Breanna Stewart re-signs with Liberty: How below-max, non-guaranteed contract improves title chances

Reigning MVP Breanna Stewart is officially back for the New York Liberty on a deal that not only locks in the starting five from the 2023 WNBA Finals, but allows the team flexibility in bolstering its bench for another go at the franchise's first championship.

The sides agreed to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal below the regular league maximum, according toreports. The Liberty announced the signing on Monday. No details were disclosed.

Stewart's return was already a near-guarantee since general manager Jonathan Kolb said after the Game 4 Finals loss to the Aces that the Liberty would use the core designation to keep their superstar in town. How the contract was structured and how it impacted the rest of the team's offseason moves was the aspect most intriguing.

She headlines the super-team built through 2023 free agency, when the franchise fulfilled Kolb's whiteboard dreams by also adding point guard Courtney Vandersloot and former MVP Jonquel Jones via trade. They joined Sabrina Ionescu – whose first post-rookie contract kicked in this season – and Betnijah Laney.

Those names (Stewart, Vandersloot and Jones) were still on his whiteboard, albeit incredibly faded, when the Liberty reached their first WNBA Finals since 2002.

"It’s just symbolism," Kolb told Yahoo Sports during the 2023 Finals. "We wrote it out, spoke it into existence [and] some way, some how it came true. And we’re just trying to continue that with the goal at hand here, which is to win the whole thing."

The Liberty fell short against the budding Las Vegas Aces dynasty, who will remain their super-team foes with their own core all signed through 2024. One of the bigger differentiators in that series was the chemistry of each team. Las Vegas' core played together for multiple years before breaking through for the city's first championship in 2022. New York is now on that path with Stewart locked in and flexibility for its bench signings.

Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones
Stewart and Jones were each unrestricted free agents this year and will be back with the Liberty for 2024. (Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images) (Katharine Lotze via Getty Images)

Stewart, 29, and the Liberty waited to come to a monetary agreement until seeing the early dominoes of free agency. For New York, that included re-signing frontcourt partner Jones and pursuing forward Nneka Ogwumike, who opted to sign with a new Seattle super-team. Core deals are one-year, guaranteed supermax contracts, but players and teams can negotiate the terms. They have been used in the past for teams to get something back on a sign-and-trade with their star player who no longer wanted to be in town, though that wasn't probable in New York.

Stewart signing below the regular 2024 maximum of $208,219 (the supermax is $241,984) leaves the Liberty a little more room to offer more highly sought bench players. Players with high endorsement deals can afford to take less, and have been doing so, for teams to build championship contenders around them. They're also prioritizing other areas, such as facility and athlete support that led Stewart to New York in the first place.

More importantly, signing a non-guaranteed contract leaves an open spot for a player on a protected contract. The WNBA allows a maximum of six players on protected contracts, and the Liberty have five.

Stewart, a two-time WNBA champion still in the prime of her career after winning her second MVP, can take the risk of non-guaranteed money. The idea of the Liberty waiving her is, well, laughable. But reserves who are closer to the waiver line versus superstardom are enticed by guaranteed money, especially if the Liberty are offering less than teams that have more cap room.

They used this move last week when they signed guard/forward Kennedy Burke to a guaranteed contract at a reported vet minimum of $76,538. Burke has been on and off WNBA rosters since going No. 22 overall in the 2019 WNBA Draft and is currently playing in France. The Next reported on Monday the guaranteed contract was also used as a way to entice Burke to leave her overseas team early and arrive at Liberty training camp before triggering the prioritization rule. The full prioritization clause goes into effect this spring and the league will suspend players who are not in training camp on time. It's a risk for players who are often waived and left without a salary to give up their overseas contracts for a shot at playing full-time in the WNBA.

It also allows the Liberty flexibility via trade, whether that's ahead of the season or at the deadline, a usually quiet time in the league because teams are up against the tight cap and trades usually have to be an almost-identical one-for-one. With an open protected spot, they don't need to give away a protected contract if they want to sign a player on one.