Could Breanna Stewart's injury be tipping point for WNBA negotiations?


Women's basketball fans are lamenting the Achilles injury that will keep Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart out this WNBA season. All serious injuries are upsetting. But when it happens to the WNBA's reigning MVP, someone who many consider the best women's basketball player in the world right now, it's particularly depressing.
Stewart, also the current EuroLeague MVP, is just 24. She confirmed Wednesday that she had suffered a ruptured right Achilles tendon. The hope is she's back strong by 2020 for the WNBA season and the Tokyo Olympics.
The WNBA was already facing a summer without 2014 MVP Maya Moore, who won't play for Minnesota this season as she is focusing on life away from basketball. Now, there's no Stewart for the defending WNBA champions. And center Liz Cambage, who electrified the WNBA last season when she returned from a four-year absence, might not play if she doesn't get the trade to Los Angeles that she wants from Dallas.
We've been through seasons without top players before, and there will still be other stars to shine in 2019. But along with the sadness being expressed over Stewart's injury, anger is also evident on social media. The 6-foot-4 Stewart was hurt playing in the EuroLeague Final Four championship game for Russian team Dynamo Kursk on Sunday, and people are pointing to the almost year-round basketball schedule for women as the culprit.
Whether that's a factor is unknowable, of course. Achilles and ACL injuries are the two scourges of basketball, and they can happen anytime to players of all ages in games or in practice.
Stewart -- whose surgery and rehab are covered by her WNBA health insurance -- is far from the first WNBA player to be injured while playing overseas. But considering the league and the players' union are in the process of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, will this situation -- a player of such stature hurt while playing outside of the WNBA -- make a difference going forward?
After the 2018 WNBA season, the players opted out early from the CBA. That didn't change the terms for this season, but a new agreement is needed before the 2020 season. Salary increases are a part of what the players seek, but also what they've referred to as "quality of life issues."
Like most WNBA players, Stewart also competes overseas to maximize her income. Stewart made $56,793 in base salary last season with the Storm, earning bonuses of a $15,000 for being MVP, $11,025 for winning the WNBA title, $10,000 for being All-WNBA first team and $2,500 for being in the All-Star Game. She was slated to make $64,538 this WNBA season in base salary.
Since being drafted No. 1 in 2016 after winning four NCAA titles at UConn, Stewart has played 111 games in three WNBA seasons, 58 games for her Chinese team in 2016-18, 18 games this year for her Russian team, and 14 games for USA Basketball, not counting exhibitions.
It's not really the number of games, but the lack of consistent, sustained time off that wears down WNBA players who also compete overseas. An NBA player might compete in 100 games in a season if his team has a long playoff run. But even NBA players with the longest possible season have late June to late September to recuperate before training camp starts again. Plus, they have charter flights, the best in nutrition and technology and multi-million-dollar contracts.
The WNBA players are realistic; they know the money and perks won't be anywhere near the same for them. But last season, in particular, was taxing for those in the WNBA. There was the extra-compressed schedule -- resulting from the need to end the season in September before the start of the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup -- which limited rest even more than usual. And there are no charter flights, which makes travel in the WNBA more draining.
For the first time since the league began in 1997, a team refused to play because a 26-hour travel ordeal hadn't allowed them any rest before a game. The Las Vegas Aces' decision resulted in a forfeit because there was simply no wiggle room left to reschedule.
For Stewart, her 2018 went like this: playing in China, brief time off, WNBA season, World Cup in the Canary Islands, brief time off, playing in Russia. She hasn't had significant recovery time since before her senior season at UConn. Now, she'll have time away from playing but while going through rehab and physical therapy.
WNBA players make the case that improvements in salary and other issues will result in an even better product that will continue to grow the league. The parent NBA has countered that it loses money on the WNBA every year, and said it lost $12 million for 2018. Even so, NBA president Adam Silver spoke positively last fall about support for the WNBA and said he shared common goals with the players about finding some solutions to things that both sides see as problematic.
Will that mean greatly increased salaries that eliminate the need for players to go overseas, unless they really do want to do it? That happening in the next CBA is likely unrealistic. But there is a feeling that the union membership is more engaged than it ever has been, and that everything is open to discussion.
Could that mean greater protection -- as in significantly larger salaries -- for the WNBA's most elite players like Stewart? Perhaps, but it would have to be acceptable to the union members at large and the league.
Maybe the NBA will more actively pursue ways to employ players during what should be an offseason from playing. Maybe at some point, there will be a longer WNBA season. Certainly, there are some players -- including the non-American players -- who might prefer to spend some time playing elsewhere besides the WNBA. But for the majority, if the WNBA could be the only league they play in, they'd prefer that.
Whether Stewart's injury is seen as a kind of tipping point for substantive changes remains to be seen as CBA negotiations might last into 2020. But what's certain is the Storm have to find a very different way to put the puzzle together for 2019.
Last week, Seattle drafted a 6-4 forward in Ezi Magbegor, a 19-year-old Australian who has played professionally in her home country but now might have a bigger role with the Storm than expected. More weight definitely falls on guard Jewell Loyd, who was rookie of the year in 2015, the season before Stewart won that honor. Loyd was the Storm's second-leading scorer last season at 15.5 PPG, behind Stewart's 21.8.
Forward Natasha Howard, who was traded to Seattle last season and was a big key to the Storm's title, will have more to do as well. And point guard Sue Bird, who's starting her 17th WNBA season and has seen all the highs and lows, will try to bring it all together, despite the disappointment that she and the rest of team no doubt feels.
The season starts May 24, and no one was prepared to not see Stewart playing this season. But it's a harsh reality that the Storm -- and all women's basketball fans -- have to accept.