The Los Angeles Sparks are staring down the barrel of a pivotal free agency period. Their three best players are all unrestricted free agents, and another one of their starters is a restricted free agent. A lot of moving parts are out of their control.
The Sparks took some of the uncertainty off the table today by coring Nneka Ogwumike, who is an unrestricted free agent. What the core designation means is that the Sparks extended a supermax qualifying offer to Ogwumike, valued at $221,450 for the 2021 season. She can take that one-year deal or negotiate a longer contract with the Sparks. The key for L.A. is that now Ogwumike cannot sign with another team unless the Sparks participate in a sign-and-trade.
Ogwumike finished second-team all-WNBA and first-team all-defense in the 2019 season, but had a bit of a down year by her standards in 2020. Her efficiency was excellent, as she shot 57.7 percent on 2-pointers and made half of her threes, but Ogwumike’s overall volume was down. She had the lowest per-36 minute rebound and block averages of her career. Ogwumike also missed the Sparks’ lone playoff game with what was listed as a migraine at the time but later revealed to be a concussion.
Off the court however, Ogwumike was a standard bearer in 2021. Her basketball performance suffered partly because she bore a substantial off-court burden as the president of the WNBA players association. Not only did she lead negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement prior to the start of the season, she was also heavily involved in creating the WNBA bubble and organizing the players’ social justice initiatives. After the season ended, Ogwumike acknowledged that she carried a lot of the stress on her back, and that limited her play.
But in a 2021 season that will hopefully not be played in a bubble, the Sparks expect the former MVP to once again be one of the best players in the league, thus why they cored her. The only downside to this decision is that if Ogwumike accepts the qualifying offer, the Sparks cannot negotiate a discount with her. There was some thought that L.A. might ask each of its three stars to take a slight paycut from the supermax (think the Heatles in 2010) so that the Sparks could have more flexibility under the hard cap, but Ogwumike signing the qualifying offer precludes that possibility.
Coring Ogwumike also means that the Sparks chose not to core Chelsea Gray, who is also an unrestricted free agent. The 28-year-old point guard is free to sign wherever she chooses, but the Sparks must have confidence that the California native wants to stay in Los Angeles if they didn’t exercise this designation on Gray. The team’s third star, Candace Parker, was not eligible to be cored at this point in her career.
The Sparks still have a lot of work to do to make sure that Gray and Parker are back in the fold, presumably along with Brittney Sykes. But coring Ogwumike is the first step in ensuring that this quartet remains in Los Angeles for at least one more season. Those four along with Kristi Toliver — who opted out of the 2020 season — make up the team’s dream starting lineup. Two down, three to go.