Parker had ‘it factor’: What legend’s retirement means for WNBA, Aces

Candace Parker was one of the biggest names in basketball for the past two decades: a high school star to a Tennessee Lady Vols legend to a two-time MVP and three-time champion in the WNBA.

When Parker announced her retirement Sunday, it ended a career defined not just by titles and awards, but by influence.

At 6-foot-4, she could handle the ball like a guard and could create her own transition opportunities, and the way she played impacted the next generation, as players modeled their game after her. Two-time MVP A’ja Wilson has credited Parker as one of her primary inspirations.

The two spent only a brief time on court as teammates with the Las Vegas Aces last year, as Parker missed the second half of the season because of injury. But Wilson talked about what a thrill it was to play alongside an iconic competitor who showed just how versatile and creative a post player could be.

Parker was the key to coach Pat Summitt’s last two NCAA titles at Tennessee in 2007 and 2008, and her devotion to Summitt and the Lady Vols stayed strong after she left Knoxville. With the Los Angeles Sparks, Parker won her first WNBA title in 2016, just months after Summitt died from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Parker dedicated the championship to her former coach.

In 2021, Parker left the Sparks after 13 seasons to join her hometown Chicago Sky and won another WNBA title. Last year, although she was injured during the playoffs, her veteran presence and leadership still helped the Aces become the first WNBA franchise in 21 years to repeat as champion.

Parker, who turned 38 earlier this month, hoped to have at least one more season. But injuries proved too big an obstacle. We reflect on one of the great careers in the sport, and what Parker’s retirement means for the Aces and the WNBA.

Was Parker’s decision a surprise?

Voepel: Only just a little in the timing, because Parker had made it known she wanted to play this season. But she was consistent with what she has said the past several years: When she felt she couldn’t play at the level she expected of herself, she would retire.

Like almost anyone who plays a sport so long at a high level, Parker has put her body through a lot to be able to compete. Most WNBA followers expected last season or this season would be her final run in the league. It speaks to her professionalism that she is stepping away now rather than holding onto a roster spot with the hope of making it back later in the year. She has done everything there is to do in basketball, so that also probably leaves her with a sense of peace about retirement.

What is Parker’s legacy in women’s basketball?

Pelton: We ranked Parker the No. 9 player in WNBA history during the league’s 25th season in 2021, and if anything, that feels too low now. Despite being 35 at the time, Parker subsequently won two more championships, leading her hometown Chicago Sky to their first title later that year before winning in Las Vegas last season.

My championships added metric put Parker second back then, and in my wins above replacement player metric, she has the third-highest WNBA career total, trailing Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi. No matter what numbers you use, Parker is an inner-circle Hall of Famer.

Voepel: Agree with Kevin: A case can easily be made for Parker in the top five in WNBA history for her performance, talent and results. As a college player, she is also one of the all-time greats for her dunks, her big-game moments and how she elevated not just Tennessee but the women’s game.

It can be harder to define those who have that “it factor” that makes everyone want to watch them and younger players want to emulate them, but you know it when you see it. And Parker had it. Her knowledge of the game — even as a little kid, she would watch games and pick apart strategy — and her versatile skill set made her stand out. She was the only rookie to win WNBA MVP and then was a consistent star for the remainder of her career. Add in her broadcasting career, and Parker developed an even bigger footprint in basketball. That will continue.

How much cap space does Parker’s retirement free up and how will the Aces adjust?

Pelton: According to, Parker was set to make $100,000 this season. Because Parker’s contract was not protected, Las Vegas can wipe it off the books entirely, which would give the Aces enough cap space to keep any combination of 12 players in training camp on their final roster. Las Vegas will still have additional space left over, which could be used to add salary in a midseason trade or to offer a player bought out midseason more than the minimum salary.

Are the two-time defending champion Aces the preseason favorite?

Pelton: Parker’s absence was a key factor in my decision to pick the Liberty ahead of last year’s WNBA Finals. Historically dominant with Parker in the lineup, Las Vegas was merely elite after her season-ending foot injury.

After the Aces won Game 4 to close out New York with neither Parker, Chelsea Gray nor Kiah Stokes active, I’m not inclined to pick against them again. And Las Vegas has added frontcourt depth with Megan Gustafson, who averaged 18.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per 36 minutes backing up Brittney Griner last season in Phoenix.



Candace Parker’s best moments of the 2023 WNBA season

Check out some of Candace Parker’s top moments with the Aces in the 2023 WNBA season.

Voepel: Yes, because they still seem hungry and eager to win again. Their core players are back and don’t seem to have any problem motivating themselves. Wilson easily could have been the MVP last year, and she will be aiming to get that trophy a third time. It would have been fun to see a healthy Parker play an entire season with the Aces, allowing fans throughout the WNBA to say goodbye to her. There won’t be a farewell tour for Parker, but there could be another championship run for the Aces.

What are your favorite memories of Parker?

Voepel: In the 2008 NCAA regional final in Oklahoma City, the defending national champion Lady Vols were in a battle with Texas A&M. Then Parker dislocated her left shoulder in the first half, left the game, came back in, got hurt again, left again. She didn’t return until there was just over 10 minutes remaining with the score tied. Parker scored eight second-half points wearing a shoulder brace, finishing with 26 as the Lady Vols prevailed 53-45 and then went on to win the NCAA title again. It was one of the gutsiest NCAA tournament performances I’ve seen.

Then in 2016, she won her first WNBA title in an emotionally tough year. In April, Parker was controversially left off the U.S. Olympic team despite being one of the best players in the world. Then in June, Summitt died. The Sparks made the WNBA Finals, facing the defending champion Minnesota Lynx. With a chance to win the title on their home court, the Sparks lost Game 4 — and it seemed like it was going to be another on-court disappointment for Parker, who already had been through many of those with Los Angeles. Instead, the Sparks won Game 5 in Minneapolis 77-76 behind Parker’s 28 points and 12 rebounds, and she was named Finals MVP.

Pelton: I’ll add Parker winning the 2021 title for her hometown team. Although Kahleah Copper won Finals MVP honors, Parker played a huge role with 14.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG and 2.3 SPG in the series. And the Sky might never have broken through without the championship experience of Parker, who got to celebrate with family and friends.

“It was amazing to just hug my dad and my mom and my family,” Parker said after the title. “It was just an amazing feeling to be from here and see so many people in the stands that have been supporting you since you started.”

This post was originally published on ESPN

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