The Los Angeles Sparks started the 2019 season with so much excitement and were quickly pinned as potential challengers in a wide open title race. But on September 22, star player Candace Parker sat on the bench with her head on her chin dejectedly watching as her team got swept by the Connecticut Sun in the WNBA semifinals. Despite losing in the semifinals, the Sparks didn’t have a catastrophic season by any means — they finished third in the league standings with a 22-12 overall record and made the playoffs for the 19th time in 23 seasons. Injuries to players like Parker, a two-time MVP, Alana Beard, Maria Vadeeva and Alexis Jones certainly hampered the team along with the suspension of Riquna Williams. But other issues also followed the team around last season, with Williams’ suspension over an alleged act of domestic violence, an “unprofessional” culture and a lack of fight in important games that culminated with head coach Derek Fisher’s curious decision to bench Parker for all but 11 minutes of game three against the Sun.
This season, the Sparks are without Chiney Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver who opted out; to replace them, the team signed Reshanda Gray and Te’a Cooper. Seimone Augustus, who spent 14 years with the Minnesota Lynx, joined the Sparks in the offseason along with Kristine Anigwe and former Atlanta Dream players Brittney Sykes and Marie Gülich. This is Fisher’s second season in charge, and he has been working to integrate those new players and improve the team’s culture. With a healthy mix of veteran returners and new additions, the Sparks look strong going into the 2020 season and will once again expect be among the contenders.
KEY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Candace Parker: Parker has been the cornerstone of the Sparks franchise for years, and is still expected to carry a decent amount of the load for this team despite this being her 12th season in the league. The star forward had an unlucky season last time out, after suffering a left hamstring injury in preseason and struggling to find her form in the games that followed. She finished the year with career-lows in points and rebounds per game with 11.2 and 6.4, respectively. That being said, last season’s struggles could potentially fuel her performance this summer and see her return to the heights she is capable of. Much of the Sparks’ title hopes rest on Parker’s ability to stay healthy this summer in Bradenton.
Nneka Ogwumike: The six-time All-Star is key to everything in Los Angeles, from leading the conversation in the locker room to putting up numbers on both ends of the floor. Last season, Ogwumike led the team in scoring with 16.1 points and 8.8 rebounds on 51% shooting from the field. When Ogwumike and Parker are at their best on the court together, there are very few defenses that can stop them. In 2018, Los Angeles had a plus-9.4 net rating when they were on the floor together compared to 1.4 overall. The Sparks will be counting on the veteran duo to bring some of that chemistry and tenacity to IMG Academy.
The team was forced to go big last year with its lineups, with 6’4 Parker, 6’2 Ogwumike, 5’11 Gray, 5’7 Williams and 5’11 Ruffin-Pratt garnering the most minutes. This year, all of those players return and Augustus is 6’0 so the team will likely look similar on the floor. Despite last season’s plethora of height, the Sparks under-performed in rebounding and blocks per game, finishing seventh and ninth in the league in those categories, respectively. Los Angeles will continue to rely on Gray to knock down three-pointers and help carry the scoring load for the team after her strong 2019 numbers. If the Sparks can stay fit throughout the season, they should have a good chance at challenging for the championship.
Chelsea Gray: Gray has steadily improved since entering the WNBA in 2014. Last season, the 27-year-old averaged 14.5 points and career-highs in rebounds (3.8) and assists (5.9) per game while starting every game for the third season in a row. She also shot 42% from the field and 38% from beyond the arc, earning her her third consecutive All-Star nod and a spot in the three-point contest. For her efforts, the point guard was named to the All-WNBA First Team for the first time in her career after finishing second in the league in assists and 13th in scoring. Gray provided a much-needed spark for Los Angeles last season, finding a balance between creating her own shot and finding her teammates, and the team will need that again this year.
BIGGEST ON-COURT QUESTION
Do the Sparks have enough depth? Granted, this is a shorter WNBA season with each team playing only 22 regular season games as opposed to the typical 34, so perhaps team depth will be a slightly overrated factor this year. However, a shorter season means that injuries can hurt teams even more and if Parker or Ogwumike go down ,for example, do the Sparks have enough talent to fill those shoes? Furthermore, the Sparks are one of the oldest teams in the league with an average age of 28 years and plenty of aging stars like the 34-year-old Parker and 36-year-old Augustus. It may be tough for some of the newer players on the team like rookie Te’a Cooper to adapt so quickly to the league, especially in such an unusual season.