November 27, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Derek Fisher and Sparks looking at Plan B for free agency

This is likely not the way Derek Fisher hoped to start his front office career.

Less than two months after the Sparks head coach said it was his top priority as a general manager to ensure Candace Parker would finish her career in L.A., Fisher is preparing to lose two of his top three players in free agency, beginning a new Sparks era without one of the franchise’s biggest stars.

Parker, a two-time MVP who is an unrestricted free agent, has reportedly agreed to play for her hometown Chicago Sky, ending a 13-year Sparks career that included one championship. Point guard Chelsea Gray, another unrestricted free agent, will sign with the Las Vegas Aces. Players can begin signing contracts Monday.

Without the two stars, the Sparks’ “Big Three” is suddenly reduced to one: forward Nneka Ogwumike. The 30-year-old former MVP was designated a core player by the team, meaning the Sparks have exclusive negotiating rights to the former No. 1 overall pick. Ogwumike will reportedly sign a multiyear agreement to stay in L.A.

When he officially took over general manager responsibilities in December, Fisher said it was “vital that we find a way to make it work” with regard to Parker, Gray and Ogwumike. Now he must turn to Plan B.

Without Gray, a three-time All-Star who averaged 14 points and 5.3 assists last season, the Sparks could turn their offense over to Kristi Toliver. The two-time WNBA champion returned to the Sparks last year as a free agent, but didn’t play in the first season of her three-year contract because of concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Toliver, who started alongside Parker and Ogwumike on the Sparks’ 2016 championship team, will pair with second-year guard Te’a Cooper, who re-signed with the Sparks in January. Cooper established herself as a defensive stalwart off the bench and contributed seven points and two assists per game as a rookie.

“I want my defense to speak volumes,” Cooper told reporters on a Jan. 11 videoconference when she re-signed. “I want to evolve my offensive game, all-around, so my jump shot, my mid-range, everything, just being consistent and being efficient.”

The Sparks signed Cooper to a one-year deal last year as an emergency replacement after Toliver opted out.

Forward Chiney Ogwumike also sat out last year because of health concerns related to previous injuries and the lack of preparation time during the pandemic. Her contract expired while she stayed away from the court, but the Sparks retain exclusive negotiating rights to the 2014 No. 1 overall pick who could see a larger role for the Sparks with Parker’s departure.

Parker reinvigorated her career last season by averaging 14.7 points and a league-leading 9.7 rebounds while earning her first WNBA defensive player of the year award. After the Sparks’ premature postseason exit, she was asked about her free-agency plans. She emphasized her history of loyalty, not only to the Sparks but in her business ventures that include a longtime deal with Adidas. But she wouldn’t let any history cloud her judgment.

“I don’t want to leave L.A.,” Parker said after the Sparks’ season ended in the second round of the playoffs. “But at the same time, we gotta get better. Can’t keep saying next year.”

Parker’s relationship with Fisher seemed strained at times, including when Fisher, then a first-year head coach, benched the star in Game 3 of the 2019 WNBA semifinals. Parker downplayed any rifts last year, and in December, Fisher said it was his intention to “make sure Candace never plays a game for any other team.” They had talked often during the offseason, the coach said, although the conversations were not specifically related to free agency. They talked about the Sparks, the offseason and what she felt needed to improve.

Parker is still chasing a second championship. In the Sky, she joins a promising team anchored by veteran guards Courtney Vandersloot, who has led the league in assists for four straight years, and Allie Quigley as well as emerging stars Diamond DeShields and Azurá Stevens. DeShields, a 2019 All-Star, and Stevens, an All-Rookie Team selection in 2018, missed the second half of last season because of injuries.

The Sparks have other free-agency decisions to sort out in the aftermath of Parker’s decision, including guards Riquna Williams and Seimone Augustus, who are unrestricted free agents. Williams was the team’s fourth-leading scorer last year, averaging 10.5 points per game off the bench. Augustus, the 36-year-old four-time WNBA champion with the Minnesota Lynx, was mulling retirement after the 2020 season, but the unorthodox pandemic season might have changed her mind.

Guard Brittney Sykes, who impressed during her first season as a Spark with her lockdown defending that included a team-leading 1.5 steals per game, is a restricted free agent, allowing the Sparks to match any offer she receives.