Lindsey Harding/Candice Wiggins
Kristi Toliver/Armintie Herrington
Alana Beard/Farhiya Abdi
Nneka Ogwumike/Sandrine Gruda
Candace Parker/Jantel Lavender/Nikki Greene
That’s it. This vet-laden team couldn’t even dream of fitting a 12th player in under the salary cap.
Significant additions: Gruda, Herrington, Wiggins
Significant losses: Marissa Coleman, Jenna O’Hea, Ebony Hoffman and A’dia Mathies are all gone. No one’s too upset.
The Sparks were a very good team last year. They had their flaws, and some ugly nights, but based on points per possession over the course of the regular season they were the second-best offensive team in the league, and the second-best defensive team. Of course, with the way American sports works, their season was defined by the disappointing first-round playoff exit at the hands of Phoenix, rather than any success they’d had before that point. Even worse than an upset playoff defeat, the franchise looked like it might be dropping out of existence – or at least moving to a different city – during the offseason. Then a new ownership group led by Magic Johnson swooped in to save them and keep them in LA, and the planning for the 2014 season began. Being the Sparks, of course, they weren’t content to bring everybody back and try again with what they had. They were going to go out and pursue as many veteran upgrades as they could possibly acquire, to make the squad as imposing as possible. And it worked. They’re deeper and scarier than ever with a significantly improved bench, and they’ll be taking another run at the Western Conference. Anything less than a championship will be a disappointment – again – for this group.
The core of last year’s strong squad remains intact – the five starters and first post off the bench all return – but first let’s look at what they’ve added. On the perimeter Candice Wiggins and Armintie Herrington came over from Tulsa and Atlanta respectively to deepen their options. Wiggins hasn’t developed into quite the player she once looked like she might become, and she didn’t have a great season with the Shock last year. But she’s still an energetic defender, can do a serviceable job at either guard spot, and she can still knock down open threes at a pretty good rate – and this roster needed someone besides Kristi Toliver who could do that, especially after letting Marissa Coleman and Jenna O’Hea leave. Wiggins is also a player who might not have looked great as a starter that was expected to help lead Tulsa out of the basement, but will look like a luxury bonus coming off the bench in LA. Herrington can’t shoot, but she can run like the wind and she’s an elite perimeter defender. She has a history with Sparks head coach Carol Ross, so it wasn’t a big surprise to see them reunited, except that fewer minutes might be on offer for her in LA than were available with the Dream. In fact, one of the few problems Ross might have with this roster is keeping everyone happy with enough playing time. They’ll be hoping that winning will keep everyone content regardless of how the minutes are distributed.
They added a nice piece in the paint as well, with French post Sandrine Gruda making her return to the WNBA after three years away. Gruda’s a long, talented player at either spot down low, with some range on her shot and useful mobility. She’s also played alongside Sparks superstar Candace Parker with UMMC Ekaterinburg for several years now in Europe, so the chemistry should already be there. Considering the pairing of Parker and Nneka Ogwumike was already one of the strongest in the WNBA, with center Jantel Lavender a very useful third option, adding Gruda makes LA’s post rotation start to look a little ridiculous. Ross should be able to rotate them enough to keep everyone fresh and constantly on the attack, and they should be able to exploit opposing benches. The starters have to rest at some point for their opponents, and during those sequences LA should have significantly more interior talent on the floor than practically any team in the league.
That’s why adding these new pieces makes the Sparks look so imposing – they were already so good, and the meaningful pieces are all back (and all healthy, as far as we know). Parker won the MVP award again last year, carrying the offense at times with her all-around game and remarkable agility for her size. She has her flaws defensively, but when she’s in full flow there aren’t many offensive talents in the women’s game on her level. Ogwumike continues to quietly develop into an all-star calibre talent alongside her, leaping out of the gym to grab rebounds and scoring efficiently in the paint whenever she gets the chance. Lavender has been somewhat inconsistent as a pro, unguardable one night and invisible the next, but part of that comes down to the talent in front of her keeping her off the floor. She’s a big body with range to 15 feet who gives a slightly different look from the others, and she can affect games when given the chance.
On the perimeter, they’ll likely start the same group as last year, although Herrington and Wiggins will present stronger competition for the spots. Lindsey Harding is the point guard who keeps them moving, a steady hand on the offense and a strong defender at the point of the defense. Kristi Toliver is the live-wire gunner who can take over games with her shooting, or fire you out of games at times if she isn’t pulled quickly enough on a bad night. That’s another thing the renewed depth will help with – Ross won’t have to keep throwing Toliver back out if it isn’t working for her, because improved alternative options are there now. Alana Beard rounds out the perimeter trio, and usually takes on the responsibility of guarding the primary opposing wing threat. She’s had plenty of injury issues over the years, and her minutes dropped last season due to some niggling issues and advancing age, but Herrington will help with the wing defense and allow Beard to rest when necessary. They’ll be hoping to see a little more from Swedish backup Farhiya Abdi in her second WNBA season as well, but barring injuries its hard to see where her minutes will come from outside of garbage time.
If you want to get incredibly picky, you could find small holes on this team. Toliver and Wiggins are really the only reliable three-point shooters. There are a lot of strong personalities who might clash if they have a bad run or the playing time isn’t to somebody’s liking. Defensive consistency has been an issue for them for a while now as well, despite Ross arriving with a reputation as a defense-first coach, and that’s something they need to work on. This also might not be a long-term roster, because they’re already right up against the cap as a group, and several key pieces are going to get more expensive very soon.
But if your biggest worry is how to manage the volume of talent on your roster, you’re in a pretty nice place to start the season. They’ve got so many athletes who can run the floor, so many scorers who can produce points in different ways, and they should still be hungry after failing to reach the mountaintop in previous years. Even in the stronger Western Conference, this team is going to win a lot of games in the regular season, and then once again their success will be judged by their results in the playoffs. They’ve given themselves every chance to make a charge at the Lynx and their WNBA crown, now they just have to put it into practice.