2015 Regular-Season Record: 14-20 (4th in Western Conference)
Postseason: Lost to Minnesota Lynx 2-1 in Western Conference Semifinals
Was there a more confusing WNBA team in 2015 than the Los Angeles Sparks? Expectations were pretty high coming into the season, with LA faithful hoping that the hiring of Brian Agler as their new head coach would put the team over the top after several disappointing playoff exits in a row. The talent for the Sparks had been there for several seasons now, but many predicted this would be the season they’d truly dominate from start to finish.
What they got instead was more of a roller coaster ride. In fact, the Sparks didn’t win their first game until July.
While it’s not uncommon for WNBA teams to be hurt by some overseas commitment or other absence, the Sparks were hit particularly hard in 2015. One needs only to look at the box score for their opening-night blowout loss against the Seattle Storm to see what a mess the Sparks began as: main scoring guard Kristi Toliver was fulfilling other commitments in the Slovak Republic, star forward Nneka Ogwumike was nursing a foot injury sustained in the preseason and all-world, all-everything All-Star Candace Parker was simply taking time off to rest her body.
Needless to say, that’s quite a bit of talent to be missing, and the Sparks’ early-season play reflected that. By the time Toliver and Ogwumike returned, Los Angeles had dug themselves quite a hole at 0-7.
Fortunately for the Sparks, Candace Parker returned after the All-Star break, and put in one of the most spectacular half-seasons of play in league history. She’s always been among the most complete players in the WNBA, but her 2015 was one for the record books: in addition to doing the usual Candace Parker things (rocking a PER over 30 and ranking second in the WNBA in win shares per 48 minutes), playing under Agler helped her realize her full potential as a passer, and it’s scary. Her AST% of 37.1 percent led the entire league, and in 12 of her 16 games she recorded five assists or more.
Those things are unheard of for a player who’s 6’4” (let alone one who also nearly averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds per game), and it allowed the Sparks to change things dramatically. A large lineup featuring Ogwumike at SF led to countless easy baskets inside, as Parker’s passing and court vision found her and frontcourt mate Jantel Lavender at the hoop time and time again. The Sparks finished the season leading the league in scoring efficiency as a team (.486 eFG%) and straight-up blew everyone else out of the water in the restricted area (61.4 percent shooting).
The enormous lineup had its drawbacks, however, and by the end of the season, starting SG Alana Beard was gimpy while sharpshooter Erin Phillips had been lost to a knee injury. While the Sparks were able to ride Parker to an 11-7 second-half record and a fourth seed finish in a top-heavy Western Conference, they were once again unable to make it past the first round of the playoffs, losing in a close three games to the Minnesota Lynx.
Biggest Need Heading Into 2016: Guards
First, let’s get something out of the way: Candace Parker is a damn fun player to watch, and there was no one playing at her level during the second half of 2015. There’s no question the Sparks wouldn’t have been able to get away with playing so much mega-ball with any player other than her running the show.
That being said, for as great of a player Parker is, she still needs the proper talent to complement her, and this is what LA was lacking in 2015. More specifically, they lacked depth at the wing. For all her basketball IQ and athleticism, Ogwumike isn’t a SF, and the Lynx were able to exploit the Sparks’ lack of floor spacing in the playoffs by packing the paint when Toliver wasn’t on the floor and attacking her with bigger guards when she was. While Serbian combo guard Ana Dabovic was a nice surprise for LA in the latter portions of the season, she couldn’t carry the Sparks bench on her own, much less against the best team in the WNBA.
The obvious solution here is that the Sparks need more guards. As fun as it was to watch Parker run the fast break and make precision passes to cutting centers for open layups, you still need a balanced roster to win consistently in the WNBA, and starting three players who are essentially PF/Cs isn’t a practical long-term solution for anyone.
The Sparks’ mediocre regular-season record means that they’ll pick fifth, so they’ll likely still have their fair share of guard prospects to choose from. They might also consider moving Lavender (who’s going to be expensive to keep) for another wing; her play this season would have more than a few teams interested.
However they plan on getting it done, the Sparks simply need more skill at the positions that are supposed to feature it. Rest assured that as long as Parker is still in a Los Angeles jersey, she’ll take care of the rest.