How Liz Cambage leaving the Los Angeles Sparks impacts the WNBA playoff race

The Los Angeles Sparks had their share of chaos during the 2022 WNBA season, but even more chaos ensued this week when four-time All-Star center Liz Cambage asked to leave the team. The organization announced a contract divorce Tuesday, meaning the Sparks will be without their valuable free agent acquisition as they battle for a playoff spot after last year missing the postseason for the first time in a decade.

If the season ended today, the Sparks would be No. 6 in the playoffs, but the Dallas Wings, Atlanta Dream and Phoenix Mercury are all within a half game. The top eight teams in the WNBA standings advance to the postseason.

Cambage’s commitment to the Sparks seemed preordained: since being drafted in 2011, she’s made it clear that she wanted to play in Los Angeles, a place she admired growing up in Australia. Her time at the organization she designed, Tulsa/Dallas, ended when she asked for a trade ahead of the 2019 season. She spent two seasons with the Las Vegas Aces before signing with the Sparks as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason.

Ahead of the 2022 season, Cambage seemed like the Sparks’ chances of making a splash in the WNBA this season were high.

“This is going to be the wildest summer the WNBA has ever seen,” Cambage said in April, “and we’re going to have a ring at the end.”

It really was a wild summer. The Sparks lost five straight games in the first two and a half weeks of the season and fired then-head coach and general manager Derek Fisher in early June. Now Cambage is leaving the organization she has long wanted to be part of, with her prospects of playing in the league seemingly in jeopardy.

Where does Cambage’s departure at the Sparks lead, and what’s next for the team and for Cambage’s WNBA future?

How is the Sparks lineup and playoff hopes changing?

In the two games Cambage recently missed in COVID-19 minutes, the Sparks went 1-1, falling to top-ranked Chicago Sky by 12 and beating bottom-ranked Indiana Fever by seven. Chiney Ogwumike started in Cambage’s place, hitting a double-double in one of the games and just missing another.

With Cambage gone and the Sparks looking to secure a postseason spot, Nneka Ogwumike needs to continue playing at the MVP level she’s shown so far this season, while Chiney Ogwumike needs to show her best basketball of the summer and stay healthy and play even more minutes. (She missed a handful of games earlier this season due to a knee injury and then non-COVID-19 illness.) Rookie Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who’s made a solid start to her pro career, will likely have more time as well.

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Chiney Ogwumike puts up a tree for the Sparks.

While Cambage’s minutes were somewhat limited during her brief stint in LA – she only played over 30 minutes twice this season, both times in May – she was still present on the inside, could control the glass and was adept at holding it to the to create free throw line. These will be areas where Chiney Ogwumike and Nelson-Ododa Nneka Ogwumike will have to help.

Of the non-Cambage lineups to have spent more than 25 minutes on the floor this season, the core Nneka Ogwumike/Chiney Ogwumike/Brittney Sykes/Lexie Brown with either Jordin Canada or Katie Lou Samuelson has been the most successful, with net ratings of around plus-22. Those lineups without Cambage performed significantly better defensively than those with the four-time All-Star center.

By agreeing to a contractual divorce (i.e. buyout) with Cambage rather than having to eat up their full salary, the Sparks opened up cap space to add a replacement. Shortly after Cambage’s announcement, LA re-signed Kianna Smith to a seven-day contract.

However, injuries and illnesses have been a problem for the Sparks all season, as not a single player has appeared in all 27 games this year. Chiney Ogwumike, Brown and Kristi Toliver were sidelined in Saturday’s Sparks final game against the Aces, while Sykes, Canada and Chennedy Carter also missed significant time this summer. Staying healthy will be vital for LA all the way through. — Philip

With only two weeks left in the regular season, what challenges does the Sparks’ upcoming schedule pose?

With nine games remaining in the 2022 season, Los Angeles controls its own playoff future. The Sparks play each of the other three teams (Atlanta Dream, Dallas Wings, and Phoenix Mercury), currently separated by a single overall loss for the bottom three places in the WNBA postseason. (At 12:15, Los Angeles is sixth with Dallas; Atlanta and Phoenix are half a game behind at 12:16.)

These head-to-heads, beginning Friday in Phoenix in the Sparks’ first game without Cambage, will be particularly important as each of them will be about the tiebreaker of the season series. Los Angeles has a 2-1 head-to-head lead over Mercury and Wings, so a loss would mean going to the next tiebreaker (record against teams of .500 or better) while the season series is decided with Dream when the teams meet on August 5th.

Outside of those three games, the Sparks have an opportunity to knock out the other two playoff hopes — the New York Liberty, two games behind, and the Minnesota Lynx, three behind Los Angeles. Los Angeles’ next three games after visiting Phoenix will be hosted by Minnesota, then at the Barclays Center against the Liberty.

The Sparks will not face a team ahead of them in standings until the final week of the season, when they visit the Washington Mystics and host the Connecticut Sun in back-to-back games. Until then, Los Angeles can hope to build up enough cushion not to need wins to avoid having a playoff berth on the line when Dallas visit to wrap up the regular season on Aug. 14.

ESPN’s Basketball Power Index projects the Sparks to make the playoffs 56% of the times, the lowest odds in the group of four teams battling for the bottom three spots, but an indication of how open the race remains . — pelton

What does the future hold for Cambage in the WNBA?

We may have already seen Cambage’s last WNBA game. The Sparks were able to sign her as a free agent for less than maximum salary last winter, in large part due to the limited market for her services.

That came before the public learned of allegations that Cambage used a racist slur against members of the Nigeria national team during a pre-Olympic match with the Australian national team last year. Cambage has denied the allegations, which were already well known in league circles when she became a free agent.

When The Sunday Telegraph reported the details of Cambage’s actions in May, citing anonymous Nigerian players, Sparks players and then-coach Fisher publicly supported her. Now that Cambage has left Los Angeles, it’s unclear where else in the league she might find that kind of support.

Despite Cambage’s continued productivity — she averaged 20.0 points, 9.9 rebounds, a career-high 3.2 assists and 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes with the Sparks, which isn’t far from her all-star marks in recent times was three seasons away from playing in the WNBA — that’s now two teams in less than a year that have decided they’re better off without her. The Aces moved on with Cambage after two seasons and freed her to sign with Los Angeles.

This time, Cambage could be left without another landing pad. — pelton

It’s worth noting that after the Sparks fired Fisher, Cambage was once again under the tutelage of Fred Williams, her former Dallas coach with whom she was particularly close. Not to blame one way or the other, the fact that things took a turn for the worse with Cambage while she was working with one of her few remaining backers in the W doesn’t bode well for her chances of finding a new home in the league Find. — Philip

https://www.espn.com/wnba/story/_/id/34297656/how-liz-cambage-leaving-los-angeles-sparks-impacts-wnba-playoff-race How Liz Cambage leaving the Los Angeles Sparks impacts the WNBA playoff race

Emma Bowman

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