View Original Notice ? Sparks approach free agency with long-range goals in mind
The Sparks feel as though they have some unfinished business entering 2022.
After losing perennial All-Stars Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray in free agency last year, the injury-ravaged Sparks missed the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons, finishing 10th in the 12-team WNBA with a record of 12-20, the second-worst in franchise history behind only 2007’s 10-24 team.
There aren’t many obvious moves pending for the cap space-strapped team entering free agency this season, but if they can stay healthy, the Sparks are optimistic their current core can continue to progress and prove more competitive next season.
And then they can swing for the fences in 2023, when all but two of their players will be free agents, freeing up cap space substantially.
“We knew going into a transition into a new era, a new way of dong business on and off the court, that it was going to be hard,” said Derek Fisher, the team’s general manager and head coach, shortly after last season ended. “I think as a group we didn’t anticipate the level of injuries and adversity that we’d face on the court, but our players still came to work every day with the expectation that they had to buy into what we were doing to continue to work hard and continue to play for one another. And they got that accomplished.
“We’re not happy (to miss the playoffs), but we are excited and motivated about what is to come, what we’re creating together.”
For now, Fisher enters free agency with six of his team’s nine rostered players on guaranteed contracts and, accounting for cap holds, a maximum of about $97,000 to offer free agents (barring a trade).
They’d like to bring back Nia Coffey, a versatile 6-foot-1 forward and their sole unrestricted free agent, who last season made the most of her opportunity with the Sparks – her fourth WNBA team in five seasons.
The 26-year-old Minnesota native fit in well with Fisher’s group, and she enjoyed a breakout season in her first season in L.A., averaging career-highs across the board, including in points (8.3), 3-point percentage (41.7), minutes (25.2) and blocks (1.2) – production that could draw interest from other suitors as well.
After re-signing backup center Lauren Cox on Jan. 4, the Sparks also have yet to re-sign popular point guard Te’a Cooper, who is a reserved player and cannot negotiate with another team.
There remains the specter of Maria Vadeeva, the talented Russian center who hasn’t played WNBA basketball since 2019 – even though the Sparks held open a roster spot last season, expecting she’d join them after the Olympics. They have her rights should she choose to play, but they won’t hold their breath – or her place – waiting for her decision this season.
From the Fisher’s perspective, it will feel like he’s adding a couple of new players, even if they don’t technically sign any free agents: Former UConn star Gabby Williams will make her Sparks debut after sitting out last season because of French national team commitments. And 2021 No. 7 overall pick Jasmine Walker will play for the first time since she suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament last year in just the second game of her rookie season.
The Sparks were decimated by injuries last season, which sidelined their leader, Nneka Ogwumike, for a career-high 14 games, her sister, Chiney Ogwumike, for 25 and Kristi Toliver for 13.
With so much lineup fluctuation, the Sparks struggled offensively, averaging a league-low 72.8 points per game, but continued to excel on the defensive end, giving up just 77.1 points per game, the second-fewest league-wide.
“When you miss the significant players that we missed in terms of number of games, it made it a tough and uphill battle the whole way,” Fisher said. “But I think when we look back on it, we’re gonna see it forced us to grow maybe more than we would have had we been healthy.
“Part of this transition is separating ourselves form being so reliant on who the player is – the name of the back of her jersey – as opposed to building habits, creating a way to play … that no matter who it is, who we draft, sign, trade for, bring in, there’s a standard.”
— Los Angeles Sparks (@LASparks) January 11, 2022