WNBA free agency: What to watch for from the Los Angeles Sparks

The Sparks have money to spend and needs to address in free agency.

The most dramatic offseason in Los Angeles Sparks history takes its next step on February 10 with the official start of WNBA free agency. Teams have been allowed to negotiate contracts since January 28, but Monday marks the first day that free agents can sign for the 2020 WNBA season.

This is a pivotal offseason for the league, as it is the first under the new collective bargaining agreement. The salary cap for each team has risen from just under $1 million to $1.3 million, meaning every organization has significantly more spending power. However, individual contract minimums and maximums are also higher, so the same amount of money can’t sign as many players.

The Sparks are in an interesting position given that they have been operating without a true general manager since Penny Toler‘s departure in October. Managing partner Eric Holoman is the interim general manager, and he has been working alongside assistant GM Michael Fischer and head coach Derek Fisher in a front office triumvirate. Although Los Angeles continues to search for an individual to fill the GM role permanently, the team isn’t rushing the process just because free agency is approaching; the organization remains confident that the existing trio of Holoman, Fischer, and Fisher can build out the roster.

Fortunately for the front office, much of the roster is already in place. The Sparks return nine players from the 2019 WNBA semifinalists, including Candace Parker and Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike. Those three players are all making the maximum salary from the previous CBA (or close to it), making each of them a fantastic bargain in the new cap environment.

Los Angeles also brings back five young players in Kalani Brown, Marina Mabrey, Maria Vadeeva, Sydney Wiese, and Alexis Jones. Brown, Mabrey, and Vadeeva will all see their salaries rise to $57,000 under the new CBA, while Wiese and Jones will get bumped up to $68,000 with three years of experience.

The Sparks also still have Riquna Williams under contract, though her impending trial for a domestic violence arrest in December 2018 could put her availability into question.

Assuming Williams is eligible to play, with those nine contracts, the Sparks have $775,000 of their salary cap committed for the 2020 season. It’s worth noting that WNBA teams can only guarantee six contracts at a time, however, so there may be some flux in the back half of that rotation.

Nevertheless, that leaves Los Angeles with at least $525,000 to spend on three more players, though the team is only required to have 11 players under contract. The Sparks have two free agents after the retirement of Alana Beard, and their first priority in free agency is clearly to re-sign Chelsea Gray.

The team extended Gray a qualifying offer earlier in free agency as a formality to retain her rights as a restricted free agent. She assuredly will not sign that deal, given that it is a significant discount from her maximum salary of $185,000. The Sparks would do well to agree to a multi-year deal with their first-team all-WNBA point guard, but Gray could elect for a shorter contract to become an unrestricted free agent next season, when Parker and both Ogwumike sisters will all also hit the market.

Gray is the most important player in the team’s plans this offseason. The Sparks want to keep her and can match any contract she signs with another team; there is no indication that Gray will spend next year anywhere else but in Los Angeles.

The Sparks also have one more free agent: Tierra Ruffin-Pratt. Ruffin-Pratt was the team’s starting small forward for essentially the entire season. After the year-ending loss to Connecticut in the postseason semifinals, she spoke about her time in Los Angeles as year one of a longer process. There is mutual interest in Ruffin-Pratt returning to the Sparks for a second season.

How much Ruffin-Pratt could re-sign for is a more interesting question. In previous years, there was a minimal range of dollar amounts a player could sign for. Now, veteran players like TRP can earn between $68,000 and $185,000, requiring teams to seriously consider how to value players who aren’t clear-cut max stars. The Sparks have a great deal of flexibility, but that doesn’t mean they are in the position to hand out bloated contracts, particularly because they will have to negotiate new deals with Parker and the Ogwumikes next year.

In the present, the team has needs to upgrade even if they factor in improvement through continuity. Los Angeles desperately could use a backup point guard to reduce the load on Gray. Not only would that allow Fisher to cut Gray’s minutes, it would also enable her to play off the ball and exert more energy on defense. Fisher saved Gray from the most challenging defensive matchups throughout the season, specifically in the playoffs against Connecticut, but she can be a defensive force when given the opportunity.

The Sparks also need two-way wings. The shooting guards and small forwards who took the floor were Los Angeles were limited in their skill sets: shooters without ball-handling, scorers without defense, or defenders with no offensive gravity. The team also lacked players who could get to the basket and draw fouls. The Sparks shot 83.8% from the free-throw line but ranked last in the league with 14.7 free-throw attempts per game.

Gray, Parker, and Nneka Ogwumike are core members of the team’s starting five, but the other two spots are up for grabs. There appear to be high hopes for Wiese and Mabrey to grow into those roles; they just haven’t proven that they can handle that responsibility yet.

Among the available free agents, DeWanna Bonner is likely the top target. According to Rachel Galligan, Bonner is considering leaving Phoenix, the only home she has had in her WNBA career. Bonner has been a power forward with the Mercury next to Brittney Griner, but she has the offensive versatility to play next to Parker and Ogwumike in the Sparks frontcourt. She is a high-volume scorer who gets to the line and is a threat from anywhere on the floor. Bonner’s efficiency took a hit in 2019, and Phoenix suffered as a whole on that end without Diana Taurasi, but her 2018 season is a template for what the Sparks need in their starting lineup.

Angel McCoughtry is also a natural fit for Los Angeles. A strong wing who can generate her own offense and get to the basket would fix a lot of this team’s weaknesses, and at her age (like Bonner), McCoughtry’s window to win is now. That’s what the Sparks are looking for to hopefully get Parker one more title. Los Angeles likely has enough promising young players to make a deal for Skylar Diggins-Smith, even without the team’s 2020 first-round pick. Diggins-Smith isn’t a perfect complement to Gray, but her talent is undeniable, and the pair will have a chance to learn each other’s games with Team USA.

The Sparks would really benefit from a floor spacer like Allie Quigley, but she is unlikely to leave Chicago. They should also consider Shekinna Stricklen, who might be the odd woman out in Connecticut, given that the Sun have six free agents, including three starters. L.A. doesn’t have anyone who can match Stricklen’s volume and consistency from beyond the arc.

The team also retained its international rights to Alina Iagupova, a physical small forward who is averaging 21.6 points per game this season in Euroleague. If she decides to come to the WNBA, her presence will instantly upgrade the roster.

The Sparks had a disappointing end to the year, both on and off the court, but they had a strong regular season and are in a good position to markedly improve their team in 2020. As a new era begins in the WNBA, Los Angeles is poised to remain one of the league’s preeminent franchises.

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