On to the Western Conference, once again in alphabetical order. No favouritism shown at WNBAlien.
PG: Lindsey Harding
SG: Kristi Toliver/A’dia Mathies
SF: Alana Beard/Jenna O’Hea/Marissa Coleman/Farhiya Abdi
PF: Nneka Ogwumike/Ebony Hoffman
C: Candace Parker/Jantel Lavender
Significant gains: Lindsey Harding, maybe Mathies and/or Abdi.
Significant losses: DeLisha Milton-Jones (and they cut Nicky Anosike by choice).
For a team that went 24-10, had its superstar finally last a full season, featured the runaway Rookie of the Year and had both a breakout star and an impressive comeback story in the backcourt – there was a hell of a lot of whining about the Los Angeles Sparks last year. Much of it prior to them being swept by Minnesota in the Western Conference Finals. After Sharnee Zoll tore her ACL prior to the season, they had to make do with Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard sharing the point guard duties – something neither is entirely comfortable with. The defense was a constant work in progress, flipping through multiple systems and often having to compensate for breakdowns from Toliver and Candace Parker. The bench was inconsistent at best, often dropping to the realms of awful. So fans found plenty to complain about. Yet they were in the battle for the Western Conference lead all year, and won a playoff series for the first time since the Lisa Leslie era. Imagine what they might do in Carol Ross’s second year at the helm, after adding yet another important piece to the puzzle?
The major addition is point guard Lindsey Harding, signed as a free agent from Atlanta. Despite joining her fourth franchise in seven WNBA seasons – good players don’t tend to move that much – Harding is a smart point who can run a team, solidly part of the second tier of point guards in the women’s game behind Sue Bird and Lindsay Whalen. She gives Ross a steady hand to steer the ship, another player who can penetrate and score a few points, and a useful perimeter defender. Her presence also takes Toliver and Beard off the ball, which is where both ideally want to be. On-ball pressure caused LA a lot of problems in the playoffs last year – especially for Toliver – which shouldn’t be as much of an issue this season. Now Toliver can concentrate on scoring, which is something she can be exceptionally good at, while Beard becomes a primary defender and secondary ballhandler. It’s a better fit.
Harding’s presence does create a new kink to how they’ll have to match up defensively. Last year they had DeLisha Milton-Jones at small forward, so Beard took the primary backcourt threat and they hid Toliver as much as possible on whoever was left. This season, the plan appears to be Harding at the point, Toliver at off-guard, and Beard at small forward. That would force Beard to defend bigger players, largely removing the advantage she has over guards with her size and length. It also leaves a small Harding/Toliver backcourt, and could force Toliver into attempting to tackle more difficult assignments. As the season progresses, we may see those three become a three-guard rotation in the backcourt, with other options filling the small forward spot. And all of this depends on health. Beard had ankle issues in Poland over the offseason – a part of her body that’s been seriously injured before – and barely played for the final few months of the Polish season. She didn’t appear in the WNBA preseason, and news out of the Sparks camp is scarce, so we have no way of knowing exactly how healthy she is until the real games begin.
Alongside that talented perimeter, LA feature one of the scariest frontcourt pairings in the entire league. Candace Parker is a true offensive star, a mobile and versatile scorer who offers a rare combination of size and skills. She also managed to survive essentially an entire WNBA season in 2012 for the first time since her rookie year in 2008. Combining with her to great effect was Nneka Ogwumike, who used her remarkable athleticism and keen rebounding instincts to make an immediate impact on the WNBA. Both are probably natural power forwards – certainly neither is a true center – but they have more than enough talent to combine as a superior frontcourt. Defensively there were still issues last year, and Parker continues to be at the heart of them. Her athleticism, even after injuries and a pregnancy, is still outstanding and ought to enable her to be a good defender. It certainly helps her log high block numbers. But she’s prone to mental breakdowns, and the requisite effort isn’t always there either. As with last year, if Ross can coax Parker into becoming the kind of defender she’s physically capable of being, it raises this team’s ceiling even higher.
The Sparks bench possesses some talent, but with plenty of the same question marks that riddled it last season. They’re thin in the post behind Parker/Ogwumike, with only third-year center Jantel Lavender and veteran forward Ebony Hoffman on the roster. Lavender has been something of a disappointment since entering the league, with the occasional apparent breakout game where everything seems to click, only to disappear back to the bench for weeks afterwards. Hoffman’s always been a wing in a slow power forward’s body, preferring to bomb away from outside rather than mix it up in the paint. Parker and Ogwumike can’t play 40 minutes apiece, so they’ll need something from at least one of those backup posts. The perimeter options are Aussie Jenna O’Hea, who’ll chip in with a few threes; holdover Marissa Coleman, who’s lucky to still be in the league after four disappointing years since being a lottery pick; quick rookie guard A’dia Mathies; and young Swedish wing Farhiya Abdi, who’s put up some impressive numbers in Europe but may take time to acclimatise. It’s going to be a mix-and-match effort from Ross until she works out who can contribute – and if one of their post starters gets hurt, they’ll either be scouring the free agent market or playing plenty of smallball.
This team’s a serious threat in the Western Conference, once again. They might miss Milton-Jones occasionally when they have to match up with big wings or if someone gets hurt, but largely speaking this is an improved roster from last season. They’ve added the veteran ballhandler they needed to man the controls, the high-calibre offensive weapons are all back, and they’re still going to be desperately hard to stop. Assuming they’re healthy in September, they could be primed to take another step or two in the postseason than they managed last year.