The Los Angeles Sparks made a big splash in free agency this winter, when they brought back veteran guard Kristi Toliver on a three-year max contract. After falling short in the semi-finals last season against the Connecticut Sun, a boost from Toliver was just what the Sparks needed to maintain their status as a contender.
We'll have to wait until 2021 to see how she impacts the team, however, as she announced late on Friday night that she'll be sitting out the 2020 WNBA season. Toliver will be joined by veteran big Chiney Ogwumike, who also declared her intentions to skip this season.
Both players specifically cited health concerns as their reasons for not playing. While Toliver was focused on the risk of COVID-19, Ogwumike was worried about playing a condensed schedule without a full training camp given her previous injury history.
"Though I want very much to compete with my team, to be a leader and show up for them, I am not comfortable with the risk to my physical health – short-term and long-term – given the many unknowns of COVID-19 and the risk of injury," Toliver said in a statement on the team's website. "For me, the right decision under the circumstances is to opt out for the year."
"If you know me, you know that I have overcome some of the biggest challenges an athlete can face on the court," Ogwumike said. "My previous injuries have given me strength and built character, but unfortunately they require me to be careful with my preparation leading up to a season. This year is unprecedented in many ways, therefore my team and I have come to the decision to be proactively cautious and put my body first."
It goes without saying that this is a huge blow to the Sparks' title chances this season. They'll also be without young center Maria Vadeeva, who is staying in Russia, and even for a deep team like L.A., that's just too much talent to lose all at once. Toliver's veteran leadership and outside shooting, in particular, was going to be crucial for this team.
Though they had plenty of talent last season, they were frontcourt dominant, and got almost no consistent guard play outside of Chelsea Gray. When the Sun stifled Gray in their semifinal matchup last season, the Sparks had nowhere else to turn, and it was a big reason for their defeat. Toliver would have given them another ballhandler and, more importantly, a consistent 3-point shooter.
Gray, Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike is still just about as good as it gets in terms of a big three in this league, but the Sparks are suddenly pretty thin beyond them. Plus, Derek Fisher is still their head coach, and he struggled in his first season, both with figuring out rotations and building a relationship with the players -- Parker in particular.
Strange things can happen in a 22-game season, and it's probably best not to make too many assumptions until we get a feel for how things are actually going to work in the WNBA bubble, but there's no doubt that the Sparks are a much worse team now than they were yesterday.