PG: Erin Phillips/Temeka Johnson
SG: Kristi Toliver/Andrea Hoover/Ana Dabovic
SF: Alana Beard/Jennifer Lacy/Farhiya Abdi
PF: Nneka Ogwumike/(Candace Parker)
C: Jantel Lavender/Marianna Tolo/Jennifer Hamson
Significant additions: Phillips, Johnson, Tolo, maybe Hamson, Lacy, and/or Dabovic, and definitely new head coach Brian Agler.
Significant losses: Candace Parker for an unknown period of time, Toliver for a more known period of time, Armintie Herrington, Lindsey Harding, Sandrine Gruda, Candice Wiggins, and the elite coaching skills of Penny Toler.
Our first Western Conference team leads us right back into what sadly became one of the main themes of the WNBA offseason – players missing time. Diana Taurasi drew most of the initial attention by announcing she was skipping the 2015 season entirely, before LA’s Candace Parker semi-followed suit. Parker is sitting out to start the season, and hasn’t set any particular date to return. The Sparks say they’re expecting her to join them at some point, but don’t know when that might be. So for now, new head coach Brian Agler has to work with what he’s got – and that’s still a pretty talented group. In fact in some ways, while he’d obviously like to add a superstar like Parker into the mix, it might be easier for Agler to put his imprint on this team without her around. They’ll be smart and organised, and getting everyone to collectively buy in to his defensive schemes could be smoother without a star who can often be sleepy on that end of the floor. What this team is going to look like this year is one of the more interesting WNBA sub-plots heading into the season.
Between the players that were already there and those that Agler and general manager Penny Toler have added, this is a veteran squad with a big front line. They’ve had problems in the past working out how to mesh Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Jantel Lavender, either platooning them or being forced to figure out how to play with one of them at small forward. Parker sitting out seemed to simplify that, except that a lot of their depth is still on the interior. Marianna Tolo is technically a WNBA rookie, but the Aussie post has plenty of international experience and should be ready to contribute right away. Jennifer Hamson missed the 2014 season to stay in school and play volleyball, but could also be a defensive presence in the paint even as a rookie. Even veteran forward Jennifer Lacy may be a more natural fit at the 4 rather than the 3. So in preseason we’ve seen Ogwumike playing plenty of small forward in big lineups. She has some range and the mobility to defend players at that spot, but it could take away from her impact as an interior scorer and rebounder. The opening weeks of the season will see Agler playing with lineups while he tries to figure out what works.
Part of the reason that Agler’s been shifting Ogwumike around is that this team isn’t remotely deep any more. Outside of Parker, they didn’t lose anyone you’d call a star in the offseason, but they lost enough pieces that the roster looks distinctly thinner – especially while Kristi Toliver’s in Europe representing Slovakia at EuroBasket Women 2015 for the opening month of the season. Alana Beard is back, and will once again be forced to play plenty of small forward unless Farhiya Abdi has finally become the player the Sparks have been waiting on for a couple of years (and she hasn’t shown many signs of that progress in the past). They’ll also be hoping that when Toliver returns she’s closer to the mercurial but explosive scorer from previous years, rather than the miserable and passive player that came back from Europe last season.
The Sparks have at least made some effort to add the perimeter shooting that was noticeably lacking from last year’s team. Lindsey Harding is gone at the point, with Erin Phillips and Temeka Johnson brought in, both of whom are more consistent from deep than Harding has ever been. Johnson’s getting a little old, and Phillips has an unfortunate tendency to lose starting spots that appear to be hers when she joins a new team, but they both should be able to play a useful role.
And that’s about it for known quantities on the roster. The Sparks have been picking up players off waivers and cut from other teams’ training camps, which shows what they think of the players on the end of their own bench. Agler’s never liked playing a particularly deep rotation, so as long as the remaining players stay fairly healthy it won’t be a big deal, but the rotation is still somewhat in flux heading into the season.
The most fascinating element to the Sparks this year is how they’re going to mesh with Agler, and how he’ll adapt himself to the available talent. His Seattle squads were consistently the slowest paced teams in the league, often by some distance, while LA only ever looked effective last season when they were pushing the pace and attacking without thinking. He’s reportedly been telling them to push the ball in preseason, but we’ll have to see if that holds up when the real games begin. His focus is likely to be on defense first, which is always what his Storm squads were built on – and a smart place to start improving the Sparks. They’ve always had the raw materials to be a strong defensive squad, and sometimes the stats even said that they were strong defensively. But it was never entirely consistent. If nothing else, he’s likely to make this team organised, which should be a significant improvement even outside of anything else.
While the absence of Parker (and her possible, unknown return) could hang over this team to some extent, there’s plenty of talent here to win games even without her. Ogwumike’s an All-WNBA level talent, Lavender has shown she can be a heavy scorer and solid defender at center, and they’ve got the shooting to pepper around outside them. With a proven head coach added to the mix they should be dangerous against anyone, and by the time the playoffs roll around maybe they’ll have added their superstar back into the mix. It could be a fun season to be a Sparks fan.