WNBAlien 2011 Previews: Los Angeles Sparks

And we’re back. You guys are just gonna have to trust me that what you find below was mostly written and entirely conceived before last night’s game. I promise.

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PG: Ticha Penicheiro/(Quinn if they’ve got any sense, Lacy and Toliver if they don’t)

SG: Noelle Quinn/Kristi Toliver/Natasha Lacy

SF: DeLisha Milton-Jones/Jenna O’Hea

PF: Tina Thompson/Ebony Hoffman

C: Candace Parker/Jantel Lavender/LaToya Pringle

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Head coach: Jennifer Gillom

Significant additions: A healthy Parker, and a completely revamped bench.

Significant losses: Nothing much. Marie Ferdinand-Harris, Betty Lennox, Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton and others have left – big deal.

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This one isn’t complicated. The decidedly aging starting lineup is yet another year older and closer to retirement; the bench is almost entirely turned over from last year’s reserves (quite rightly, considering the last lot stunk); the head coach is still completely unproven at this level – and yet it’s all about one woman. After multiple surgeries and lots of rehab, Candace Parker is finally back in one piece, and it might be the first time she’s been honestly healthy since turning pro. And don’t forget, she won the MVP award anyway as a rookie. For all the veteran help and upgraded bench, necessary pieces to the Sparks puzzle, this team will go precisely as far as Parker can take them. Which might be pretty damn far.

Despite the injuries she was fighting, Parker was putting up 20 and 10 on 50% shooting from the floor before she succumbed last season, plus a couple of blocks and couple of assists per game. There simply isn’t anyone else in the game who can do what she does – she’s 6-4, extremely athletic, runs the floor, can face up, goes after rebounds and can handle the ball better than you’d expect from anyone her size. The only real gap in her game is defensively, where she has the athleticism and desire to be great, but not the nous or the instincts just yet. Sort of like an early-stage LeBron before he realised that working on defense was vital to his future. She’ll get there.

Of course the problem for LA is that they weren’t even winning before Parker got hurt last season. They were 2-7 before the game she got hurt in, getting killed on the boards every night, and the main issue’s been fairly transparent since this group started coming together in 2009 – their three best players all play the same position. Parker, Tina Thompson and DeLisha Milton-Jones are all natural 4s who can slide elsewhere when necessary, but it doesn’t help matters when you’re constantly trying to force ways to get your best players together on the floor. Neither Thompson nor Milton-Jones particularly wants to play down on the block any more, so their best player, one of the top few female players on the planet, is playing out of position as a center most of her time on the floor. Thompson and Milton-Jones can both still produce, as they showed towards the end of last season when they dragged this team kicking and screaming into the postseason, but they’re not what they once were (Tina didn’t go to Europe this year though, which should help her fitness). Playing them with Parker for heavy minutes forces Candace down onto the block and puts the bulk of the rebounding burden on her head. Even if she is healthy and freshly renewed, Gillom needs to find a way to get help out there for her stars and some rest for her aging vets. She’s never shown much sign of knowing how in the past, but with more depth on the roster this year maybe she’ll finally see the light.

GM Penny Toler did at least go out and find some help for Candace and friends during the offseason. Ebony Hoffman seemed like either a typically nonsensical Toler signing (if you’re being critical, and I usually am), or a move for the future when Thompson and/or DMJ call it quits. The last thing they really needed was yet another perimeter-oriented power forward, but at least it should give Gillom another option to find some rest for the golden oldies. Her coaching history suggests that she’s far more likely to trust a seven-year vet like Hoffman than a youngster. With the #5 pick they earned with that terrible season last year, LA took center Jantel Lavender who’s big and strong and who the Sparks’ll be hoping can form a post tandem with Parker for many years to come. If she can earn minutes it’ll complicate Gillom’s decisions because she’ll have to choose between all those 4s, but they could desperately use Lavender taking some of the rebounding responsibilities off Parker’s hands. LaToya Pringle might help down there as well if the knee issues which prevented her surviving on rosters in Minnesota and Phoenix have become sufficiently manageable to let her play.

Moving away from the frontcourt, LA’s guards look a lot like the group that didn’t lead them anywhere good last year. Ticha Penicheiro is a legend of a point guard, and she still runs a team as well as anyone and may lead the league in assists if she can stay healthy, but she kept breaking down last year and there’s a lot of miles on those tires. She can’t shoot, but she’s never been able to shoot so that’s hardly news. LA need one last year from Ticha, because behind her at the point it’s a whole lot of guesswork. Noelle Quinn will start alongside her at the off-guard but has good passing instincts, has shown an ability to run a team in the past and is willing to share the ball. She’s got all the speed of treacle, which can require some tinkering defensively (you don’t want her on a quick, small point guard), but she’d be my easy choice to slide over when Ticha needs a rest. However, last season Gillom went with Kristi Toliver and the now-departed Andrea Riley to back-up Penicheiro, so your guess is as good as mine as to what we’ll actually see. Toliver likes to shoot, a lot, and has the defensive instincts of a tree stump, which has limited her minutes in her first two years as a pro. She’ll likely be better off as a 2-guard for the rest of her career unless she works hard on developing her decision-making, but even just as a sniper she can help LA this year. Natasha Lacy also made the roster, and while an upgrade on Riley she has a lot of the same problems as Toliver. She’s very fast and can break down a defence, but too many turnovers and looking for her own shot rather than moving the ball limits her effectiveness as a point guard. They also brought in Australian Jenna O’Hea, the only person in this paragraph who probably won’t see any minutes at the point (although it’s not beyond the realm of possibility). Think Penny Taylor-light for an idea of O’Hea’s game, and with her length and shooting ability she can provide some useful minutes off the LA bench if she settles into the WNBA game.

By now, anyone reading this has probably seen the LA game from last night, which didn’t really change my mind about any of the above. There are players here who can help her, and it’s a better roster than the last couple of years, but it’s all down to Parker. If she stays healthy (including avoiding that nasty pregnancy bug she already caught once), then LA are a threat to beat anyone on any given night. Which in this conference makes them at the very least a playoff team, and with a couple of breaks who knows what they can do once they get there.

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