The Wings didn’t wait long to make a big splash with their new coach. As part of a three-team trade completed on Monday, they acquired All-Star forward Natasha Howard and the rights to point guard Crystal Dangerfield from the New York Liberty. Dallas sent swingwoman Kayla Thornton to the Liberty, while backup guard Tyasha Harris moved to the Connecticut Sun.
The move was significant for a team needing a new direction, a process that began with the hiring of coach Latricia Trammell in November.
Howard, 31, is the headliner for Dallas. She averaged just over 15 points and 7 rebounds in 35 games last season. A three-time WNBA champion, a two-time All-Star, and a former Defensive Player of the Year, she has been around successful organizations, including Minnesota and Seattle. For an evolving team such as Dallas that has yet to experience success, having Howard in the room is huge. It’s a great culture add, the type of player Dallas has been missing.
Just as significant is the impact Howard is expected to have on the court. Assuming restricted free agent Teaira McCowan returns, she and Howard would form an imposing frontcourt duo. Howard shares McCowan’s prowess for scoring around the basket, but like Thornton, she can swing outside for the occasional three. (Howard’s three-point percentage was just .03 lower than Thornton’s in 2022.) Defensively, McCowan can occupy the paint, while Howard checks one of the opponent’s best wings. As a reliable scorer and a top-tier defender, Howard will be an upgrade in every way.
This also could signal a change in Satou Sabally’s role. The talented 24-year-old has shown flashes, but she has played in only 44 games over three injury-plagued seasons. The addition of Howard could move Sabally from the starting lineup to becoming the first player off the bench. Trammell could also experiment with new combinations, including a super-big lineup featuring Sabally, Howard, and McCowan. Either way, acquiring Howard is less about Sabally’s ability than it is a hedge in case she continues to struggle staying on the floor.
It’s not unreasonable to say that this deal is Howard for Thornton, and in that regard, Dallas won the trade. That’s not to diminish the contributions of KT, who had a fantastic 2022 season. She had her best season by offensive win share and her third best scoring season, and without her Dallas wouldn’t have won its first playoff game in 14 years. That said, Howard is a better offensive player with equal, if not better defensive capabilities. They are similar in age (Thornton is 30), and while KT is a free agent after 2023, Howard is under contract for another year.
Dangerfield, meanwhile, comes with strings attached. She is a reserved player, and there’s a remote chance Dallas doesn’t sign her. The former UConn standout hasn’t replicated her rookie season, when she averaged 16 points and almost four assists. Her production has dropped over the course of her three-year career; last season, she averaged 5.5 points in 33 games for Indiana and the Liberty. This is a potential reclamation project for Dallas, assuming the salary cap cooperates. If they can get Dangerfield back on track, the Wings will have a player who provides tough defense and scoring in a bench role.
Shipping Harris to Connecticut sends the clearest message of all: Dallas is all in on Veronica Burton. The seventh selection in the 2022 draft, Burton played in 36 games last season, and her usage increased over time, to the point where she played more than 30 minutes in both Game 2 and 3 of the playoff series against the Sun. The reason why? Defense, which was Burton’s calling card coming out of Northwestern and one that no other Wings guard could provide with such tenacity. That included Harris, who has yet to grow into the stopper her 5-foot-10 frame suggested she might become. Given that, Dallas had plenty of reason to part ways with Harris once the right deal came along.
There’s still plenty left to clear up in the frontcourt. Even assuming unrestricted free agent Isabelle Harrison moves on, Dallas could move a couple of bigs. That could make Charli Collier, the first pick in the 2021 draft, expendable, along with fellow first-rounders Awak Kuier and Bella Alarie (who sat out last season due to personal reasons).
Then there’s the Allisha Gray situation. Arguably Dallas’ best player in 2022, Gray has been the subject of trade rumors since last summer. The Wings would be best served to keep her around; she bridges the backcourt and the frontcourt with her skill set, and she doesn’t need the ball in her hands. But if a trade is inevitable, the potential return would exceed that of any player on the roster outside of Arike Ogunbowale. Should that happen, the focus should be on acquiring a floor general who can play alongside Ogunbowale and ease the pressure on her to be a playmaker instead of one of the Wings’ most lethal scorers.
Even before the trade, the Gray conversation was already a hot topic, and that talk doesn’t figure to subside until there’s a resolution. That’s a frustrating yet familiar place for Wings fans, who have seen big acquisitions get sullied by looming problems. The Howard trade is a step in the right direction. But the Wings will take two steps back if they don’t adequately address the Gray situation.