The Sparks suffered some losses in free agency, and those departures have likely removed them from contention for the 2021 WNBA title. But unlike most teams on the outside looking in, the Sparks have a former MVP on the roster, one who is firmly in the prime of her career.
A team that once belonged to Lisa Leslie and then Candace Parker is now in the hands of Nneka Ogwumike, the 2016 MVP and president of the WNBA players association. After helping to save the WNBA season in 2020 by leading the establishment of a new collective bargaining agreement and helping create the WNBA bubble in the midst of the pandemic, Ogwumike is now tasked with saving the Sparks, one of the league’s three original franchises that is still standing.
Our Brady Klopfer attempted to assess what went wrong in Los Angeles to lead to Parker and Chelsea Gray leaving, and there is more to learn on on that front, specifically as it relates to head coach and newly-promoted general manager Derek Fisher. For now, Ogwumike has agreed to a multi-year deal to remain with the Sparks this offseason, as reported by Rachel Galligan of Winsidr, suggesting that Ogwumike still wants to be here since she could have accepted a one-year qualifying offer. Along with Kristi Toliver, who has two years left on the max deal she signed last summer, and Brittney Sykes, who also will be returning to Los Angeles on a multi-year contract, that gives the Sparks three players (presumably) on protected contracts, and a lot of room to work with beyond that.
The Sparks have six other players on unprotected, or non-guaranteed, contracts. Sydney Wiese started much of last season and is essentially a lock to return on the first year of her rookie extension. Te’a Cooper signed her qualifying offer to remain with the Sparks earlier this month, and has an even larger role ahead at point guard given Chelsea Gray’s departure. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Kristine Anigwe were both also regular reserves. It seems fair to assume that those four players will be returning on their existing contracts.
Maria Vadeeva, the team’s first-round pick in 2018 who has yet to play a full WNBA season due to international commitments, is also a near certainty to be on the Sparks in 2021. Vadeeva is still only 22 years old and is one of the best young bigs in Europe. Her path to playing time in Los Angeles has been crowded before, but not anymore. She’ll be at least the third frontcourt player for the Sparks, if not the starter alongside Ogwumike.
The Sparks also have their own picks in the first and second rounds of the 2021 draft. Assuming a supermax contract for Ogwumike and $150,000 as the starting salary for Sykes, here’s what the team’s cap sheet currently looks like. Keep in mind, the Sparks would have to sign at least two more players to get to the minimum of 11, but they could also carry 12 players.
2021 Los Angeles Sparks cap sheet
|no. 10 pick||64,375|
|no. 22 pick||61,543|
One of those three remaining roster spots is assuredly going to Chiney Ogwumike, Nneka’s sister and occasional starting center in 2019, her first year with the team. Chiney has made a professional home in Los Angeles as a radio host for ESPN, and she had quite a productive season in her first year with the Sparks in 2019. The younger Ogwumike has also been very public about her desire to play with Nneka. If we pencil Chiney Ogwumike in for $120,000 in 2021, that leaves the Sparks with about $375,000 in cap room.
The Sparks have a few options for what they could do with that space. But first, it’s important to identify what types of players the team should be looking for. If Los Angeles is building around Nneka Ogwumike, a supremely efficient interior scorer, the team should prioritize shooting with those final two spots since there’s a good deal of perimeter defense already in place with Cooper, Ruffin-Pratt, and Sykes.
Incidentally, shooting is a skill that exists among the team’s existing unrestricted free agents, namely Riquna Williams and Seimone Augustus, who shot 42.2 and 54.5 percent, respectively, from 3-point range last season. Both of those players could come back at their 2020 salaries, and the Sparks would be at 12 players. The team assuredly has interest in retaining Williams, who has developed a strong relationship with head coach Derek Fisher, and Augustus was a very valuable mentor for the younger Sparks. Entering her age-37 season, however, retirement could be an option for the four-time champion.
The Sparks could look outward as well. At this point in free agency — a strange thing to say, considering contracts can’t be officially signed until Feb. 1 — there aren’t many players on the market who are really going to change the the team’s fortunes, at least not ones who would come to Los Angeles. Tina Charles and Emma Meesseman are both unrestricted free agents, but both players are expected to return to Washington. Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are also both unrestricted, but it would be a cold day in hell when they chose to play for the Sparks. The team might have to wait out the waiver market to see if players become available after other squads finalize their rosters. Rachel Banham is one such player who comes to mind, now that the Minnesota Lynx have brought in three new free agents this offseason.
If free agency doesn’t work, trades are the next option. The Sparks aren’t really in a position to be surrendering assets given that they’re not currently a contender, but they could demand assets from other teams to take on salary. For instance, the Dallas Wings are certainly looking to unload Astou Ndour and Moriah Jefferson. The Sparks could ask for Katie Lou Samuelson — a SoCal native whose sister Karlie played for the team in 2018 and briefly in 2019 — as a sweetener, or perhaps extract a draft pick as the cost of doing business. The Chicago Sky may also be interested in moving on from Stefanie Dolson now that they have Candace Parker. Neither of these options would make the Sparks better in the present, but they would help the team build for the future.
Speaking of trades, the Sparks could find themselves participating in sign-and-trades if Parker or Chelsea Gray is interested in getting a supermax on their next contract, a number they can only get if they sign with their current team. Chicago and/or Las Vegas would have to send something back to the Sparks to make that happen, and 2021 draft picks could help fill out the roster.
One further option to consider is if any of the Sparks’ overseas players want to come over. The Sparks have had rights to Alina Iagupova, arguably the best guard not playing in the WNBA right now, for two years. She would have a much larger role on this year’s team than either of the last two, and since Ukraine didn’t qualify for the Summer Olympics, Iagupova won’t have international commitments this summer. Los Angeles also drafted Leonie Fiebich last year. At age 21, Fiebich might not be ready to join the WNBA, but she is an outstanding young talent who could be part of the Sparks’ next chapter. Given the low salaries for WNBA rookies, the odds of Iagupova coming over are quite low, but the Sparks have to at least make those calls.
Whatever moves the Sparks make, the expectations for this franchise have changed significantly over the past week. No longer is this a squad expected to challenge Seattle, Washington, and Las Vegas for the top prize. Now, the goal is to simply make the playoffs. With the team’s present talent, tanking isn’t really an option, especially because the WNBA lottery odds factor in the last two seasons, and the Sparks had the third-best record in the league in 2020.
For the first time in a long time, the Los Angeles Sparks will be just another team entering the 2021 season. Maybe that won’t be such a bad thing. Nneka Ogwumike can reassert herself as an all-WNBA talent as the undisputed alpha, and Anigwe, Cooper, and Vadeeva will be able to grow into larger roles. It’s a new day in Sparks franchise history. All we know at this point is that Ogwumike will be the leading the way, a role she was born to play.