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(Updated) 2021 WNBA Free Agency: Los Angeles Sparks reorient around the Ogwumikes

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Hollywood has emerged as the center of the WNBA’s 2021 free agency drama! After 13 years with the Los Angeles Sparks, Candace Parker will sign with the Chicago Sky. Meanwhile, Chelsea Gray is headed to the Las Vegas Aces after five seasons in LA. Cored by the Sparks, Nneka Ogwumike will be back in purple and gold, as will Chiney Ogwumike, Brittney Sykes, and Seimone Augustus. Erica Wheeler, Amanda Zahui B. and Bria Holmes will be joining them in LA.

Dallas Wings v Los Angeles Sparks
It’s official! The Ogwumike sisters are staying in LA.
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Candace Parker is a Los Angeles Spark no longer.

After 13 seasons in Los Angeles, Parker has decided to take her talents to her hometown Chicago Sky, as first reported by ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.

The Sparks shared their gratitude for Parker’s influence and accomplishments, with CEO and Governor Eric Holoman issuing the following statement:

On behalf of the entire LA Sparks ownership group, staff and extended Sparks family we want to thank Candace Parker for a remarkable 13 seasons in Los Angeles. Candace Parker has already cemented her legacy not just as a champion but as a pioneer in the game of basketball. She has inspired a generation of young girls and boys and the entire basketball community as an athlete, entrepreneur and social justice advocate. We want to congratulate Candace on this next chapter of her career. We’re forever grateful for this era of Sparks basketball with Candace Parker.

General manager and head coach Derek Fisher added:

Candace Parker is a generational talent whose impact goes far beyond the game of basketball. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work with her the past two seasons. Our entire organization appreciates the positive influence Candace has had on the Sparks and women’s basketball. We respect her decision and wish her and her family the best moving forward.

As The Next and Howard Megdal first reported, Chelsea Gray is also headed elsewhere, choosing to join the Las Vegas Aces after spending the last five seasons in Los Angeles.

So, who will be wearing purple and gold next season?

For starters, the Ogwumike sisters!

By coring Nneka Ogwumike, the Sparks ensured she will be back in LA. After sources reported that Ogwumike was expected to sign a multi-year deal, it is now official, as she inked a multiyear to remain a Spark. She will be making $190,550 (the max) in 2021 and the 2022 max of $196,267 next year.

On her decision, N. Ogwumike told ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel:

It’s not about staying here simply out of comfort because it’s what I’m used to. I want to contribute to the forward movement of the franchise. When I feel good about something, I just know, and that’s kind of what I’m rolling with.

Unsurprisingly, Fisher offered praise for N. Ogwumike as a player and person, saying upon her signing:

Nneka Ogwumike is an exemplary person, athlete, and teammate. We are grateful to return one of the league’s generational talents and leaders. Not only has Nneka won an MVP and championship on the court, but she is an MVP off the court for her pivotal work in the social justice movement and as WNBPA President.

After sitting out the the 2020 WNBA season, Chiney Ogwumike will be back on the court for the Sparks in 2021. Even as she resumes her career as a professional basketball player, C. Ogwumike intends to continue her work at ESPN, which includes being the first Black woman to host a national daily sports radio show. In announcing her return to the Sparks, she emphasized:

A lot of people say, especially when it comes to women, that we can’t have it all. But I’m trying to be living proof that we can, or at least, come as close as possible. I want to win a WNBA championship with my sister, and I want to keep pushing boundaries off the court.

Joining the Ogwumikes will be a retooled supporting cast, featuring a combination of familiar faces and fresh additions.

Following a successful debut season in purple and gold, Brittney Sykes will be staying in LA for at least two more seasons, as reported by Winsidr and Rachel Galligan. On Sykes’ return, Fisher shared:

We’re really happy that Brittney Sykes is choosing to remain a key part of the LA Sparks family. Brittney brings tremendous energy to the game of basketball and to our organization. She’s shown an ability throughout her career to be a two-way perimeter player that puts her stamp on the game in several ways. Our entire staff is excited to work with her moving forward.

Currently signed to training camp contracts, a seasoned vet and sprightly sophomore also will be back in LA, with Seimone Augustus again offering her experienced, optimistic leadership and Tea’ Cooper reprising her lash-y, flashy play.

Heading west to join the Sparks is 2019 All-Star Erica Wheeler, who missed the 2020 WNBA season due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Fisher said of Wheeler:

We’re excited to have Erica Wheeler join the LA Sparks. Erica’s life story and journey in the WNBA is proof of her character, work ethic and competitive spirit. She will be a great fit for the culture we’re building and brings an ability to score, distribute the basketball, defend and play both point guard and shooting guard.

To bolster their big rotation, LA lured Amanda Zahui B. from the Big Apple to Hollywood. On her addition, Fisher noted:

Amanda Zahui B. brings rebounding, size and can space the floor from the center position. She’s a great teammate and person who brings the type of toughness and work ethic we want in our locker room. We’re really excited about her fit with the Sparks.

Bria Holmes, who played the last two seasons with the Connecticut Sun, and Nia Coffey, who spent last season with the Phoenix Mercury, round out the refreshed Sparks roster.

Before all this activity, the Sparks’ only rostered player on a protected contract was Kristi Toliver, who opted out of the 2020 season due to health-related concerns. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Sydney Wiese, Maria Vadeeva, Kristine Anigwe and Marie Gülich remain on the roster on unprotected contracts.

Back-to-back less-than-inspiring playoff exits, combined with the loss of a franchise fixture and a multi-time All-Star, put the pressure on new general manager Fisher during his first offseason at the helm. He has made use of unexpected financial flexibility, making multiple down roster decisions that will result in a Sparks team that will look much different from 2016’s title-winning team.


By the numbers*

2021 Free Agents (type) (average salary):

  • Seimone Augustus (unrestricted) ($110,000)
  • Chelsea Gray (unrestricted) ($195,000)
  • Reshanda Gray (restricted) ($57,000)
  • Chiney Ogwumike (suspended-contract expired) ($116,500)
  • Candace Parker (unrestricted) ($115,000)
  • Brittney Sykes (restricted) ($52,428)
  • Riquna Williams (unrestricted) ($111,000)

Team figures:

  • Total average salary of free agents: $394,500
  • Total team salary (not including above players or new contracts): $548,010
  • Cap space (not counting new contracts): $790,990

Analysis

Los Angeles Sparks v Indiana Fever
Erica Wheeler drives against new teammate Nneka Ogwumike during the 2019 WNBA season.
Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

No longer facing the prospect of handing out three supermax contracts, the Sparks’ salary cap situation is less complicated that we expected:

The above financial details introduce Los Angeles’ complicated salary cap situation. Yet, it’s even more complicated.

We previously reported:

Because they have played at least five seasons with the Sparks, Parker and C. Gray can also receive the $221,450 supermax contract, a number quite larger than their average annual salaries. As the Sparks are the only team that can offer this contract, they have an advantage in keeping both in LA.

But if the Sparks sign Parker and C. Gray, as well as N. Ogwumike, to a supermax contract, it would cost them $664,350, leaving them $126,640 in remaining cap space. If they plan to keep Cooper on the regular-season roster, the Sparks then are down to $67,930 in cap space. Los Angeles also has the 10th pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft, with this rookie slated to receive a salary of $64,375. If the Sparks intend to roster their selection, they are left with a negligible $3,555 in remaining cap space.

In this hypothetical, the Sparks would have the minimum-required 11 players on roster, albeit they would be allowing their five other free agents, including Chiney Ogwumike and Brittney Sykes, to walk. Because LA traded for C. Ogwumike and Sykes in the 2019 and 2020 offseasons, respectively, it seems likely that they would prioritize keeping both around. As such, Fisher will have to let go of several of their unprotected rostered players.

Now that they know that they will not be paying Parker’s or Gray’s salary, the Sparks have much more financial flexibility. If they choose not to retain a couple of their players on unprotected contracts, they could generate even more spending money.

We imagined this hypothetical:

Let’s say the Sparks relinquish Tierra Ruffin-Pratt ($90,000) and Marie Gülich ($70,040). Wiping their salaries off the books (in combination with the $3,555 in available cap space estimated above), would give LA $163,595 to allocate to C. Ogwumike and Sykes. However, another team could tender Sykes a restricted free agent offer sheet of more than $163,595. It can also be presumed that C. Ogwumike would be expecting a contract of around $163,595, if not more.

The Sparks have used their at least $569,540 in cap space to pay Wheeler $180,000, Zahui B. $135,000 and C. Ogwumike $113,00 on protected contracts. On an unprotected contract, LA will be giving Sykes $110,000.

In short, the financial problems we postulated are now irrelevant:

These imagined machinations point back to the problem of giving N. Ogwumike, Parker and C. Gray all the supermax. Yes, high-end talent is a prerequisite to a championship. But so is a balanced roster. Parker was limited during the 2019 season due to nagging injuries and N. Ogwumike dealt with recurring issues in 2020. Relying so heavily on a few players, no matter how great they are at their best, has potentially detrimental consequences.

A potentially uncomfortable financial situation could be solved by N. Ogwumike, Parker and/or C. Gray choosing to accept less than the supermax contract. However, the WNBPA, led by N. Ogwumike, fought for higher-salary contracts for a reason — great players deserve to get paid great sums of money! Elite players are in their right to maximize their earning power. Furthermore, because they fought so hard for this right, the players, especially N. Ogwumike, may feel pressured to take the biggest contract possible, even if they might be willing to sacrifice their personal largess for a greater shot a team success.

Of course, some may suggest that losing two surefire superstars is a bigger problem than any financial constraints would have been. However, Parker and C. Gray’s decisions not only will help the franchise move beyond the memory of 2016 but have allowed the fully-empowered Fisher to put his imprint on the roster.

As head coach, Fisher has coaxed improved play out of several high-quality role players, highlighted by the emergence of Sydney Wiese in 2019 and 2020, Sykes’s breakout 2020 season and Cooper’s solid 2020 rookie campaign. Fisher, wearing his general manager hat, had the opportunity to identify the types of players he can maximize as head coach. Wheeler fits this description. While she had a career year in 2019, it would not be a surprise to see her take another step under Fisher in 2021. Zahui B likewise could continue to expand her game in LA. She suggested as much, sharing:

I am thrilled at the opportunity to continue my career with the Los Angeles Sparks. From my first conversation with Coach Fisher, I knew right away that playing for the Los Angeles Sparks was a place where I could grow not only as a player but as a person.

Fisher next will need to trim his roster to 12 players. Including Maria Vadeeva, who is expected to join the Sparks for the second half of the 2021 season, and training camp contracts, the current roster contains 15 players. So, while the likes of Ruffin-Pratt and Gülich no longer need to be cut for financial reasons, the Sparks may let them go for reasons of roster size. In short, for all the changes LA has undergone, things aren’t quite complete.

Regardless, if Los Angeles fans are satisfied when the 2021 season begins, Fisher will have earned his new general manager title.


This story was updated to reflect Candace Parker’s free agency move from the Los Angeles Sparks to the Chicago Sky, Chelsea Gray’s free agency move from the Los Angeles Sparks to the Las Vegas Aces, Brittney Sykes re-signing with the Los Angeles Sparks, Erica Wheeler’s free agency move from the Indiana Fever to the Los Angeles Sparks, Amanda Zahui B.’s free agency move from the New York Liberty to the Los Angeles Sparks, Bria Holmes’s free agency move from the Connecticut Sun to the Los Angeles Sparks, Seimone Augustus’ re-signing with the Los Angeles Sparks, Chiney Ogwumike’s re-signing with the Los Angeles Sparks and Nneka Ogwumike’s re-signing with the Los Angeles Sparks.

*All WNBA salary information courtesy of Her Hoop Stats and Spotrac and is current as of Mar. 3, 2021.