During Derek Fisher’s opening comments at the Los Angeles Sparks’ media day, the former coach and GM remarked that for the first time since Candace Parker’s tenure, the team would likely face an increased level of interest and scrutiny.
“[Liz Cambage’s signing to the Sparks] gives us a different interest level; fan[s], media, everyone is more curious of what our team is going to look like,” Fisher said. “Is it going to be great, or is it going to implode because of what people have seen or heard about her that they don’t really know?”
Whether Fisher’s comments were simply a reflection of what he saw in the media or a projection of what he feared would be the end result of Cambage’s tenure in LA will never be uncovered. At the time of Fisher’s quote, Cambage had already ruffled feathers—according to Chris Haynes—when she demanded Amanda Zahui B.’s jersey number despite Zahui B.’s resistance to giving it up.
Even before the 2022 season, it was hard to imagine the possibility for a harmonious relationship between the Australian center and the Sparks as she already surely offended Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike with her “monkey” remark during her team’s scrimmage against Nigeria leading up to the 2020 Summer Olympics (played in 2021). The Sparks view Nneka, who not only embraces her Nigerian heritage but also is dedicated to building up the Nigerian national team after her Team USA snub, as their leader and “big sister.” This is all to say that any offense taken from Cambage’s remarks likely amounted to a strike against her even before the Zahui B. incident.
As a teammate, the Sparks should move on from their former starting center relatively quickly, considering everything that occurred during her tenure. From a production standpoint, the 2022 season was Cambage’s worst since her rookie year in 2011, averaging only 13.0 PPG and 6.4 RPG before bowing out. However, those totals were still good enough to finish second only to Nneka in points and rebounds. Cambage also gave Los Angeles a true defensive anchor in the post who was capable of altering and blocking shots at a rate of 1.6 BPG, good for fourththird in the league.
However, Cambage’s play also came with downsides that ultimately limited her time on the court. She was a liability on help defense as she never got out on opponents and frequently got into foul trouble, averaging 3.2 per game. In addition, she lacked the conditioning to play the minutes required of most WNBA starters, averaging only 23.4 MPG. In fact, following the May 8 win over the Indiana Fever when Cambage finished with a dominant 22 points and 11 rebounds, she admitted to feeling winded throughout much of the second half.
“Is this high altitude?” Cambage asked while sitting on the bench in the third quarter. “This shit feels like high altitude.”
Despite encouragement from Fisher—and subsequently new coach Fred Williams—in addition to her teammates, Cambage only played 30 or more minutes twice this season, paving the way for rookie Olivia Nelson-Ododa to take on a larger role.
With Cambage now entirely out of the picture, here’s a look at where the Sparks stand for the final three games of the season and heading into the pivotal offseason that awaits them.
Nneka’s MVP Push
If Cambage never ended up signing with the Sparks, Nneka would have a decent shot at winning the league’s scoring title. Los Angeles heavily emphasizes Nneka in its offense, and without Cambage, Nneka would have likely had the ball in her hands even more than she did during the majority of this season.
Nneka is the cornerstone of LA’s offense. In fact, the Sparks are 8-4 this season when Nneka has scored 20 or more points, and with Cambage off the team, those nights should be coming more regularly. Nneka is one of the league’s most efficient shooters (54.6 percent from the field) and is persistent at getting to the rim. In fact, 56.9 percent of all her shots come from 10 feet or closer with her preferred spot being at the rim.
In addition to her shot selection, another reason for Nneka’s efficiency is her basketball IQ. She will get more shot attempts in Cambage’s absence, but unlike her former teammate, she is a willing passer who wants to make the right basketball play.
As demonstrated by her dunk in the 2022 WNBA All-Star Game, Nneka is also one of the league’s best athletes, and she gets many of her shots on loose balls and by playing off the ball.
To top things off, Nneka crashes the boards on a regular basis, averaging 6.7 RPG while remaining a pesky on-ball defender.
Nneka’s performance this season has led Williams and some pundits to put her as a dark horse in the MVP race. Unless the Sparks go on an inspired run to end the season, the odds of her winning aren’t great. However, Nneka will likely create more conversation if the Sparks are able to stack up some more victories and she continues scoring the way she has been.
More Playing Time for Chiney and Nelson-Ododa
With Cambage gone, Chiney is poised to take back the starting center role for the Sparks. What Los Angeles loses in size and strength without Cambage it makes up for in mobility, speed, and energy with Chiney’s presence. Chiney is an aggressive rebounder who added perimeter shooting to her arsenal and is well-conditioned to run up and down the floor.
After battling a series of injuries, Chiney is the healthiest she’s been in a while and on track to play the most games she has since 2019.
“I went into this season wanting to play as many games as possible,” Chiney said. “That was my number one goal. I didn’t care what happened. If I’m available for the team, I’ve won the season. So I feel like I’ve already won because I’m there, so I can play freely.”
Chiney’s 2022 numbers won’t match her All-Star seasons in Connecticut, but they don’t need to. Between Nneka’s scoring and the perimeter shooting of Katie Lou Samuelson and Lexie Brown, the Sparks mostly need Chiney for her rebounding, especially on the offensive end to give LA’s shooters more second-chance opportunities. She’ll get her points around the basket on hustle plays, running a fast break or off a rebound.
The other beneficiary of Cambage’s departure is Nelson-Ododa. The rookie showed flashes of potential early on but struggled to find playing time as the third center in the rotation.
Nelson-Ododa is another center who has never needed a lot of touches to make a big impact. Similar to the Sparks, University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team played plenty of multi-guard lineups in Nelson-Ododa’s last two seasons, so she had to find open shots both on the perimeter and by driving to the lane. In fact, she was likely the best passing big in the 2022 WNBA draft. This skill set has translated over to Nelson-Ododa’s play in LA. While she isn’t getting a ton of assists on the stat sheet, she’s making passes out of the post that allow the Sparks to rotate the ball easily and find an open shooter.
Similar to Chiney, Nelson-Ododa provides a mobile interior presence, but she offers more length and a greater ability to block shots than the vet. In fact, the rookie averages 2.1 blocks per 36 minutes. However, she is still learning how to stay out of foul trouble when athletic offensive players drive to the rim. She averages 2.3 fouls per game despite averaging just 13.3 MPG, and she will likely need to get that under control in order to stay on the floor when Chiney is out of the game.
Despite needing to learn to stay out of foul trouble and become a bit more polished offensively, Nelson-Ododa is proving she is well-deserving of more playing time. In the Sparks’ July 23 game against the Las Vegas Aces, she finished with seven points, five rebounds, and a block to go along with a perfect shooting night in 20 minutes of playing time.
Nelson-Ododa is one of just five Sparks with contracts for next season, and she should be a relatively safe bet to stay on the team with a rookie contract. Regardless of what happens to Los Angeles in the offseason, she will likely play an integral part in its rotation next year.
Evaluating the Sparks’ Offseason Prospects
With under $425,000 committed in cap space for next season and no 2023 draft pick, the Sparks will have flexibility to decide whether or not they want to make a run at being a contender next season.
Priority number one should be bringing back Nneka. Assuming she re-signs, Chiney will either follow or retire. Given her work with ESPN, staying in LA makes the most logical sense for Chiney’s offseason career.
Beyond re-signing the Ogwumike sisters, the Sparks can either try to keep most of the 2022 group together or go in an entirely new direction. Haynes suggested close to the trade deadline that LA made an effort to acquire Skylar Diggins-Smith, but talks never materialized. In the offseason, the Sparks have flexibility regarding a sign-and-trade deal with current free agents and could tantalize the Phoenix Mercury with their first-round pick in the 2024 draft, which will likely feature Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark at the top of the class. If the Sparks choose to go in this direction and pursue Diggins-Smith, they’ll have to decide if they ultimately want to roll the dice with another player who may not be popular in the locker room. Los Angeles could also pursue a player like Isabelle Harrison, who expressed displeasure with her current role with the Dallas Wings, or go after a home-run player like Breanna Stewart.
LA will also have a decision to make on Zahui B., who will be a free agent in 2023. The Sparks could attempt to sign her in the offseason, but given the circumstances around her suspended contract, it’s possible she’ll want a fresh start next season with a new team.
If the Sparks don’t want to be aggressive in free agency and instead opt for a rebuild, they could try to acquire picks similar to how Indiana stockpiled draft capital for the 2022 draft.
The WNBA is bound to see dramatic changes this offseason with Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles retiring, the prioritization clause coming into play, and an unprecedented number of free agents on the market. While the days of Liz Angeles are over, the Sparks are in a great position to retool down the road.