In the shocking first move of the 2021 WNBA offseason, superstar Candace Parker is headed to the Chicago Sky as an unrestricted free agent, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported Wednesday. The deal can’t become official until Monday, the first day teams are allowed to sign free agents to contracts.
Parker, who has been one of the faces of the WNBA since she was drafted No. 1 overall out of Tennessee in 2008, had spent her entire 13-year career with the Los Angeles Sparks. After winning a pair of MVPs, Defensive Player of the Year honors last season and Finals MVP as the Sparks claimed the 2016 WNBA championship, Parker is headed home to play near where she first emerged on the women’s basketball scene as the national player of the year at Naperville Central High School in the Chicago suburbs.
What does Parker’s move mean for the Sky and Sparks, as well as the balance of power elsewhere in the WNBA? Let’s take a look at the key questions.
Can the Sky advance deeper in playoffs?
Chicago was in an interesting position entering free agency because nearly the team’s entire core is under contract for 2021. Of the team’s top nine players in minutes played during the 2020 season, only post player Cheyenne Parker (unrestricted) is a free agent. Signing the other C. Parker almost certainly means the Sky won’t have the cap room to re-sign Cheyenne, but that’s OK because Candace can fill a similar role and upgrade the frontcourt rotation.
Since James Wade’s arrival as head coach in 2019, Chicago has been on the fringes of contention. The Sky went 20-14 in 2019 and came heartbreakingly close to reaching the WNBA semifinals before Dearica Hamby’s improbable shot from near half-court sent them home.
Last season, Chicago started 10-4 in the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida, before stumbling to the finish line. Center Azura Stevens suffered a season-ending knee injury, and both she and forward Diamond DeShields left the bubble in late August. DeShields was hampered with injuries throughout the season and left the bubble for personal reasons. Seeded sixth with a 12-10 record, the Sky were upset by the Connecticut Sun in the opening round of the playoffs.
Enter Parker, who’s still performing at a high level at age 34. After injuries limited her to 22 of 34 regular-season games in 2019, when she averaged a career-low 11.2 PPG, Parker bounced back in the WNBA’s campus setting in 2020, saying she benefited physically without the normal travel wear-and-tear. She made a career-high 54% of her 2-point attempts and finished third in MVP voting — one spot ahead of new teammate Courtney Vandersloot.
Playing with Vandersloot, the league’s top point guard, will probably require some adjustment for Parker. Last season, the Sparks ranked 11th of the WNBA’s 12 teams in the percentage of their plays (29%) that concluded with a shot, trip to the free throw line or turnover created on a pick-and-roll play, according to Synergy Sports tracking. Behind Vandersloot, Chicago had the fourth-highest rate of pick-and-roll plays at 37%, as well as the most points per play (1.0) on them.
It has been a while since Parker has operated primarily as a pick-and-roll player, but in 2017 she finished the league’s fourth-most plays as the screen setter, per Synergy Sports, and averaged an excellent 1.04 points per play on those opportunities. Over time, she should develop pick-and-roll chemistry with Vandersloot.
When Vandersloot is resting, Parker could have more opportunity to play with the ball in her hands. Wade has frequently used backup Gabby Williams as a point forward and Parker — who led the league in assists in 2015 and is 14th in WNBA history in career assists — is undoubtedly an upgrade in that role.
Though this analysis has focused on how Parker will fit on offense, that’s not really where the Sky need to get better. Chicago was fourth in offensive rating in 2020 and second in 2019, so the offense has been good enough to win. It’s defense where the Sky, ninth in 2019 and eighth last season, must improve. Parker’s 2020 Defensive Player of the Year campaign undoubtedly benefited from name recognition; she was actually shut out of the league’s All-Defensive Teams. Still, Parker’s ability to defend multiple positions makes her an upgrade for Chicago.
With a core of three All-Stars in their 30s (Vandersloot will turn 32 next month and backcourt-mate Allie Quigley, like Parker, will turn 35 this year), the Sky might not be built for a long run. Nevertheless, adding Parker could help Chicago take the next step in the playoffs.
How will the Sparks pivot?
This is the end of an era for Los Angeles, which was able to have franchise icon Lisa Leslie seamlessly pass the torch to Parker after their Hall of Fame careers overlapped for two seasons. The Sparks have been one of the league’s most consistently successful teams, making the playoffs in all but one of Parker’s 13 seasons in L.A. and winning the title in one of two Finals appearances in that span.
The outlook is now cloudier for the Sparks, although rivals won’t pity them. Los Angeles still has a former No. 1 overall pick and MVP in Nneka Ogwumike, on whom the Sparks used their core designation in part because Parker was ineligible after previously playing three seasons on core contracts. Ogwumike will re-sign with the team, a league source told ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel on Wednesday.
Los Angeles has a second key unrestricted free agent in starting guard Chelsea Gray, whose return is also a question mark. Sparks wings Brittney Sykes (restricted) and Riquna Williams (unrestricted) are free agents, too. But Parker’s departure gives the Sparks a chance to become bidders in free agency to add to a core of Ogwumike and guard Kristi Tolliver, who signed with the team last offseason but opted out of playing in the bubble.
One interesting question mark is Chiney Ogwumike, who also opted out of the 2020 season as her off-court star grows as an ESPN analyst and commentator. Because Ogwumike’s contract expired, she is — like her sister — only able to negotiate with Los Angeles if she wishes to play this season.
The L.A. market is still a major draw for free agents, so the Sparks should be able to build a contending team. But there’s more uncertainty about their future than there has been in years.
Free agency off to a flying start
With most of this offseason’s top free agents on contending teams, it wasn’t clear we’d see as much movement as we did last winter, when the new WNBA collective bargaining agreement that increased the salary cap caused a flurry of stars changing teams. Parker’s decision to leave for Chicago suggests this offseason might be as active or more.
In part, there’s a ripple effect to a big transaction. In this case, Cheyenne Parker becomes available to another team that could have expected her to re-sign, while the Sparks might have enough cap space to go spending. Those moves in turn would cause other teams to respond.
Because the status of so many key players remains uncertain, it’s hard to project exactly where the Sky stand in the league’s pecking order until the dust settles on free agency. For now, I’d say Chicago can reasonably expect to reach the semifinals for the first time since they lost to Parker and the Sparks in 2016, with a chance to go deeper in the playoffs.