Benches in the WNBA are growing colder by the summer. With roster sizes limited to only eleven players since the 2009 season, benchwarmers are becoming an extinct species in the league. Admittedly, while bench-warming is probably not an occupation many athletes deliberately seek, it is a role that brings unparalleled passion and enthusiasm to teams in the sport of basketball; however, with so few roster spots available, WNBA benches are beginning to lose some of the fire, flair, and fun that sometimes only reserves can provide.
If Liberty guard Sidney Spencer had come into the league after 2009, she probably would not have made a roster as a rookie three point specialist. Yet Spencer has held on to her roster spot the past few seasons as a tenth/eleventh woman on the bench, averaging around seven minutes per game and shooting 42% from beyond the arc when her number is called. Even though Spencer would much rather be on the floor for the 33 minutes she spends on the sidelines each game, she makes the most of her role on the team and stays nearly as involved as a player could be without actually being on the court. Glance at the Lib bench during a game and spectators will likely find Spencer standing at the end of the bench cheering on and encouraging her teammates. If a Liberty player knocks down a shot from three point land, Spencer usually has her arms in the arm signaling three before the referee. If a teammate draws a charge, Spencer starts high-fiving those on the bench like they are the ones on the court. If her team is making a comeback after being down, watch out for Spencer and her flying rally towels.
Players like Sidney Spencer are a big part of what the WNBA is missing out by limiting roster sizes to eleven sacred spots. When teams have almost as many players on the court as they do on the bench and those players are busy subbing in and out to give starters fresh legs, it is hard to create much enthusiasm on the bench. If just one or two more spots were made available per team, hundreds of players would be vying for these few spots. The players that would likely make the teams would be the ones with the most heart and passion for the game—the same type of players that bring heart and passion to benches whether they step foot on the court or not. Former Mercury guard Taylor Lilley is a perfect example. Last season, Lilley fought for a roster spot in Phoenix, beating out veterans as a rookie to make the team. While she may not have spent much time on the floor, Lilley made a huge impact on the team’s bench as the mastermind behind the Mercury bench’s free-throw routine—a fun ritual that the players on the bench carried out for the rest of the season. However, Lilley was cut before the start of this season, and the Mercury bench is lacking the flair it had in 2010 with Lilley leading the charge.
The WNBA’s small roster sizes cause benches problems in more ways than just enthusiasm levels. Eleven player rosters leave teams no room to keep and develop young players. Coaches can no longer take a chance on a young player and hope to groom them into a star. They must instead fill the final roster spots with veteran players that are assured to produce decent, solid numbers for the time being. There is no longer a place for stories like that of San Antonio guard Becky Hammon and her journey from undrafted rookie to heralded superstar. Today, second round picks have less than stellar chances of making a WNBA team. Undrafted rookies filling one of eleven roster spots is something that is sadly now nearly unheard of. Specialists are another type of player commonly found unemployed. Teams have no way to add a defensive specialist or a sharp shooter like Kelly Mazzante. Former women’s college basketball scoring leader Alysha Clark has yet to make a roster due to her size and struggle to switch positions. GMs are skeptical of taking a chance on injury prone players like Cheryl Ford or giving older players a last shot at a ring. Who knows? Maybe Sheryl Swoopes is able to find a home a lot sooner had rosters not been trimmed to eleven.
Probably the best argument for an increase in roster sizes is injuries. Teams with one or two injured players during the course of a season are out of luck as far as replacements go. Only teams that fall below nine healthy players are able to apply for a waiver which allows a replacement signing. With no injured reserve or disabled list in the WNBA, the only options are for teams to either cut the injured players, as was the case with Chicago and Shameka Christon, or play with a short bench, which is an easy way to injure other players as they are forced to play big time minutes when no subs are available. It is understandable that the league is trying to save money in places it can and saving teams a couple salaries each is a surefire way to do so. However, it is unfortunate that while the business side of basketball may be benefiting from such, the game is suffering in more ways than one.
President Laurel Richie has shown in her short time at the helm of the league that she is a very warm-hearted person. Let’s hope for the sake of the game she also believes in warming other things. Benches would be a nice start.