PG: Kristi Toliver/Chelsea Gray
SG: Alana Beard/Ana Dabovic
SF: Candace Parker/Eugeniya Belyakova/Essence Carson
PF: Nneka Ogwumike/Jelena Dubljevic
C: Jantel Lavender/Ann Wauters
At time of writing, LA still officially have 18 freaking players on their roster, so you’ll have to forgive me if Brian Agler makes some unexpected choices and the list above proves inaccurate. If it’s correct, there’s one place left for Crystal Bradford, Brianna Butler, Jennifer Hamson, KK Houser, Whitney Knight, Jasmine Lister and Rebecca Tobin to fight over.
Significant additions: Chelsea Gray was added in a draft-night trade from Connecticut, Essence Carson in free agency, and then they went international. You may not have heard of Dubljevic or Belyakova, but they’re well-established, veteran performers in Europe. Even more ‘veteran’ is Ann Wauters, returning to the WNBA for the first time since a brief stint with Seattle in 2012. They also signed-and-traded for Riquna Williams, only to see her rupture her Achilles before ever putting on a Sparks uniform. She’ll presumably be suspended for the year.
Significant losses: Despite all those additions, they haven’t lost many people that’ll matter. Marianna Tolo is still recovering from injury in Australia, Temeka Johnson wasn’t re-signed, and Phillips was traded. That’s about it.
I feel like it’s hard to say anything particularly new about the Sparks. They’ve got the same core that’s been there for years. They’ve got oodles of talent. There is no good reason why they shouldn’t be one of the best teams in the league, and a serious threat to win the championship. But year after year they come up short. Candace Parker is yet to make an appearance in the WNBA Finals, never mind win a title. So here we go again – if Agler can mesh the pieces together, they could be exceptional. But that niggling little feeling remains that they’ll find a way to screw it up.
At least they’ve got Parker from the start this year, after she skipped half of last season to rest. Once she returned in 2015 she was a star, encouraged by Agler into being more of a fulcrum and creator than other coaches had managed in the past. The fit in the frontcourt with Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Jantel Lavender remains a little awkward, because they’re all good enough to demand playing time but none is at their best playing small forward. But we’ve seen it work in the past for extended stretches. They can all score in multiple ways, and with everyone in camp on time this year, Agler has a better chance at creating a solid team defense. They were messy on that end last season, despite his successes in the past.
There’s talent on the perimeter as well, with Toliver a threat to score from anywhere and Beard still one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. Toliver never looked entirely comfortable last year, with her season disrupted by a trip to represent the Slovak Republic, so hopefully she’ll be more consistent this time around. Chelsea Gray was a nice pickup from Connecticut and showed signs of being a useful WNBA player in her rookie season with the Sun. She’s a true point guard (unlike anyone else on the roster), who can run the show when they need someone a little more under control than Toliver. Neither of them is the greatest defender in the world, but they should be able to cope.
And there’s depth here. The Sparks have built the kind of veteran squad that Agler likes, full of players who know how to play, even if the likes of Belyakova and Dubljevic are new to the WNBA. Essence Carson has been pretty ordinary her last few years in New York, but they won’t be asking too much of her in LA, and she can play her role. Ana Dabovic showed last season that she’s comfortable with this group and a useful contributor. They’ve got some extra perimeter shooting, they’ve got solid pieces for when the stars need a rest – it’s all here.
Best Case Scenario
This is pretty easy. Parker comes out energised by her Olympic snub and wins another MVP; Agler meshes his talent into a cohesive whole, especially on the defensive end; the foreign additions settle in after a minimal adjustment period; and they finally go on the playoff run that their talent has suggested was possible for years. It’s not hard to imagine at all.
Worst Case Scenario
The funny thing is, this path isn’t particularly hard to envision either. Parker tries to do too much, and ends up hurting her team as much as she’s helping (despite inevitably putting up great raw stats that half-assed analysts will coo over). Trying to force either Parker or Ogwumike to play the 3 fails to work, yet again. Toliver pouts her way into Agler’s doghouse. The foreign talent fails to adjust to the WNBA game. Things go badly early on, everyone stops trying on defense, and they end up as shambolic on that end as they were for much of last season. And they end up back in the lottery where last season’s record would’ve left them under the new playoff system.
This team should be good. Very good, even. You look at their talent, at the successful head coach now in his second year in LA, at the length of time this core has been together – they should be challenging for the top spots in the standings, and then for a ring. So it’s hard to predict anything else, without twisting your head in knots. But damn, it’s gone wrong so many times before…