Expect Hollywood to be the center of the WNBA’s 2021 free agency drama. With Nneka Ogwumike cored, the Los Angeles Sparks have seven remaining free agents, including Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray. Can new general manager Derek Fisher find a way to retain all three members of LA’s “Big Three” while staying under the salary cap?
Last week, Los Angeles Sparks general manager and head coach Derek Fisher made the first of what will be many free agency decisions.
Fisher and the Sparks offered a training camp contract to reserved free agent Te’a Cooper, meaning the popular, promising combo guard will be in LA for training camp and, in all likelihood, the duration of the 2021 season.
Who else will be returning to Los Angeles?
By coring Nneka Ogwumike, the Sparks ensured she also will be back in LA on a $221,450 supermax contract for one or more seasons. Otherwise, entering the 2021 free agency period, the only rostered player on a protected contract is Kristi Toliver, who opted out of the 2020 season due to health-related concerns. In addition to Cooper, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Sydney Wiese, Maria Vadeeva, Kristine Anigwe and Marie Gülich are on the roster with unprotected contracts.
While the Sparks most likely would prefer to retain the majority of these players, salary cap constraints may prevent them from doing so. With N. Ogwumike cored, the Sparks have seven remaining free agents, headlined by Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray. These two, like Ogwumike, are eligible for a supermax contract. However, maxing out Parker and Gray could send the Sparks into precarious salary cap territory, likely requiring Fisher to cut ties with a number of players who contributed to the Sparks’ 15-7 season in 2020.
If these financial pressures were not enough, back-to-back less-than-inspiring playoff exits place further pressure on Fisher to make the right decisions during his first offseason at the helm of the Sparks.
By the numbers*
2021 Free Agents (type) (average salary):
- Seimone Augustus (unrestricted) ($110,000)
- Chelsea Gray (unrestricted) ($195,000)
- Reshanda Gray (restricted) ($57,000)
- Chiney Ogwumike (suspended-contract expired) ($116,500)
- Candace Parker (unrestricted) ($115,000)
- Brittney Sykes (restricted) ($52,428)
- Riquna Williams (unrestricted) ($111,000)
- Total average salary of free agents: $756,928
- Total team salary (not including above players; including N. Ogwumike supermax): $828,170
- Cap space: $510,830
The above financial details introduce Los Angeles’ complicated salary cap situation. Yet, it’s even more complicated.
Because they have played at least five seasons with the Sparks, Parker and C. Gray can receive the $221,450 supermax contract, a number quite larger than their average annual salaries. As the Sparks are the only team that can offer this contract, they have an advantage in keeping both in LA. But, in combination with N. Ogwumike’s supermax, doing so would cost the Sparks $664,350, leaving them only $67,930 in remaining cap space. Los Angeles also has the 10th pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft, with this rookie slated to receive a salary of $64,375. If the Sparks intend to roster their selection, they are left with a negligible $3,555 in remaining cap space.
In this hypothetical, the Sparks would have the minimum-required 11 players on roster, albeit they would be allowing their five other free agents, including Chiney Ogwumike and Brittney Sykes, to walk. Because LA traded for C. Ogwumike and Sykes in the 2019 and 2020 offseasons, respectively, it seems likely that they would prioritize keeping both around. As such, Fisher will have to let go of several of their unprotected rostered players.
Let’s say the Sparks relinquish Tierra Ruffin-Pratt ($90,000) and Marie Gülich ($70,040). Wiping their salaries off the books (in combination with the $3,555 in available cap space estimated above), would give LA $163,595 to allocate to C. Ogwumike and Sykes. However, another team could tender Sykes a restricted free agent offer sheet of more than $163,595. It can also be presumed that C. Ogwumike would be expecting a contract of around $163,595, if not more.
These imagined machinations point back to the problem of giving N. Ogwumike, Parker and C. Gray all the supermax. Yes, high-end talent is a prerequisite to a championship. But so is a balanced roster. Parker was limited during the 2019 season due to nagging injuries and N. Ogwumike dealt with recurring issues in 2020. Relying so heavily on a few players, no matter how great they are at their best, has potentially detrimental consequences.
Of course, this seemingly impossible financial situation could be solved by Parker and/or C. Gray choosing to accept less than the supermax contract. However, the WNBPA, led by N. Ogwumike, fought for higher-salary contracts for a reason — great players deserve to get paid great sums of money! Elite players are in their right to maximize their earning power.
How Fisher chooses to prioritize negotiations with Parker and C. Gray will be interesting. He already has expressed confidence about retaining Parker, who also has emphasized her belief in loyalty. From the outside, it seems like C. Gray would be the most likely to find a new home, as she is not a Sparks lifer (although she is a California native). Furthermore, while she still has performed at a high level, C. Gray’s play and numbers have slipped under Fisher, suggesting another coach might be able to better maximize her talent.
If LA fans are satisfied when free agency ends, Fisher will have earned his new general manager title, as the managing of egos and expectations, in addition to financial realities, will be an absolute, but unenviable, necessity.