successfully franchise. Phoenix managed to extend a 10-year playoff streak, but still left a turbulent season with more questions than answers. Will Taurasi return ahead of a season in which she’ll turn 41? And have we seen the last of Skylar Diggins-Smith in a Mercury uniform?

Tragically, the biggest question of all is when Brittney Griner might be freed from being detained in Russia. Griner’s absence loomed over a 2022 campaign that didn’t go to plan in Phoenix. We’ll see whether the Mercury can get back on track without the benefit of this year’s first-round pick, which would have been No. 5 overall. — Pelton

The Fever need a No. 1 pick in the worst way, and the lottery odds for the 2023 draft favor them. But that alone won’t be nearly enough: They have to make a smart decision on a new coach, and then figure out how much of their young core they want to keep.

The bad about the Fever is obvious: They won just five games this season and have not been to the playoffs since 2016. But there are some positives, like the performance of rookie NaLyssa Smith this year and the chance for a reset in terms of their coaching philosophy. — Voepel

Once the WNBA’s preeminent franchise, the Sparks are in an uncertain state after two years in the lottery cost Derek Fisher his dual roles as head coach and GM. Making matters worse, Los Angeles has had to see stars Parker and Gray win titles the last two years after departing in free agency. Worse yet, the Sparks won’t get a lottery pick for their lost season, having traded it for Chennedy Carter last offseason.

There’s still talent on hand in L.A., starting with Nneka Ogwumike, rightfully chosen to the All-WNBA second team. Ogwumike, who has played her entire career with the Sparks, pledged after the season to return alongside sister Chiney. But Los Angeles needs to nail the replacement (or replacements) for Fisher to upgrade our 11th-ranked management team. — Pelton

Alexa Philippou contributed to this report.

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