As the playoff picture begins to take shape, what must the WNBA champion Los Angeles Sparks do to ensure a place in the Finals?
No one doubts the defending champion Los Angeles Sparks will to win, which has been in question over past years, but so-so defensive performances against the young but talented Dallas Wings proves there is work to do. So what did the Sparks do so well in their championship run last season?
We will begin our series by taking a look back.
Front Court: The Sparks certainly didn’t lack the tangibles that one would expect of a championship caliber team. Boasting arguably one of the best front court duals in the WNBA with Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike. They were so effective that other teams have taken note, such as is the case in the Atlanta Dream‘s move to acquire Imani Boyette from the Chicago Sky to compliment their center Elizabeth Williams.
Defensive Prowness: Finally, Stellar perimeter defenders that can also score and rebound. The additions of Alana Beard and Essence Carson have anchored a reformed defensive effort by L.A. under head coach Brian Agler.
The Duke Duo: And let’s not forget the x-factors. Last year it was “Big shot” Chelsey Gray, who earned her playing time and has shown she is unafraid of the big moment. Gray also combined with Beard for another big moment in Game 1 of the Finals; with Parker and Ogwumike locked down defensively, Alana was open in the corner and who can forget that fall away jumper that gave the Sparks Game 1. (That night Beard walked a little taller.)
Speaking of shooting, L.A.’s chosen seven shot an incredible combined 49 percent from the floor in the regular season and didn’t drop off much in the playoffs, shooting 48 percent.
Bench play: The always steady Chantelle Lavender and the aforementioned Gray always get it done for the Sparks. Over the 2016 playoffs the Sparks opponents averaged 77 points per game while L.A. averaged 82. There is little margin for error especially when both teams are on. Game 1 and 5 of the Finals margin of victory … 3 points, LA Sparks.
Evolved Offense: Ball and player movement. When L.A. is moving the ball and personnel, they are hard to stop. It is clear the Sparks have bought into the system. Better decision making by ball handlers and shot selection has vastly improved over prior years.
But let’s look at the intangibles. Bouyed by an irrepressible Parker the Sparks played team ball. This comes on the heels of Candace having every right to shut the mouth of the naysayers. Instead she relinquished the spotlight at least in part and let her veteran leadership do the talking, resulting in a better Sparks that were the very epitome of team ball, with special note to the assist category.
Parker, Obwumake and Tolliver were in the top 20 in assists for the year according to WNBA.com.
Beyond that, all the buzz and circumstances is just what the doctor ordered. Nneka is officially unleashed and the Sparks team fed off of her energy and CP3’S leadership which translated into better defensive intensity on one end and offensive cohesiveness on the other, something Coach Alger has been preaching since day one.
Another intangible was a 6-foot-9 cheerleader, basketball legend Ervin “Magic” Johnson. During post game Finals celebrations, who can forget a tearful Candace paying tribute to college coach Pat Summitt and thanking Magic for believing in them. There is nothing more important than the team behind the team. The language and look of success breeds success.
With x-factors exposed and teams doing a better job defending the high low and disrupting offensive flow, what must the Sparks do to make it two in a row?
We will take a look in Part Two of our series. “A Look Forward”.