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

The Los Angeles Sparks have had their share of chaos during the 2022 WNBA season, but more disarray 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 prized free agent acquisition as they fight to secure a playoff spot after missing the postseason last year for the first time in a decade.

If the season ended today, the Sparks would be the No. 6 seed 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 stint with the Sparks seemed preordained: Ever since she was drafted in 2011, she made it clear she wanted to play in Los Angeles, a place she admired growing up in Australia. Her time with the organization that drafted her, Tulsa / Dallas, ended when she requested a trade ahead of the 2019 season. She spent two seasons with the Las Vegas Aces before signing with the Sparks in the offseason as an unrestricted free agent.

Ahead of the 2022 campaign, Cambage seemed high on the Sparks’ chances to make some noise in the WNBA this season.

“It’s going to be the most wild summer the WNBA has ever seen,” Cambage said in April, “and we’re going to have a ring at the end of it.”

It was a wild summer indeed. The Sparks lost five consecutive games in the first 2 weeks of the season, and fired then-head coach and general manager Derek Fisher in early June. Now Cambage departs the organization she desperately wanted to be part of for so long, with her prospects of playing again in the league seemingly in question.

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

How does the Sparks’ lineup and playoff hopes change?

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

With Cambage gone, if the Sparks want to secure a spot in the postseason, Nneka Ogwumike will need to continue to play at the MVP-caliber level she has demonstrated so far this season, while Chiney Ogwumike will need to come out with her best basketball of the summer and stay healthy playing more minutes. (She missed a handful of games earlier this season with a knee injury and then a non-COVID-19 illness.) Rookie Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who has had a solid start to her pro career, will also likely see more time.

While Cambage’s minutes were somewhat limited during her short stint in LA — she played more than 30 minutes just twice this season, both times in May — she still provided an inside presence, could control the glass and was adept at making it to the free-throw line. Those will be areas where Chiney Ogwumike and Nelson-Ododa will have to help out Nneka Ogwumike.

Of lineups without Cambage that have seen more than 25 minutes on the floor this season, the core of Nneka Ogwumike/Chiney Ogwumike/Brittney Sykes/Lexie Brown with either Jordin Canada or Katie Lou Samuelson have been the most successful, with net ratings of roughly plus-22. Those Cambage-less lineups notably fared better defensively than ones with the four-time All-Star center.

By agreeing to a contract divorce (ie, buyout) with Cambage as opposed to needing to eat her full salary, the Sparks opened up cap space to add a replacement. Shortly after the announcement on Cambage, LA re-signed Kianna Smith to a seven-day contract.

That said, injuries and illnesses have been a problem for the Sparks all season, as not one player has appeared in all 27 games this year. Chiney Ogwumike, Brown and Kristi Toliver were sidelined Saturday, the Sparks’ most recent game against the Aces, while Sykes, Canada and Chennedy Carter have also missed meaningful time this summer. Staying healthy will be critical for LA down the stretch. — Philippou

What challenges does the Sparks’ upcoming schedule hold with just more than two weeks left in the regular season?

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

Those head-to-head meetings, beginning Friday at Phoenix in the Sparks’ first game without Cambage, will be especially important because the season-series tiebreaker is at stake in each of them. Los Angeles holds 2-1 head-to-head leads over both the Mercury and Wings, so a loss would mean moving to the next tiebreaker (record against teams .500 or better), while the season series with the Dream will be decided when the teams meet on Aug. 5.

Outside of those three games, the Sparks will have an opportunity to knock the other two playoff hopefuls — the New York Liberty, two games back, and Minnesota Lynx, three back of Los Angeles — out of the picture. The next three games for Los Angeles after visiting Phoenix will be hosting Minnesota, then back-to-back at the Barclays Center against the Liberty.

The Sparks won’t face a team ahead of them in the standings until the season’s final week, when they visit the Washington Mystics and host the Connecticut Sun in back-to-back games. By then, Los Angeles can hope to build enough cushion not to need wins to avoid having a playoff spot on the line when Dallas visits to close the regular season on Aug. 14.

ESPN’s Basketball Power Index projects the Sparks making the playoffs in 56% of simulations, the lowest odds among the group of four teams battling for the final three spots, but indicative of how wide-open the race remains. — Pelton

What’s the future for Cambage in the WNBA?

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

That came before the public learned of allegations that Cambage directed a racial slur last year to members of Nigeria’s national team during a pre-Olympics scrimmage with Australia’s national team. Cambage has denied the allegations, which were already known within league circles by the time she became a free agent.

When The Sunday Telegraph reported in May on the details of Cambage’s actions, citing Nigerian players who remained anonymous, 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 backing.

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, not far off her marks as an All-Star the previous three seasons she played in the WNBA – – this is now two teams in less than a year that have decided they’re better off without her. The Aces moved on after two seasons with Cambage, freeing her to sign with Los Angeles.

This time, Cambage might find herself without another landing spot. — Pelton

It’s worth noting that after the Sparks fired Fisher, Cambage was once again under the tutelage of Fred Williams, her former coach in Dallas with whom she had a particularly close relationship. Without subscribing blame one way or another, the fact that things deteriorated with Cambage while working with one of her few remaining supporters in the W de ella does n’t bode well for her chances of finding a new home in the league moving forward. — Philippou

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