By Nicholas LeTourneau
It’s hard to not enjoy watching the Los Angeles Sparks. They are loaded with talent like Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, have an excellent home court atmosphere thanks to their fans, and have a great coach at the helm in Brian Agler. Parker and Ogwumuke are an incredible 1-2 punch on offense but what really sets this team apart from others is the defensive combo of Chelsea Gray and Alana Beard.
Gray was an All-Star this year while Beard was the 2017 Defensive Player of the Year. Both are in the top five in steals per game (Gray is tied for second with 1.6 and Beard is tied for fifth with 1.5 steals per game) and both are lockdown defenders that don’t allow opponents easy looks. Even when they aren’t forcing turnovers they are forcing bad shots from anyone who they defend.
It is tough to pick out exactly what Gray does best on defense because she does everything so well. According to Synergy, Gray ranks in the top 15 in PPP allowed, only allowing 0.704. That means that she allows less than one point per possession, so she doesn’t foul often or allow baskets. Opponents shoot 33 percent from the floor and an adjusted field goal percentage of 36 percent, meaning that she is an excellent defender on the perimeter and doesn’t allow open 3’s on her watch.
What she does best is defend the PnR and spot up attempts. Opposing players only shoot 36 percent from the floor out of the pick and roll with an adjusted field goal percentage of 37.3. She can fight through screens/rolling bigs to contest a shot and does an even better job of just being in the right place at the right time. Gray is so good at knowing where to be on the floor so she can attack on defense.
On defending spot up attempts, Gray is almost second to none. She ranks in the top 10 for PPP allowed, only allowing 0.556 with a field goal percentage of 23.3 percent and an adjusted field goal percentage of 29 percent. This is a testament to her ability to close out as a defender and stay engaged with the offensive player through screens. Spot up attempts are almost always shots generated by off-ball movement (think of how Allie Quigley or Ray Allen generate shots by running all over the court and through screens) so to have Gray blowing up these shot attempts is incredibly valuable.
Alana Beard compliments Gray on defense well. In general, Beard allows only 0.789 PPP and opponents have a field goal percentage 37.5 percent. While she is a good defender in the PnR and a very good defender against spot up attempts, what she does best is defend out of handoffs.
Handoffs usually occur on the perimeter when one player has the ball then hands it off to another going the opposite direction. The player that had the ball then acts as a natural roadblock to the defender guarding the player getting the handoff, allowing a high percentage look than if the handoff got the ball passed to them. To defend this look well, you need a player that can fight around the player that handed off or someone with long arms that can still contest looks while being out of position. In this case, Beard is both of those things.
Standing at 5-foot, 11-inches she can usually contest shots on the perimeter and given her pedigree as a former DPOY she clearly can get around screens/players in her way without fouling. On these shot attempts, Beard allows an incredible 16.7 percent from the floor.
Gray-Beard isn’t the same 1-2 punch as Parker-Ogwumike because Gray plays significantly more minutes than Beard, but the Sparks always have at least one great perimeter defender on the floor at any given moment. When Gray isn’t on the floor (which isn’t a lot given she plays over 32 minutes per game) teams aren’t going to have an easy time scoring or attacking from the perimeter. With the playoffs right around the corner, Los Angeles is in excellent position to make a deep run thanks to how well rounded they are on both sides of the ball.