Season Recap: Sparks Remain #RootedInLA In 2021

In 2021, the Los Angeles Sparks celebrated both the franchise and the league’s 25th season and the 25th anniversary of the founding of WNBA. 

The Sparks returned just three players from the 2020 roster in Nneka Ogwumike, Te’a Cooper and Brittney Sykes, bringing in free agents Erica Wheeler, Amanda Zahui B., and Nia Coffey. The Sparks also returned Chiney Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver, who opted out of the 2020 bubble season, and drafted rookies Jasmine Walker and Arella Guirantes. The Sparks signed Lauren Cox in the middle of the season, and center Maria Vadeeva remained overseas.

In a year filled with adversity, the Sparks missed the playoffs by just one game despite injuries causing Nneka Ogwumike, Chiney Ogwumike, Kristi Toliver, No. 7 overall pick Jasmine Walker and Maria Vadeeva (overseas) to miss 72% of possible games. In addition, the Sparks played just five games at Staples Center. Despite that, the team set a strong foundation for a new era of Sparks basketball, finishing No. 3 in the league in defensive rating and No. 2 in opponent points per game. As a result, guard Brittney Sykes was named to the 2021 WNBA All-Defensive First Team. 

In addition, the Sparks youth movement showed immense internal improve and several players had career-years statistically:

  • Nia Coffey had a career-year shooting 42% on 3-pointers and played in all 32 games
  • Te’a Cooper had three 20+ point games and defended at a high level
  • Brittney Sykes emerged as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, finishing the season No. 2 in the WNBA in estimated contribution (Positive Residual) and No. 1 in defensive win shares among guards (Basketball Reference). Sykes played in all 32 games
  • Erica Wheeler posted averages of 13.4 ppg and 4.8 apg in her first season as the Sparks point guard. She played in all 32 games, finishing 5th in clutch points in the WNBA
  • Amanda Zahui B. averaged a career-high 9.2 ppg
  • Arella Guirantes improved over the season and finished 5th in ppg among rookies
  • 2020 No. 3 overall pick Lauren Cox was acquired mid-season and had single-game career high’s in points (14), rebounds (8) and minutes (23)

“I think our players deserve the credit for going through the change and evolution with us,” General Manager/Head Coach Derek Fisher said. “It’s exciting and humbling at the same time, we’re very hungry and motivated to keep pushing ourselves to get better.”

The Sparks were not short of awards in 2021. In addition to Sykes’ All-Defense nod, the WNBA recognized Nneka Ogwumike and assistant coach Seimone Augustus on the league’s Top 25 greatest and most influential players of all-time list, “W25”. Ogwumike also won her third consecutive Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award.

The Sparks opened their season against the Dallas Wings at their temporary home, the Los Angeles Convention Center on May 14. After losses to the Wings and the next week in Las Vegas, the Sparks responded by winning four of five games from May 28-June 5. Sparks guard Erica Wheeler led the team averaging 14.2 points per game over the stretch and was a focal point of the offense. 

On June 20, the Sparks played against the New York Liberty and celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the inaugural WNBA Game in front of a sold-out crowd at the LA Convention Center. Los Angeles hosted New York for the first WNBA game at The Forum in June 1997. In 2021, the Sparks celebrated the team’s trailblazers and WNBA Champions such as Lisa Leslie, Alana Beard, DeLisha Milton-Jones, Tamecka Dixon, Kristi Toliver, and Nneka Ogwumike. 

 

In a live #RootedInLA show, hosted by HighlightHER’s Ari Chambers and the Sparks DJ Mal-Ski, the organization honored the 2016 WNBA Championship team by interviewing Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver post-game. Nneka was asked about today’s WNBA players and what advice she has for the future of the league. 

She responded, “Be great, and be contagious.” 

Sparks guard Brittney Sykes did just that, earning a spot on the 2021 All-Defensive First Team, and coming in second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting. Sykes averaged 1.8 steals per game, tied for first in the WNBA, and led the league with 58 total steals. According to the basketball analytics site Pivot Analysis, she was the most impactful defender in the WNBA in 2021. Sykes recorded a career-high seven steals on June 20 against the Liberty, and five steals during two other games.

Her defensive dominance became an integral part of an injury-ridden team that ranked top three in defensive efficiency by the end of the 2021 regular season. Her goal, as she stated at the start of the 2021 season, is to win Defensive Player of the Year, denoted by #Slim4DPOY, which trended across social media throughout the season. A mission she hopes to accomplish in 2022 and beyond. 

While Sykes dominated defensively, Ogwumike battled back from a knee injury and had another efficient season. She led the Sparks to a four-game winning streak after the Olympic Break to put the team back in postseason contention, including a put-back with seconds remaining in the game against the Atlanta Dream on Aug. 20 to give the Sparks the 66-64 victory. She averaged 14.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.4 steals per game on the season. Despite the challenges faced and some success celebrated, Ogwumike is laser focused on the future. 

“Creating legacy and dynasty I believe is what the long game is,” Ogwumike said. “We’re not looking for one-off seasons, but we are looking for the real ones that understand the importance of the culture of legacy and championship mentality.”

Ogwumike was the only player nominated for the W25 to meet all seven criteria for the honor. A WNBA MVP (2016), Champion (2016), and the current WNBPA President, the Sparks celebrated Ogwumike as one of the best and most influential players in league history. 

“I’m proud of my career and hope to continue to leave a legacy of greatness,” Ogwumike said in a press release for the award. “What I’ve been able to contribute to the game along with the phenomenal women of this league through generations is one of my greatest accomplishments. Being recognized for any impact I’ve made is a true honor.”

The Sparks gained momentum from a winning streak that took place August 15-22. Los Angeles defeated the Fever, Dream twice, and Liberty in close games. Sparks guard Kristi Toliver lifted the Sparks over the Dream in overtime 85-80, after she hit a game-tying fadeaway jumper at the buzzer to tie the game at 74. The Sparks led by 86-83 heading into the final possession against the Liberty. When New York guard Sabrina Ionescu attempted a game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer, Sykes blocked the shot attempt and the secured the crucial victory. 

The team ultimately fell short with on Sept. 19 in the season finale in Dallas, losing 87-84. A win would’ve put the Sparks into the playoffs. Even with the loss, the Sparks still lead the WNBA in all-time playoff appearances, earning berths in 20 of 25 seasons.

Off the court, Los Angeles spent the season advocating for social justice with the team’s Change Has No Offseason campaign, while bringing attention to the benefits of attending HBCU’s. The team also hosted and honored Zaila Avant-garde, the 2021 Scripps Spelling Bee champion.

The 2021 season was about molding a new roster and building a culture that will endure the 2022 WNBA season and beyond.

“The years that you don’t get it done together,” Fisher said. “Those become the seeds in the soil to the years that you do.”