As the calendar switched to 2022, WNBA free agency tipped off, and with it, the Los Angeles Sparks’ efforts to return to the postseason after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
The Sparks remade most of their roster during the 2021 offseason, bringing back only three players who played for the team during the 2020 season and signing four free agents to multi-year deals while trading away this year’s first-round pick. That leaves the front office, headed by GM and head coach Derek Fisher, with fewer decisions to make this year.
Currently, teams can only extend qualifying offers to reserved and restricted free agents. Negotiating with unrestricted free agents begins on Jan. 15 and contracts can officially be signed on Feb. 1, though many deals are agreed to before then, like Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray a year ago when they left Los Angeles.
Here is where the Sparks stand heading into the most pivotal stretch of free agency.
Who is under contract?
The Sparks have 10 players currently under contract with a roster limit of 12. Six of those players are under protected deals, or guaranteed contracts. Those six are Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, Kristi Toliver, Erica Wheeler, Gabby Williams, and Amanda Zahui B. Collectively, their salaries add up to $977,157 out of a salary cap of $1,379,200. All six of these players are in the final year of their contracts.
Then, there are the Sparks with unprotected contracts for next season: Brittney Sykes, Jasmine Walker, Arella Guirantes and Lauren Cox. Cox was a reserved free agent but she has already accepted her qualifying offer from the Sparks, so she is currently on a non-guaranteed minimum deal. Their four salaries add up to $305,097. Walker and Guirantes, the 2021 draft picks, are the only players that Los Angeles has under contract beyond 2022.
We have Re-Signed Lauren Cox. Read the full article for details below ⬇️https://t.co/KMsh4MeNHS— Los Angeles Sparks (@LASparks) January 4, 2022
Do the Sparks have any free agents?
The Sparks already came to terms with Cox, one of their free agents. Te’a Cooper is another reserved free agent, and the Sparks have extended her a qualifying offer valued at the league minimum, thus retaining exclusive negotiating rights with the third-year guard.
That leaves Nia Coffey, who is an unrestricted free agent after having the best season of her five-year career in Los Angeles. Coffey spent her first four WNBA years in four different cities, never quite finding her niche, but she played in every game and was third on the Sparks in minutes in 2021. The wing averaged career-highs in every counting stat plus free-throw and 3-point percentage. Coffey can sign wherever she’d like, but one presumes that the Sparks would make her a priority in free agency considering how well she fit in Fisher’s system.
The team also retains the rights to four international players: Alina Iagupova, Ivana Raca Julia Reisingerova, and Maria Vadeeva. Iagupova remains the best international player not to suit up in the WNBA; at age 29, the possibility of the Ukrainian guard coming over is remote. Raca and Reisingerova have also both never played in the league, while Vadeeva has been away from the Sparks since 2019, even though L.A. left a roster spot open for her last year.
What is the path forward?
The Sparks already have 10 players under contract before accounting for Cooper, Coffey, Vadeeva, any draft picks, or any external free agents. They also only have $96,946 left under the cap, which is enough for one player despite the two roster spots.
That means either the Sparks are super close to finishing its 2022 offseason business, or a shakeup is incoming. Considering this group finished 10th out of 12 in the WNBA standings in 2021, the latter seems more likely.
Admittedly, the team suffered from poor health in 2021. Walker, their first-round pick, tore her ACL in the second game. Nneka Ogwumike and Toliver — arguably the Sparks’ best two players — played in 18 and 19 games, respectively, out of 32. When Toliver suited up, the Sparks were 10-9, a pace that would allow them to glide into the postseason.
But injuries are an occupational hazard with players in their 30s, and the Sparks need to keep that in consideration when building their 2022 roster. As a result, even though it seems like there isn’t much to be done in free agency with all the pieces already in place, expect the Sparks to be active and aggressive during this offseason to reshape this roster into a more competitive group.