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Why did Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray leave the Sparks?

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The L.A. roster was gutted by a series of free agent moves on Thursday.

Los Angeles Sparks Media Day Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

And just like that, the core is gone.

In recent years, the Los Angeles Sparks have been defined by the star triumvirate of Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray, and Nneka Ogwumike. But news broke on Thursday that after 13 seasons with the Sparks, Parker is headed home to play for the Chicago Sky. And after finding her stardom in L.A., Gray is headed up the road to join the Las Vegas Aces.

The Sparks are left to retool around Ogwumike, her sister Chiney (a free agent who is expected to re-sign), and guard Kristi Toliver, and their fans are left to wonder what happened. Sources close to the team told SB Nation that the Sparks are excited to build around those All-Stars and the team’s young talent, and begin to build a new, collaborative culture across both the basketball and business side of the organization.

That may pay dividends long-term, but the loss of two of the league’s top players will significantly hurt the team’s production in the next year or two. So why did they leave? We may never know, but there are likely a few reasons.

Better opportunity to win

No one can deny the amount of talent on the Sparks roster, especially with the addition of Toliver, who was signed last offseason but opted out of the coronavirus-induced bubble season. Still, the talent hasn’t played out in the postseason since the team made the WNBA Finals in back-to-back seasons in 2016 and 2017.

They were eliminated in the second round in 2018 after getting blown out by 32 points. They were swept in the semifinals in 2019, losing the three games by a combined 57 points. And they were handed a noncompetitive 14-point loss in the second round in 2020.

Gray now joins a star-studded Aces that made the 2020 WNBA Finals despite not having superstar Liz Cambage or sharpshooter Kelsey Plum. And Parker heads to an ultra-talented Sky team that looks poised to break out.

Had they re-signed in Los Angeles, the Sparks would have had title aspirations. But you can’t blame either player if they felt the chances of adding a second ring to their closet were better elsewhere. And you can’t help but find places to point your finger at the Sparks for not rising to the ranks of the top title contenders.

A chance to wash off the culture

It’s hard to believe that we’re barely a year removed from the firing of GM Penny Toler, prompted by an ESPN article documenting inappropriate behavior by the woman who had led the team for two decades. And since then, multiple sources have confirmed with SB Nation the dysfunctional and abusive culture that was on display during Toler’s tenure.

It’s not entirely clear what role coach Derek Fisher — who was recently elevated to Toler’s old position — has played in that culture. The ESPN exposé pointed to conflicts players had with him, though many players have spoken up in support of him as well.

But two things are clear: the Sparks are trying to build a new culture going forward, and the wounds of the last regime are still fresh.

Parker and Gray spent a long time in the Sparks’ halls, with the old leadership and with the new one. If either of those cultures left a sour taste in their mouths, it would make sense that they’d look for a clean start.

Preferable friendships and partnerships

We’re in the age of player empowerment, and athletes everywhere are changing teams to be in more favorable situations. The Aces are perhaps the most modern team in the league, in terms of business and development, and Gray will get to partner with Cambage, a close friend who shares the same agent.

Parker, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, will get to focus her business and community outreach opportunities on a place near and dear to her heart, and also has good relationships with many in the Sky organization.

Sources tell SB Nation that both Parker and Gray had meetings with the Sparks; neither player was hell bent on leaving. But sometimes there are greener pastures, and for whatever reasons, Vegas and Chicago offered exactly that.

And so the Sparks will re-tool with two Ogwumikes, Toliver, Brittney Sykes, Masha Vadeeva, Te’a Cooper, and an upcoming draft pick. Part of the core remains, but it’s clearly a new era of Sparks basketball.