The Sparks had their worst season in a decade in 2021, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011. They’re determined not to let that happen again.
Los Angeles made a bold swing, trading starting point guard Erica Wheeler, the no. 15 pick in the 2022 draft, and the team’s 2023 first-round pick to Atlanta in exchange for Chennedy Carter and the rights to Li Yueru, a 6’7 Chinese center for the Guangdong Dolphins.
Carter was a member of the 2020 all-rookie team, averaging 17.4 points and 3.4 assists per game in the WNBA bubble. Her 3-point shooting fell off a cliff in 2021 (37.5 percent as a rookie to 11.1 as sophomore), though her 2-point percentage remained relatively constant (49.0 percent to 48.0), leaving her at 14.2 points per game through the first 11 contests.
That’s when the wheels came off for Carter, however. She got in an altercation with then-teammate Courtney Williams, after reportedly being upset about her playing time, and was suspended after threatening to fight Williams. Per Spencer Nusbaum, the Atlanta Dream reporter for The Next, this was not an isolated incident, and her future in Atlanta was tenuous because of her “negative effect on the locker room”.
The Sparks have to believe that they can rein in Carter’s worst impulses, because as the worst offense in the league last year, they need the third-year guard’s scoring talent. Only Nneka Ogwumike averaged more points for L.A. than Carter did last year, and Ogwumike is one of the 25 best players in WNBA history.
Carter can create shots for herself anywhere on the court with her expert hesitation dribble and crossovers, and she has shot above league average at the rim in each of her two seasons despite being a 5’9 guard. For context, Carter made 61.7 percent of her shot attempts inside the charge circle in 2021, and the Sparks converted 60.4 percent of theirs.
The Sparks will need Carter to provide that level of offensive burst without the off court drama to justify the price they are paying to the Dream. In addition to losing starting point guard Wheeler, who played in all 32 games and averaged 13.6 points and 4.8 assists in 2021, L.A. is surrendering its 2023 first-round pick and a 2022 second. The 2022 pick isn’t much of a loss, since the Sparks have two other second-rounders and will assuredly not be able to roster all of them this season. However, giving up an unprotected first is always a gamble, as the Sparks learned this year when they lost the no. 4 pick to Dallas in the Jasmine Walker trade.
One more upside of this deal for L.A., however, is the cap space gain. The team clears $109,103 in space by exchanging Wheeler for Carter and also gets one more protected contract slot, since Carter is still on her rookie deal. Now, the Sparks have two protected contracts to potentially use in free agency; they also have enough money to sign a player to max (#LizAngeles) while still carrying 12 players. How the rest of free agency plays out will give a better indication of whether this deal is worth the risk for Los Angeles.
On Atlanta’s side, this is a pure asset play. The Dream get another first-round pick while taking on Wheeler’s contract for one season. And Wheeler can play next to Tiffany Hayes or off the bench to give Atlanta 40 minutes of quality point guard play this year.