After a season during which all top three 2022 draft picks played at a high level, there are some teams that will look ahead to the 2023 draft and feel some solace entering the Aliyah Boston sweepstakes.
The Los Angeles Sparks are not one of them.
After pushing their chips all in by trading next year’s first-round pick for Chennedy Carter and signing Liz Cambage in hopes of returning to the playoffs, the Sparks ended the season with the second-worst record, no first-round draft pick, a contract divorce with Cambage, and Carter barely seeing the court during the second half of the season.
Fortunately for the Sparks, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic that their team can get back to the playoffs even without one of the promising players available in the 2023 draft. The Sparks have just five players signed for next year and nearly $1 million in cap space.
During end-of-season interviews, Nneka Ogwumike stated her intention to re-sign with LA, and Chiney said she and Nneka are “a two-for-one deal.” Kristi Toliver also said she plans to play another season with the Sparks and will likely sign a team-friendly deal to provide LA with some flexibility. Lexie Brown is another player to expect back at Crypto.com Arena after a successful season as a 3-and-D player. Brown seemed more comfortable with her role during the 2022 season than at any other point in her career. Assuming Jasmine Walker and Rae Burrell stay with the team next year, that leaves anywhere from three to six spots for what should be a massive free agent class.
Before the Sparks worry about free agency, they’ll have to make a decision on a general manager for next year. Los Angeles recently hired Curt Miller to fill the head coaching position after its previous coach, Fred Williams, took over the helm at Auburn.
Even with their next head coach now selected, the Sparks have several other questions to answer this offseason. Let’s unpack what potential moves LA could make in the coming months to reignite the team’s playoff hopes.
Assessing the 2023 Free Agent Class
This year’s free agent class is loaded, featuring the likes of Breanna Stewart, Tiffany Hayes, Tina Charles, Courtney Vandersloot, and Marina Mabrey.
Stewart will undoubtedly bring interest from anyone and everyone with cap space. Her two best options are likely going to be the Seattle Storm, who—despite Sue Bird’s retirement—should be positioned as championship contenders for 2023, and the New York Liberty, who offer the chance to play for one of the league’s richest owners and unmatched marketing opportunities. Oh, and one of the league’s rising stars, Sabrina Ionescu, plays there as well.
While chances are that Stewart picks either of those two teams, the Sparks should still do everything in their power to enter the Stewie sweepstakes in hopes that the bright lights of SoCal attract her. Putting her next to Nneka and Katie Lou Samuelson in the front court with possibly a pairing of Brown and an improved Carter could be just what LA needs to shake the balance of the league.
Another option is to trade for disgruntled Mercury star Skylar Diggins-Smith, who the Sparks previously pursued at the deadline. Phoenix GM Jim Pitman said despite Diggins-Smith taking time away from the team toward the end of the 2022 season, he expects her to return in 2023. But with the All-Star guard expected to go on leave for most of the season with her pregnancy, the Mercury may be willing to part ways in an attempt to extract whatever value they can as long as Taurasi chooses to keep playing. If Diggins-Smith wants out of Phoenix, Los Angeles should be ready to make a deal. Besides Carter and a 2024 first-round draft pick, there isn’t much the Sparks could offer without help from a third team.
However, if the Sparks could find a way to put together a deal with the Mercury, Diggins-Smith would be a great asset to LA. Given her experience playing with Brittney Griner, Diggins-Smith could take a significant amount of pressure off Nneka, who frequently received double-teams this past season as LA’s main offensive threat. Diggins-Smith also has elite playmaking abilities and could improve the Sparks’ ball movement to get more open shots. During the 2022 season, when Nneka wasn’t open, the Sparks often relied on either Brown or Samuelson to consistently hit from deep. With Diggins-Smith on the team, her sharp passing could create cutting lanes for whoever would be on the floor with her, and she would provide the Sparks with an electric scorer.
Even if Los Angeles doesn’t land Diggins-Smith or Stewart, the team could opt to fill out its roster with role players who outperformed their contracts, such as Moriah Jefferson, Sophie Cunningham, Rebekah Gardner, and Ezi Magbegor. While they aren’t at the same level as the upper echelon of free agents available, they each complement the likely makeup of the Sparks’ roster in ways that would make them more competitive come playoff time. The unpredictability of the WNBA playoffs shows that sometimes just getting into the playoffs is all a team needs to make some noise. Whether it’s scoring, additional outside shooting, or rim protection, these players offer unique skill sets that could help Los Angeles break out of its playoff woes.
It’s easy to look at this year’s Sparks squad and feel like they’re years away from competing for a title. But with the 2023 free agent class, Nneka’s belief that they’re closer than they seem isn’t so far-fetched. All it takes are a few key pieces and some luck in the scouting department for a team to suddenly build its way to the top.
The WNBA offseason is here, and the only thing that’s for certain is that the league is going to look wildly different in 2023 compared to just this past year. And the Sparks hope that this next attempt at creating a new team identity is significantly more successful than their last.