By Nicholas Niendorf
*Opinions are of the contributor and do not represent the organization*
The Los Angeles Sparks opened up the season with a WNBA finals rematch against the Minnesota Lynx in Minneapolis. In a heated game with plenty of chirping by both sides, the Sparks fended off a Lynx run late in the third quarter only to go down by one after Minnesota guard Lindsay Whalen made two free throws.
With 5.8 seconds on the clock, Alana Beard inbounded the ball to Karlie Samuelson, who then passed it off to Chelsea Gray. With 4.3 seconds left in the game, Gray immediately drove left and spun to her right shoulder around Lynx guard Seimone Augustus. Leaving her feet amongst a flock of defenders, Gray hung in the air and layed in an off-balance shot to propel the Sparks over Minnesota right as the buzzer sounded.
The satisfying victory came in spite of playing with a shorthanded front court, with Nneka Ogwumike filling in at the five spot. The Sparks played their first three games without a true center, but came out of the trio of road games with two wins under their belt. Candace Parker returned to the lineup in the fourth game of the season and was later joined by center Jantel Lavender in the team’s fifth game, as well as by rookie Maria Vadeeva in early June.
Parker and Ogwumike’s stellar play together has, and will continue to be, the storyline for the Sparks this season. The duo give coach Brian Agler an unprecedented amount of flexibility with his lineups. Parker is a playmaker in her own right, and her versatility gives the Sparks an abundance of options. Agler will occasional invert the offense and leave Parker above the arc running the offense while the team’s guards set screens and post up inside. In addition to averaging 5.2 assists per game, Parker is having one of her best shooting seasons of her career and dropped 29 points on the Dallas Wings in late June. Ogwumike, on the other hand, does most of her damage inside. Her cache of post moves provides ample firepower for the Sparks down low, and she’s also a threat taking opponents off the dribble.
Rounding out Los Angeles’ main points of attack is Chelsea Gray, who has managed to match the play that earned her All-WNBA Second Team and an All-Star nod last year. She’s the team’s primary initiator bringing the ball up the court, and helps orchestrate one of the most efficient offenses in the country. Gray can create for herself on-ball, slashing past defenders and finishing in traffic. She’s also averaging the most assists per game of her four year career, and is a threat running through screens for catch-and-shoot jump shots. Her output earned her WNBA Player of the Week honors in the first week of the season, where she averaged 18.5 points, 7.3 assists, and 2 steals per game.
The focal point on the other end, however, is Alana Beard. Night in, night out, Beard draws the opposing team’s toughest offensive assignment. She won Defensive Player of the Year last season, and is making a strong case for another bid this season. You can find her routinely picking up players full-court, badgering them for 94 feet and constantly getting them out of rhythm. Beard regularly brings turnover-inducing traps and disrupts plays off the ball, roaming the court at times like a strong safety to pick off passes.
Depth has also played a key factor in the Sparks’ success so far this season. The team has benefited from strong play from both Essence Carson and Odyssey Sims, who have alternated in starting roles throughout the summer. The duo chip in 17 point per game for the Sparks, and are significant components in the Sparks’ defensive scheme, hounding offenses around the perimeter and inside. Both players have seen minutes in the closing seconds of tight games this year, and have helped kickstart their own fair share of comebacks. Riquna Williams has also helped sharpen Los Angeles’ efficient offense. She works as a sharpshooter off the bench, and leads the team in both three-point percentage and three-pointers made.
Going forward, the Sparks will still have plenty of challenges to overcome. They square off against the Storm, who they have not been able to beat yet this season, on July 10th in Seattle. Afterwards, they still have to face the Lynx and the Connecticut Sun one more time each, and will play the Phoenix Mercury twice. Five of their last six games will be played away, and the tight race for playoff seeding will require near perfect play down the stretch of the season. Only three losses separate the top-seeded Storm and the sixth-seeded Dallas Wings.
Securing the one or two seed will be the Sparks’ primary goal as the season wears on. Coming into the playoffs with the first or second best record would give Los Angeles a double-round bye, and put them only a single series win away from their third-straight WNBA Finals appearance. The Sparks are three games back from a top-two spot, but are also only two wins ahead of the seventh seed, which would leave them playing in all three rounds of the playoffs before the finals.
Consistency will be the name of the game for the Sparks through the back half of the season, especially with Los Angeles vying for a brief break before postseason play. But, as the team continues to gel and develop, there’s no reason to doubt Los Angeles can lock up a top-two record. With players continuing to step up, the Sparks are poised to take the franchise’s destinity into its own hands.