Sparks hope to build on substandard 2021 season – Orange County Register

When perennial All-Stars Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray set off in free agency, it looked like this summer’s iteration of the Sparks might struggle to recreate the success of years past, when they reached the playoffs in 11 Parker’s 13 seasons with the team and were crowned WNBA Champions in 2016.

Still, there were expectations for a team with a rich history that included three titles and 20 playoff appearances in their previous 24 years.

And this season’s squad – built around 2016 WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike and All-Stars Chiney Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver, both of whom jumped the previous WNBA season into the Florida bubble – seemed able to hold up. .

But the revamped roster has been hit hard by injury and the Sparks have struggled except in such flare-ups as the season finale, when they scored wins in two must-see games and almost in a crucial third. .

With Sunday’s 87-84 loss in the regular season finale in Dallas, LA was three points away from extending the franchise’s nine-year playoff streak. Instead, the Sparks finished the season in 10th place in the 12-team league and with a 12-20 record, the second-worst in franchise history behind only the 2007 10-24 team. .

“There was a point this season when it looked like we weren’t going to go through that kind of phase,” said coach Derek Fisher, who this season has added the GM to his job description. “But we just couldn’t get around the injuries and the things that kept so many of our players in.”

Injury sidelined Nneka Ogwumike for a career-high 14 games; Chiney Ogwumike for 25 and Toliver for 13. Jasmine Walker, the No.7 pick in this year’s WNBA draft, was robbed of her rookie season by a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Game 2. And even though the Sparks have reserved one of their 12 spots in the roster for him, talented Russian center Maria Vadeeva has surprised the Sparks by choosing not to join the squad this year.

Those absences could have provided promising players with a vast playing experience that they otherwise wouldn’t have had, but the lack of depth and firepower didn’t help in the win column.

“In the history of our organization… I think we’ve tried to avoid going through (lean years),” Fisher said, noting that even this season’s team “weren’t really starting over, in this sense that we are not rebuilding from the ground up because we have a team that can win now, when they are healthy.

“But to get through that transition after 10, 12, 13, 15 years of building around Candace, Chelsea Gray, championships – at times you have to go through this adjustment of new players, a new style of play, a new collective agreement. , new salary ceiling structures, contract reversals, etc.

“The former player in me wants to throw it all away to win today,” Fisher continued. “But as the leader of the organization, it’s about building something that sustains us until 2030, 2040. When we look back at the history of the Sparks, when there was another stretch of excellence , we will remember those difficult years when things didn’t work out. it’s not going so well. That’s why we cry like babies when we stand tall and you are the last team to win a game.

Fisher has sought to replenish this season’s roster with versatile and athletic wings such as Nia Coffey (who has enjoyed a breakout season, averaging career highs across the board), Bria Holmes (who has been released by the team in early August) and Walker (who was injured).

Next season they will bring back both Ogwumikes and Toliver and they will bring Gabby Williams back on board after the former UConn star has spent this summer focused on his commitment to the French national team, helping the Blues win Olympic bronze at Tokyo.

If the Sparks are to reorient themselves into the title fight, Fisher will need to find a combination that corrects LA’s significant shortcomings offensively and on the boards (LA was the worst rebounding team in the league, averaging just 29.2 per game, the less franchise history).

The Sparks maintained their defensive bite: Their defensive rating of 97.5 was the third best in the WNBA, and they were second in interceptions per game (8.3), fifth in blocked shots (4.2) and allowed fewer points per game (77.1) than any other team. as the top seed Connecticut Sun.

But they averaged 72.8 points per game and shot just 41.1 percent from the field, better than only the Washington Mystics, who also missed the playoffs.

Still, Fisher saw signs of progress. With their backs to the wall in their last three games, the Sparks have suddenly finished in the top five. Even without Chiney Ogwumike and Toliver on the field, they averaged 79.7 points and shot 48.1% from the field in those games.

Maybe, as Fisher suggested, it was just a matter of time?

“In terms of execution, spacing and understanding how to play effectively together on offense, it takes time when you do it the way we choose to do,” he said. “There’s a lot of reading and reaction going on, and sometimes not as much of a scripted offensive game plan. So it’s always new to a lot of players, and sometimes it takes the whole season for things to start to happen.

“Our players deserve the credit for sticking to that, and at some of the most important points of our season we’ve had some of our best offensive execution. I think we can continue to turn the corner in that regard, so that we can become a team that is easily down in the mid-80s every night, and then when we’re fine, we’re in the 90s. ”

Nneka Ogwumike – who, in a season marked by injuries that she will also remember an Olympic snub, registered 14.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and per game, below her career average – has identified something else about the home stretch of the season which the Sparks will need to present.

She saw better concentration.

“When everything was at stake in the last few weeks, we saw it,” she said. “We just have to understand that every game is on the line. And it’s maturation, it’s the goal, it’s the investment, it’s the camaraderie that needs to be more cohesive – and will be.

Comments are closed.