Superteams might be the talk of the 2023 WNBA season, but a different phenomenon more aptly describes what the league is experiencing top-down at this moment: a changing of the guard.
All-time greats Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles retired last year — the former had become synonymous with the Seattle Storm franchise, and the latter was the final remaining vestige from the Minnesota Lynx‘s 2010s dynasty.
Other organizations experienced widespread change, too. The 2021 champion Chicago Sky saw the departure of franchise stalwarts Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and hometown hero Candace Parker.
Out with the “old,” in with the “new” — in this case, new faces. The Storm and Sky have turned to their longest-tenured players remaining to assume the mantle: Jewell Loyd, the 2015 No. 1 draft pick, and Kahleah Copper, the 2021 Finals MVP. The Lynx have passed the baton to longtime heir apparent Napheesa Collier, their 2019 first-round selection.
All three players are under 30. The trio have been tabbed All-Stars. And now all three look to propel their franchises into their next chapters, whether that’s contending for championships or building for the future.
Collier ushers in new era for Lynx
The Lynx won four championships between 2011 and 2017 to become one of the most decorated franchises in league history. That era officially came to a close after last season as all the icons behind that run — Fowles, Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson — had retired.
Collier has for some time been tapped as the next player to lead the Lynx franchise. The UConn Huskies grad and Tokyo Olympian has been an All-Star each full WNBA season she’s played, and when the league didn’t hold the event in the 2020, she came in fifth in MVP voting.
Collier missed the majority of the 2022 campaign after giving birth to daughter, Mila, in late May, but returned to take the court with Fowles one last time, appearing in Minnesota’s final four regular-season contests.
Things are different without Fowles. Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve has implemented a new offensive system predicated on spacing and attacking. And now more than ever, the organization is emphasizing its priority is not to win now but future development.
But completely abandoning Minnesota’s championship standard isn’t an option either.
“Obviously this is a dynasty organization, so to have that be on my shoulders now, I definitely take it seriously,” Collier said. “I want to appreciate the people that came before me and make sure that I’m leading the team in the right direction.”
“She’s been groomed for the passing of the baton, the leadership baton, and I think she’s really ready for the moment.”
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve on Napheesa Collier
Collier isn’t the only vet on the team, but she is the lone captain. This marks the first time in Reeve’s tenure multiple players haven’t been assigned the role.
Collier is incorporating elements of what she learned from Augustus, Fowles and previous coaches into her leadership approach. Even “The Last Dance” documentary serves as some inspiration: Collier assures she doesn’t want to assume the aggressive approach Michael Jordan took in holding his teammates accountable, but sees the importance of it.
“I feel like this has been brewing for her for four years,” Reeve said. “I think she’s been groomed for the passing of the baton, the leadership baton, and I think she’s really ready for the moment.”
Copper, Sky still look to contend
Kahleah Copper drops 8 consecutive points for the Sky
Kahleah Copper is automatic as she knocks down three consecutive baskets to extend the Sky’s lead.
Less than two years ago, Kahleah Copper was part of a stacked roster that clinched Chicago’s first championship. The Sky were contenders to repeat in 2022 before a shocking semifinal elimination loss at home to the Connecticut Sun.
Within months, Copper — who had re-signed with Chicago on a two-year deal in February 2022 — was the only remaining player of the Sky’s core: Vandersloot, Parker and Azura Stevens signed with different teams as free agents, while Quigley and Emma Meesseman opted not to play in the WNBA this year.
Instead of choosing to rebuild, general manager/head coach James Wade sought to construct a team around Copper that could contend for a championship. The Rutgers Scarlet Knights product quips she took on the role of assistant GM during free agency as she helped Wade shape a team now featuring new additions Marina Mabrey, Courtney Williams, Elizabeth Williams and Isabelle Harrison.
“You couldn’t ask for a better leader.”
Sky coach James Wade on Kahleah Copper
On previous Sky squads, Copper took more of a backseat role in leadership given the experience and stature of the greats alongside her. Assuming this new position, she admitted early in training camp, is “hard,” but not something she’s unprepared for.
Copper sees herself as a natural leader, someone who despite her current stardom can relate to players still working to find their place in the league — after all, she was a role player herself not too long ago. And on a team that’s been discussed as having so many strong personalities, Copper says she encourages her teammates to be themselves.
She absorbed leadership qualities from the likes of Parker and Vandersloot, but sees this as a new chapter of Chicago Sky basketball — and “there’s nothing wrong with new,” she said.
“The communication has been really good, me understanding her, her understanding me and the staff and what we’re trying to do and the vision that we have,” Wade said. “She’s been really good at executing that and explaining that to the players around that are new and kind of helping them get situated. So you couldn’t ask for a better leader.”
Loyd leads young Storm
This season was always going to be a year of transition for the Storm once Bird announced she was retiring at the end of the 2022 campaign. The new era was solidified when Breanna Stewart, a two-time Finals MVP, opted to sign with the New York Liberty in February.
Jewell Loyd isn’t the only vet in Seattle: In free agency the Storm brought back Sami Whitcomb, who was part of their recent title-winning teams, and they still have Mercedes Russell, who missed the majority of 2022 due to health issues but has been in Seattle since 2018.
But with Loyd the sole remaining member of the Big Three that defined Storm basketball across its run of two championships in three seasons, the former Notre Dame great is the new face of the franchise.
Seattle and Loyd got a taste of what this would look like in 2019, when Stewart and Bird missed the entire season with injuries. And even with those two on the floor, Loyd — a four-time All-Star, two-time all-WNBA selection and Tokyo Olympian — has often taken, and made, big shots in big moments.
This year will be different regardless, with more than half of the Storm’s roster comprising players with three or fewer years of experience. Loyd knows she’ll be carrying more of the offensive load without sacrificing efficiency, and that her perimeter defense remains critical.
Loyd, as with Copper and Collier, know one thing for certain: They can’t try to replicate the old guard in how they operate on the court and even in how they lead. The best approach is to be the best versions of themselves as players and leaders and to put their own stamp on their organizations.
“I came into the league with a team full of vets … I’ve seen what leadership looks like from different people, different perspectives,” Loyd said. “I’m not Sue, I’m not Stewie, I’m not AC. It comes a little differently for me. I’ve been in this position before. I didn’t have to do it here, but I’m definitely ready for it and I’m excited for it.”