WNBA's issue with limited roster spots, hard salary cap will linger beyond investigation into Aces, Becky Hammon

Roster gymnastics. It’s the new term Los Angeles Sparks head coach Curt Miller expects to take hold in the WNBA as teams work under the hard salary cap, limited roster spots and unavoidable injuries to build a competitive roster game in and game out.

That constant back handspring, aerial and shimmy are also why the investigation into the Las Vegas Aces goes far wider than the subjects involved. The investigation triggered by Dearica Hamby, who was traded from the Aces to the Sparks in the offseason, is a messy one bound to happen regularly if the WNBA and WNBA Players Association don’t come to a detailed answer on a bigger conundrum of how to handle pregnancy in professional sports. And it is by no means an easy one to iron out.

The league announced Tuesday that Aces second-year head coach Becky Hammon was suspended the first two games of the season without pay for “violating league and team Respect in the Workplace policies.” The investigation, which the WNBA told Yahoo Sports was conducted by a prosecutor from the Southern District of New York and another from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, stemmed from an Instagram post by Hamby in January after the trade news.

Hamby said “disgusting comments” were made toward her regarding her pregnancy, which she announced at the Aces’ championship parade, and she was treated in an “unprofessional and unethical way.” She said she was told she was a “question mark,” there was a concern about her commitment, and that she “didn’t hold up my end of the bargain.” She did not name anyone then or in subsequent interviews. Hammon’s name was only attached in the WNBA release, and even then with limited details.

“I handled Dearica with care from Day 1 when she told me [about her pregnancy]. And she knows that,” Hammon told reporters on Wednesday morning in a pre-scheduled Zoom call held for each coach ahead of the season. “And, like I said, once I make the phone call that the decision has been made to move her, that’s when everything kind of fell apart.”

Hammon said the accusations are “vehemently false” and regarding the chat with Hamby, she said it’s “not how I recall the conversation going.” The violation is “me asking about her pregnancy in a private conversation with Dearica, that’s what they said,” Hammon said.

“It is true that the Respect in the Workplace violation included inappropriate questions Becky asked Dearica about her pregnancy,” a WNBA spokesperson told Yahoo Sports. “We don’t think it would be appropriate to comment beyond that.”

Without any type of publicly shared concrete investigative findings alluded to in that statement, this is a case of two sides viewing a conversation and situation differently. And Hammon was clear before leaving the video chat that she validates Hamby’s feelings and understands. It can’t be easy for anyone, especially a team roster as close-knit as the Aces.

The basic issue is in some ways the same as when a player is out for the season with injury. There is a business aspect to this, whether liked or not. The WNBA salary cap is $1.4 million this season and teams already have a tough enough time fitting in rosters to carry a minimum 11 players. The maximum is 12, a small number for a professional basketball team that has meant a revolving door of hardship and seven-day contracts.

The Aces, who now have a target after winning the title, featured an incredible starting five, but a less-productive bench. They extended Jackie Young off her rookie deal, more than doubling her salary and eating into their leftover space for 2023. They had recently done the same for A’ja Wilson. After moving Hamby, who is slated to make $169K, the Aces added two-time champion Candace Parker ($100K) and two-time champion Alysha Clark ($115K). They also signed Cayla George ($74K), a standout in the Australian Basketball League.

“It never was why we made the decision to move Hamby,” Hammon said of the star’s second pregnancy. “We made the decision to move Hamby because we could get three bodies in one contract. And we wanted to get three more people in. I think it’s very evident who we signed on why we made the move. But it was never an issue and it was never the reason she was traded. It just wasn’t. It came down to math and business. That’s all it was. Nothing personal.”

The Aces improved their roster with the moves, even if Hamby were not pregnant and questionable to play heading into the season. She played in the Sparks’ preseason game and is likely to play on Friday night in the season opener against the Mercury. Miller said he’s been impressed with her work in camp coming off of pregnancy.

Los Angeles Sparks' Dearica Hamby poses with her son, Legend, during media day on May 4, 2023. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

For argument’s sake, let’s pretend she wasn’t ready. Let’s say she opted, as Napheesa Collier did last season, to take the full six weeks or more for maternity leave. And she completely has that right and should be encouraged to do it. Now, the Aces would be in a serious bind. It’s one the WNBA could see more of as players utilize the maternity protections put in place in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement. Lynx forward Natalie Achonwa is currently out on maternity leave and Sky forward Ruthy Hebard just gave birth last month.

Skylar Diggins-Smith, the Mercury guard who gave birth in the offseason, also is out. Vanessa Nygaard, the second-year Mercury head coach, was the third interview of the day behind Miller and Hammon. She reiterated the franchise supports Diggins-Smith’s maternity leave and there are no details on a return.

But Phoenix still has games to play and on paper are in the middle pack of the standings seeking the franchise’s fourth title with Diana Taurasi’s career seemingly nearing its end. Nygaard noted Wednesday they are allowed to replace Diggins-Smith’s roster spot, but have to do it with a veteran minimum salaried player at $74,305. They cannot replace her at her salary level, which is only $500 off the player supermax of $234,350, a rule Nygaard called “strange.”

That means competitive-wise, the Mercury are at a disadvantage. Diggins-Smith accounts for one-sixth of the salary cap even though she is unable to play. Even in the free agency window the Mercury couldn’t make moves to improve their team knowing they wouldn’t have her available because that money was tied up. Now, they’ll add a player once the season starts who might not have been playing or training regularly leading into the season and wasn’t in their camp.

The larger complication is the Mercury reportedly explored trading her in July. There have been public disgruntlements between Diggins-Smith and Nygaard, including the guard using a clown emoji to describe her new coach. Midseason trades in the WNBA are incredibly rare because of the difficulties of the salary cap. It has to almost be a perfect one-for-one salary swap to stay under. But it’s doable. Diggins-Smith’s contract is up after this season.

Phoenix Mercury's Skylar Diggins-Smith will miss at least part of the 2023 WNBA season after giving birth in the offseason. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

What constitutes an overstep in questioning when those discussions arise, if they do? Would Diggins-Smith be upset and think her pregnancy caused the trade? What about the players who have been waived at training camps after having their children? How should and can coaches, who are intimately involved with their players and often say they view them as family, ask a player about a pregnancy? Even in the friendliest, most family of tones?

“I think there definitely has to be some changes, some structure put in place,” Hammon said. “Because right now it’s very gray, the rule that they have regarding pregnant players and how that looks within an organization. And I think for us as an organization, this decision had everything to do with freeing up money to sign free agents. That’s all this was, pregnant or not pregnant. This trade had to happen for the Las Vegas Aces to get better.”

It’s not an easy issue to deal with, but it’s one that needs more clarity by every party involved. Because whatever specifically happened in Las Vegas is bound to happen on some level in any other WNBA market, whether disgusting comments were made or not.