What Chiney Ogwumike trade means for the Sparks, and the WNBA

The Sparks picked up All-Star Chiney Ogwumike in their second trade of the week.

The Los Angeles Sparks finally acquired their All-Star big via trade this offseason, but it wasn’t the one everyone predicted.

Long-rumored to be in the mix for Dallas Wings center Liz Cambage, the Sparks instead sent their 2020 first-round pick to Connecticut for forward Chiney Ogwumike. It’s possible that the Sun were forced into a deal by Ogwumike’s media interests – the ESPN analyst reportedly was willing to walk away from the Sun were she not dealt to Los Angeles, which is one of Worldwide Leader’s hubs. That seemed implicit in Connecticut’s press release earlier Saturday, when GM and head coach Curt Miller said, “We wish [Chiney] well with her career and expanding her off court interests.”

In terms of the basketball ramifications of this trade, however, Ogwumike is yet another talented big for the Sparks to slot into their roster. She averaged 14.4 points and 7.3 rebounds (a top-10 mark in the league) in 2018, which was her second All-Star campaign.

Ogwumike was a very efficient individual offensive player, posting a true shooting percentage of 65.0 percent last year on relatively average usage. She had the highest offensive rebounding rate of any forward who played at least 500 possessions, per WNBA.com stats, and got to the free-throw line frequently (40 percent rate).

“Chiney Ogwumike is one of the most athletic, versatile and efficient frontcourt players in the WNBA,” Los Angeles GM Penny Toler said in the team’s trade announcement. “Chiney provides us additional inside scoring, rebounding and rim protection. She will be a great addition to our roster.”

Where Ogwumike lacks is in her ability to create for others. She had one of the lower assist rates for her position, and the Sun weren’t better with her on the floor than without, thanks to the presence of both Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones. This trade also does little to address Los Angeles’ three-point shooting, as Ogwumike has almost non-existent shooting range beyond the paint, only attempting two threes all season.

On her new team, Ogwumike will once again be part of a formidable frontcourt rotation with the Sparks alongside Candace Parker, Jantel Lavender, and her sister Nneka Ogwumike. Toler and head coach Derek Fisher spoke about their team’s ability to play jumbo lineups after drafting center Kalani Brown on April 10, and that possibility always seemed to be in play given Los Angeles’ interest in Cambage.

Chiney and Nneka played together at Stanford, leading the Cardinal to two Final Fours as they formed a fearsome post duo. Even though the younger Ogwumike has injury concerns (she has missed two full WNBA seasons), her instant familiarity with Nneka’s game and their ability to play together should enable the Sparks to get all of their best players on the floor at once.

Chiney Ogwumike’s presence figures to augur a more permanent residence for Parker on the perimeter, given that she possesses the most playmaking and ball-handling out of the forward group and can function as a wing. Chiney’s rebounding ability also fulfills an immediate need for Los Angeles, which was among the worst rebounding teams in the WNBA last year.

With Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart out for the season and Diana Taurasi out until July due to back surgery, the Sparks are clearly sensing a power vacuum in the league hierarchy and going for broke this season. What’s surprising is that they were unable to make a deal for Cambage, who possesses more perimeter skills than the newly-acquired Ogwumike. (It is worth noting that both Cambage and Chiney Ogwumike are represented by Allison Galer of Disrupt the Game, as is Chelsea Gray, who remains unsigned less than a month before the season begins, though multiple league sources tell High Post Hoops Gray is expected to return to the Sparks.)

A deal for Cambage would have arguably made more sense stylistically and also freed Brown and potentially second-year center Maria Vadeeva to have larger roles in Dallas. As it stands, both young bigs are stuck in a crowded frontcourt behind the two Ogwumikes, Parker, and Lavender.

It would be unwise to assume that the Sparks are finished dealing, considering they made two moves just this past week, but it is hard to see how they can proceed on a deal for Cambage after this latest trade. Los Angeles can’t realistically move either Ogwumike after pairing the two sisters, and Candace Parker remains untouchable. That means Cambage would have to join a team with three existing frontcourt starters, which doesn’t make logical sense.

As a result, though both teams seem to benefit from this trade – the Sparks get better immediately and the Sun can give more time to their two other bigs – the real loser is the WNBA. If Cambage is serious about her desire to sit out this season unless she plays in Los Angeles, then the most likely outcome appears to be another absent superstar for the league in 2019.

Cambage’s willingness to sit out the year, along with Ogwumike’s threat to do the same in Connecticut, demonstrates the importance of the upcoming negotiations for the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement. Therefore, even as the Ogwumike sisters work to deliver a title to Los Angeles, they will simultaneously be putting together an advantageous proposal as President (Nneka) and Vice President (Chiney) of the Players Association.

The Sparks and the Sun completed a trade that should significantly alter the basketball landscape of the 2019 season, but the deal may end up being more noteworthy for reasons beyond the play of both teams on the court.

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