The 2021 season was a year to forget for the Los Angeles Sparks. Can additions such as Liz Cambage, Chennedy Carter, Jordin Canada and Katie Lou Samuelson make 2022 a much different experience? Or will the Sparks find themselves in the midst of a chemistry experiment gone wrong after talent additions that include a couple of big personalities?
Sources confirmed Saturday to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne that Cambage was headed to play for Los Angeles this season. Also Saturday, the Sparks made a trade to bring in guard Chennedy Carter and signed free-agent guard Jordin Canada. Thursday, the Sparks obtained forward Katie Lou Samuelson in a trade.
Can it all work? Last year, the Sparks went 12-20 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and just the fifth time since the league launched in 1997. Two marquee Sparks players, forward/center Candace Parker and guard Chelsea Gray, left prior to last season, and Parker went on to win the WNBA title with the Chicago Sky.
Franchise stalwart Nneka Ogwumike was controversially left off the U.S. Olympic team and missed 14 Sparks games due to a knee injury. Younger sister Chiney Ogwumike was limited to seven games last season with the Sparks, also with knee issues.
Guard Brittney Sykes had a brilliant season defensively for Los Angeles, but it was a disappointing year for the team overall. The Sparks are not used to being on the periphery of the WNBA playoff race. Now, they appear poised to make news this season, which they hope will all be of the good kind.
But let's start with the 6-foot-8 Cambage, who seemingly has always wanted to play in Los Angeles. When she was drafted by Tulsa as a 19-year-old in 2011, it was a dreadful fit for the Australian in a relatively small U.S. city where she later said she never felt comfortable. Plus, the Shock lost several of their best players who didn't come along when the franchise moved from Detroit, and the team struggled.
Cambage played just two unhappy seasons (2011, 2013) with the Shock, who went a combined 14-54 those years. They went 9-25 in 2012, when Cambage was supposed to join the team after the London Olympics, but didn't. She later acknowledged she couldn't force herself to come back that summer.
The Shock subsequently moved and became the Dallas Wings. Cambage joined the Wings there in 2018 and led the league in scoring (23.0 PPG), but then insisted on a trade.
She went to the Las Vegas Aces for 2019 (15.9 PPG), sat out the 2020 season on a medical exemption, and then rejoined the Aces last year (14.2 PPG). Last summer, she was involved in an incident with the Nigerian national team in a pre-Olympics tuneup and subsequently didn't play in the Tokyo Games citing mental health reasons.
In November she was given a formal reprimand from a Basketball Australia integrity panel regarding her behavior against Nigeria. In December, she posted on social media that she had "zero interest" in playing in the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup in Australia this September, despite the event being held in her home country.
And then just as the WNBA free agency period started Feb. 1, Cambage sent out a Tweet complaining about coaches' and players' salaries in the WNBA. It was in response to new Aces coach Becky Hammon making a reported $1 million after coming from the San Antonio Spurs.
Perhaps the most concise way to describe Cambage's career is that she's generally not far out of the news cycle. But she's also one of the most dominant physical players in women's basketball. And she has a dedicated fan base.
Ideally for the Sparks, Cambage -- who will turn 31 in August -- will be the star version of herself that she has undeniably displayed at times in a five-season WNBA career in which she has averaged 16.3 points and 7.7 rebounds. She will be reunited with longtime WNBA coach Fred Williams, an assistant now with the Sparks with whom she got along well when he was the head coach in Dallas (before he was fired late in the 2018 season after an altercation with team president and chief executive officer Greg Bibb).
And Cambage is at last competing in Los Angeles, a city that she has always seemed to want to play in, in part because of her interests outside of basketball.
Carter, whose nickname is "Hollywood," was the No. 4 pick out of Texas A&M in 2020 by the Atlanta Dream and had a good rookie season (averaging 17.4 PPG) that was marred only by missing six games due to an ankle injury. Carter's second season with the Dream didn't go as well.
She had forged a good relationship with coach Nicki Collen, who left just before the 2021 season began to take over at Baylor, and Carter struggled in Collen's absence. She was suspended indefinitely on July 5 after playing 11 games for "conduct detrimental to the team" and never returned.
Atlanta got a new head coach and general manager last October, and the Dream made it clear there would be player personnel changes in the offseason. After being involved in a May fight that didn't come to light until October, Courtney Williams and Crystal Bradford were not brought back to Atlanta.
Carter, who came to the Dream with great promise as a guard with explosive scoring ability, ended up playing just 27 games for Atlanta, averaging 16.1 points and 3.4 assists.
There's no question that those who follow the WNBA are wondering how the Sparks' chemistry will work with both Cambage and Carter on the same team. As for Canada and Samuelson, both are going "home." Canada is from Los Angeles and played at UCLA, and Samuelson is from Huntington Beach, California.
Canada won two titles with the Seattle Storm as Sue Bird's backup point guard, and she will be eager to establish herself away from Bird. Canada has averaged 7.2 points and 4.1 assists in her four WNBA seasons.
Samuelson has bounced around: drafted by Chicago in 2019, traded to Dallas in 2020, traded to Seattle in 2021, now traded to Los Angeles in 2022. At 6-3, she is known for her 3-point shooting going back to her college days at UConn. Last season was her best to date, as she started 24 games and averaged 7.0 PPG.
Several WNBA teams have been quite busy during free agency, and on paper look good. Whether that pans out when the games actually begin in May is another issue. But the Sparks have made moves that really could pay off -- even if they carry risk.