WNBA free agency 2023: How Candace Parker's move impacts Aces, Sky and WNBA

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Candace Parker stunned the basketball world two years ago when she decided to leave the Los Angeles Sparks--the franchise that had drafted her over a decade earlier -- to play for her hometown team in the Chicago Sky. At the time, the move marked arguably the most seismic free-agency decision in the two-decade history of the WNBA, coming on the heels of a new collective bargaining agreement that facilitated greater player movement.

The two-time WNBA MVP and two-time league champion shocked fans once again on Saturday in a decision that was perhaps even less predictable than her Chicago homecoming: Parker announced on Instagram she'll sign with the defending champion Las Vegas Aces, joining forces with two-time MVP A'ja Wilson, first team All-WNBA standout Kelsey Plum and 2022 playoff sensation Chelsea Gray, with whom Parker won her first championship, in Los Angeles.

How does Parker get incorporated into the Aces' system? Are they the automatic favorites to win the 2023 title, which would make them the first franchise to repeat since the Sparks did so in 2001 and 2002? And what does this mean for the Sky? ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton, Alexa Philippou, Ramona Shelburne and M.A. Voepel analyze all that and more.

How does Parker's move to Las Vegas change the Aces, and how does she fit into the lineup?

Pelton: During last year's Las Vegas title run, the big question was how the Aces should fill the fifth spot in their lineup alongside Wilson, Gray, Plum and All-Star (and Most Improved Player) Jackie Young. Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon toggled between three options, starting defensive-minded veteran Kiah Stokes at center then going small with Riquna Williams or Dearica Hamby (after Hamby returned from injury during the semifinals) when teams ignored Stokes on the perimeter.

As one of the greatest players in WNBA history, Parker brings the best of all of those lineups to the Aces. Defense? She was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2020, and she has enough experience guarding centers in recent years to take that responsibility off Wilson's plate. Offensively, Parker brings far more shot creation and playmaking than either Williams or Hamby, though this role will put a premium on her making 3-pointers. (Parker is a career 33% 3-point shooter, but she took twice as many 3s per game last season as Hamby.)

How Las Vegas will fill out the roster after trading Hamby to the Sparks remains to be seen. At present, the Aces can't afford to pay Parker her maximum salary ($202,154 changing teams as a free agent). She would have to take about a $20,000 pay cut, unless Las Vegas waives a player without a protected contract. Williams, whose $149,500 salary is not protected,per HerHoopStats.com data, would be the logical candidate, but she also would be hard to replace in free agency.

Either way, the Aces are likely to rely again on a tight rotation. Just eight players saw more than 20 minutes of action for Las Vegas during last year's playoffs, with the starters and Williams playing the bulk of them. On the plus side, having so many stars will allow Hammon to keep two or three of them on the court at any given time. Barring a major injury, the Aces look like heavy favorites to get back to the Finals with the addition of Parker.

What does this mean for the Sky?

Philippou: Sorry, Sky fans, but things aren't looking too great for you right about now. Parker was the heartbeat of Chicago's run to the championship in 2021. Not only is she now gone, but there seems to be a good chance that point guard Courtney Vandersloot -- another free agent, who has met with the Sky, Minnesota Lynx, New York Liberty and Seattle Storm -- will depart. In fact, 2021 Finals MVP Kahleah Copper is the only returning starter currently under contract for the Sky. We'll have to see what Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, Emma Meesseman and key reserve Azurá Stevens ultimately decide, though it seems head coach/general manager James Wade might end up coaching or needing to compile a much different team than we saw the past two seasons. In a worst-case scenario, a rebuild could be on the horizon.

As of right now, without knowing where Breanna Stewart lands, are the Aces the front-runner for 2023?

Voepel: Yes. It would seem odd not to put Las Vegas in that spot, considering the defending champion has now added a first-ballot Hall of Famer. At least on paper, the Aces took an exceptional team and made it stronger with Parker.

Some questions will come regarding chemistry. Hamby's departure from the Aces was very messy. But in all leagues, players get traded for a lot of reasons that upset them. It seemed clear that in trading her to the Sparks, the Aces were clearing salary-cap room for a potential big addition, and Parker was the logical choice.

The Aces were popular last season among league fans, having former WNBA players Becky Hammon as coach and Natalie Williams and Jennifer Azzi in the front office. Fans leaguewide might be less supportive after the Hamby situation, but the business of pro sports tends to move on relentlessly. She was injured and not really a factor in the playoffs last year. The Aces still won, but they will look to Parker to provide even more star power for a run at a second championship.

That said, no WNBA team has won back-to-back league titles in 20 years, including the dynastic Lynx (2011, 2013, 2015, 2017). It was Parker's Sparks who stopped Minnesota in Game 5 of the 2016 WNBA Finals.

So, the Aces do have some challenges to face, historically if nothing else, and everyone will be targeting them this season. However, they should be the favorites.

Shelburne: This move reminds me of whenKevin Durant joined the 73-win Golden State Warriorsin 2016, only the Aces actually finished off their championship run. Parker still has a lot of game left at age 36. The fit with Wilson will be interesting, but Wilson helped recruit Parker to the Aces, so there's a strong willingness to make this work. Plus, Parker has played well with a dominant post player before inNneka Ogwumike in L.A.

How might Parker's move impact the rest of free agency?

Voepel: The three biggest dominoes for this free-agency period are Stewart, Vandersloot and Parker. With Parker's decision now made, everyone waits to see if Stewart and Vandersloot -- who have the same agent -- end up on the same team. Vandersloot was drafted by Chicago, and she has spent all 12 seasons with the Sky, but it might be time for her to move on. Stewart is in her peak years, and she has played with a great point guard in Sue Bird since being drafted No. 1 by Seattle in 2016. Now that Bird has retired, Vandersloot would give Stewart another great veteran point guard to team with.

If they end up on the same team, will it be Seattle? (Vandersloot is from the greater Seattle area.) Will it be New York, which would then have real "superteam" vibes, along with the Aces? (Stewart is from Syracuse.) Or are we in for something more surprising than either of those scenarios?

It's fair to say Parker's decision might have an impact on both, individually and as a potential duo. We'll also wait to see whether their decisions come -- like Parker's -- before Feb. 1, when free-agent signings officially can begin.

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