The first domino of WNBA free agency has fallen, as 2016 MVP Nneka Ogwumike has informed the Los Angeles Sparks that she will not be returning to the only franchise she has played for since being drafted No. 1 in 2012. The news was first reported by ESPN and confirmed by the Sparks organization.
Ogwumike was the last remaining member of the L.A. team that made back-to-back Finals appearances in 2016-17 and won the title in 2016. The departure of the eight-time All-Star and six-time all-WNBA selection allows the Sparks to fully commit to a rebuild as they clean up the wreckage of the Derek Fisher era.
Sparks hiring Raegan Pebley as general manager
Without Ogwumike (and also presumably Chiney Ogwumike, who has said she only wants to play with her sister going forward), L.A. has more roster spots and minutes to commit to young players. That could include this year’s No. 2 and No. 12 picks as well as the 2023 No. 10 pick Zia Cooke and No. 14 selection Shaneice Swain, a 20-year-old point guard from Australia. The team also still has 2022 draftee Nia Clouden on the roster on a rookie contract.
This change in direction could allow the Sparks to flip their veteran players for future assets, the first of which would be Jordin Canada. It was somewhat surprising that L.A. extended a core qualifying offer to Canada given that a supermax salary seems like an overpay for a guard who has never been an All-Star, but this enables the Sparks to sign-and-trade Canada and recoup some value from their trade partner.
Furthermore, Azurá Stevens — who was recruited by half the league during last year’s offseason, two-time All-Star Dearica Hamby and veteran Stephanie Talbot are all under contract for one more year. Given that their timelines don’t exactly fit with L.A.’s current vision, they could be trade candidates for contending teams.
While new general manager Raegan Pebley and coach Curt Miller build the Sparks back up, where Ogwumike goes from here is the most interesting question of the WNBA offseason. ESPN reported that the veteran forward has met with the Atlanta Dream, Chicago Sky and Phoenix Mercury and plans to also meet with the New York Liberty and Seattle Storm before deciding on her next destination. All of those teams other than the Liberty have max cap space — and a starting role for Ogwumike — right now. New York can perhaps engage in some financial gymnastics to provide a competitive salary for Ogwumike, and it’s worth noting she hasn’t played on a maximum contract in each of the last three seasons, but the Liberty can’t realistically offer her a starting spot with both Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart on the roster.
The Mercury could be a good fit for Ogwumike as a veteran-laden roster with fellow Wasserman clients Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner; Ogwumike played with both of them on USA Basketball teams. The Storm might not be far enough on their winning timeline, though the pairing of Ogwumike and Ezi Magbegor is enticing. Atlanta and Chicago were both playoff teams in 2023 and retain the majority of their cores, so they’d take a step forward with Ogwumike, though spacing concerns exist with the Sky and the Dream might need a bigger frontcourt player.
It’s a little surprising that Ogwumike isn’t meeting with the Las Vegas Aces. Her former Sparks teammates Chelsea Gray and Candace Parker have both made their way to Las Vegas, and the Aces can pay Ogwumike about as much money as she made in 2023. The chance to win another title is the highest in Las Vegas, though Parker’s status will determine whether Ogwumike would be the starting power forward or come off the bench, if that’s an important factor in her decision-making.
Ogwumike is already one of the all-time WNBA greats and has nothing left to prove in her career. She’ll likely prioritize winning, considering that was the missing element in what L.A. had to offer, but whatever happens next will only augment a Hall of Fame resume on and off the court. Regardless of where she ends up, her move is the end of an era for the Sparks. The organization has had one (or more) of Lisa Leslie, Parker and Ogwumike on the roster for its entire history, and there’s a gap for the next generational frontcourt player. Perhaps that void is filled by Cameron Brink in the 2024 WNBA Draft, or perhaps the organization will take a different step forward under its new front-office leadership. There’s a new dawn in Los Angeles and a new chapter to be written for one of the league’s original franchises.
(Photo: Adam Pantozzi / NBAE via Getty Images)