There are a lot of questions as we get ready for WNBA free agency to commence in February, but none are bigger than the situation that’s set to unfold in Los Angeles. The Sparks’ entire core — Chelsea Gray, Nneka Ogwumike, and Candace Parker — are set to entire free agency. Chiney Ogwumike’s contract is also expiring, but after having her deal suspended last year, Chiney can only negotiate with the Sparks.
All of this leaves the Sparks in a precarious situation. They might not have the money to give all three of their stars the contracts they might be able to get elsewhere, but the team has to find a way to bring back the trio.
Head coach and general manager Derek Fisher told the media that retaining their core is a priority this offseason, saying that “it is vital we find a way to make it work.” And he’s right! If the Sparks want to compete for a championship in 2021, it’s vital that they figure out how to keep their three best players, even if it means having to spend less money on depth.
But, why is it so important? Let’s look at why these three players are so important for the Sparks.
Why Los Angeles Has To Retain Their Three Best Players
While bringing back Ogwumike, Parker, and Gray will likely lead to the Sparks having to sacrifice some depth, that’s ultimately fine. The WNBA is a star-driven league. You need top-end talent to win.
The Sparks had a net rating of 4.8 last year, but that rose to 6.0 if we only look at the minutes where the Big Three shared the floor. Makes sense: keeping your best players on the basketball court is a good way to win basketball games.
Parker had a career renaissance in 2020, averaging 14.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 4.6 assists. She shot 39.6% from three and had her first 50-plus percent shooting season overall since 2011.
The veteran star and two-time MVP will be 35 next season, but since Parker isn’t playing overseas during the offseason, she should be fresh for the start of the season. That added energy can help offset concerns about her age.
Los Angeles also doesn’t need to worry as much about Parker getting older if they can surround her with star talent who helps take the pressure off of her. It’s like how Phoenix brought in Skylar Diggins-Smith last season and it led to Diana Taurasi having a bounce-back season.
And so much of Parker’s game is cerebral, too. You don’t need to worry as much about age-related decline when you have someone who understands the game as well as CP3 does. There’s a reason Owen Pence ranked her as the top available free agent this season. She also continues to improve as a passer, which helps expand what this team can do.
And speaking of passing, Chelsea Gray! It feels like there’s been some chatter online from people who feel that if the Sparks have to get rid of one of these players, it can be Gray, but my response to that is simple: no.
Unlike Parker, Gray is coming off of a poor season for her standards, as she saw declines in points, rebounds, assists, and three-point field goal percentage.
But we can’t forget that Gray has a great argument for being the second-best point guard in the WNBA and that she’s a tenacious defender, even if her 2020 defensive performance wasn’t quite as good as we expect. She had a slight drop in defensive win shares and the defense was about one point allowed per 100 possessions worse with her on the floor than they were in 2019, but overall Gray is still one of the league’s top defensive point guards.
Obviously, Gray not finding her three-point shot again would be a huge issue, but after three consecutive seasons ranking in the 80th percentile or better in three-point field goal percentage, I think we should trust that she’s going to get back to connecting on those attempts.
And then there’s Ogwumike. The Sparks had a 6.6 net rating with Nneka on the floor this season and a 2.9 net rating when she sat. She’s this ultra-steadying presence when she’s on the floor, bringing efficient offense, high-end defense, and the kind of leadership that every team in the WNBA should want. Of all of the free agents in Los Angeles, I would bet Ogwumike is the one who the most teams are targeting — note: I have no inside information on this — and with good reason. She’s still in her prime. She was third in field goal percentage inside of five-feet among players to take more than three attempts per game in that range. She had a true shooting percentage of 63.6 — only Sylvia Fowles and Cheyenne Parker had a better true shooting percentage while also having a usage rate over 20 percent. Ogwumike is such a complete player on both ends. The Sparks need her.
The other issue is that there’s not a lot of other viable free agent options. You can maybe convince your current players to sign at a discount to keep your core together, but would someone like Liz Cambage or Alyssa Thomas leave their current teams to take less money in Los Angeles? And if Gray left, do the Sparks just run with Kristi Toliver and the recently re-signed Te’a Cooper at guard since the guard part of free agency is significantly weaker than the bigs and wings? It’s just hard to really see a way that the Sparks could be as good as they are right now if they enter 2021 without their three best players.
And when two of those players are in their 30s, the Sparks should be firmly focused on winning now. Losing any of those three players in a league as competitive as the modern WNBA sets you back significantly in your quest to win a title. Unless the Sparks are okay with sliding into the muck that is the back-end of the playoff picture, they need to figure out the financials and run it back. And considering they should be able to re-sign the three and add a final player to the roster via the draft, there’s no excuse to not make it happen.