1. Candace Parker is coming back to a squad that can win without her.
In the first 17 games of the 2019 WNBA season, Candace Parker has only played seven games for the Los Angeles Sparks. The first injury she suffered was a left hamstring strain. It occurred two minutes into the first preseason game vs. the Phoenix Mercury on May 11. When she finally returned on June 18, the Sparks were 4-3 without her. But Head Coach Derek Fisher cautioned Winsidr that working Parker back into offensive and defensive schemes was not going to be easy.
“In particular, a lead actor that everybody is accustomed to work with her a certain way. She’s accustomed to working with people a certain way. We have a new coaching staff. A new approach. A new way of doing things.” Fisher said.
Fisher’s warning that reintegrating Parker would not be easy panned out with three straight losses after her return. However once Parker got her legs back, she helped lead the Sparks to a three game winning streak with big wins against the Las Vegas Aces (86-74 W), Chicago Sky (94-69 W) and Washington Mystics (98-81 W).
Fast forward to July 9, when Parker suffered another injury, a sprained right ankle, six minutes into the game vs. the Dallas Wings. Rather than collapsing, the Sparks won two straight games (excluding the rest of the Wings match up). They are now actually 7-3 without Parker this season. They have proven they can win without Parker.
The team needs its two-time MVP and perennial All-Star on the court to reach their full potential. If/when Parker can get back full-strength, watch out! CP is the sixth most efficient player in WNBA league history on the court, with an almost identical player efficiency rating as her fellow MVP Nneka Ogwumike. Adding a healthy Candace Parker to this already successful squad is scary for the rest of the league and could mean another banner in Staples Center.
2. They have embraced Nneka Ogwumike’s 3-Point Shooting.
Nneka 2.0. That’s the best way to describe Nneka Ogwumike’s game so far during the 2019 season. However, it’s Nneka’s three-point emergence that makes her the perfect fit on the Sparks roster, which is in the process of transition into Fisher’s free flowing offense scheme.
Nneka was recently named to the 2019 All-Star team, which is her sixth time earning the honor. Since the beginning of training camp in May, Nneka has been encouraged to shoot the three. After playing in 16 of 17 games, she’s shooting 39% on three-pointers. In fact, she’s made 16 of 41 from beyond the arc so far this season. Get this… She’s on pace to destroy her previous 34-game season total of 18 made three pointers before All-Star break this weekend.
The tipping point in the emergence of Nneka 2.0 came when she set a career-high with five made three pointers vs. the Washington Mystics on July 7, including four in the first quarter. Nneka’s expanded game bodes well for Coach Derek Fisher’s push to positionless basketball. Her prime statistical example game against the Mystics by way of 31 points and 10 rebounds on 11 of 15 from the field, 5 of 7 from 3 and 4 of 4 from the free throw line.
At her best, Nneka 2.0 can be a more efficient offensive player than the player she was during 2016 MVP season in which the Sparks won the WNBA Championship. With Parker in and out the lineup, Nneka has been the constant force. With a healthy Parker back in the lineup drawing attention on offense, Nneka could soon have more historic three-point shooting nights and it could propel the Sparks offense to new heights.
3. Playing through adversity is inherit in Championship DNA.
To win a WNBA Championship, you must be able to play through adversity. Inevitablely, players will get injured. Energy levels will be up and down and sometimes a call will not go your way. Despite all of that, the Sparks will always be in charge of how hard they play. They will always be in charge of how much passion they have for the game.
Core players like Candace Parker, Alana Beard, Nneka Ogwumike, Chelsea Gray and even reserve Alexis Jones knows the type of perseverance it takes to win a championship. The vets will keep this on track through the downtimes. If the Sparks draw from that experience, they will be a tough out in the playoffs.
4. Learning to maintain big leads will payoff by allowing Fisher to rest weary starters.
Whenever your team is lead by five All-Stars, sometimes you’re going to get up big against teams in the WNBA, especially at home when your opponent is on a cross country road trip. For example, The Sparks had a 20 point lead against the EDD-less Mystics. But, Coach Fisher had to go back to his starters after the lead slowly dwindled to 9 points.
“We’re up 20 points, they’re professionals. I don’t care if it’s five bench players, they need to be able to go out and maintain what they’re teammates have established prior to them getting on the court,” Fisher explained after the Mystics win.
Similarily, the Sparks had a 30 point lead against the Fever on July 12 but only ended up winning by six points. There’s plenty room for improvement as far as holding leads go.
With several injuries and the 10 game suspension of Riquna Williams, young players like Kalani Brown, Marina Mabrey and Sydney Wiese will be receiving additional playing time. It’s the perfect opportunity for those players to continue learning and growing as WNBA players. It’s also the perfect opportunity for those aforementioned players to show that they have what it takes to maintain a big lead, giving weary starters a much needed break on the Sparks journey to a 2019 WNBA Championship.
5. More 3’s will create matchup nightmares.
Embracing and encouraging Nneka’s three-point shooting has given the Sparks a new identity and sets the Sparks apart from many WNBA team s who don’t have power forwards / centers who can consistently knock down open threes.
“Coach does a really good job of letting us know that an open shot is the right and I want to be able to play in flow,” said Nneka Ogwumike.
The Sparks coaching staff has instilled similar confidence in Tierra Ruffin-Pratt who is shooting 37% from 3. In 16 games, TRP has already made 13 3s. She will soon eclipse 16 made 3s, is her current career high for the total 3s in a season.
When a defensive minded player becomes aggressive on offense, they present another threat the opposing team has to worry about. Game planning will become paramount as the season wears on. The fact that the Sparks can put a starting lineup on the floor with five capable three point shooters will create matchup nightmares for every team in the W.
6. The Sparks will become the most physical team in the WNBA.
To win it all, Sparks players have to use the physical play that has been allowed by referees to their advantage by playing hard on defense and showing they’re willing to put their bodies on the line.
For the Sparks to win the 2019 WNBA Championship, Coach Fisher is encouraging his players to be the most aggressive team on defense and offense every night. It’s a mantra Sparks players seem more than willing to embrace.
7. Chelsea Gray aka the Point Gawd is the best Point Guard in the W.
There’s a reason Candace Parker dubbed Chelsea Gray the “Point Gawd.” Gray has an innate ability to control the pace and the flow of the game. She routinely makes no look passes, but even more often she makes the right pass for an easy layup or uncontested three-pointer.
The 2019 All-Star Starter has been cooking all season. The culmination of her ascendence as arguably the best point guard in the WNBA took place against the Washington Mystics on July 7. Gray served up 13 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds for her first career triple double in the W. It was the eighth triple double in WNBA regular season history.
Gray joins Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker as the only Sparks to ever post a triple double. If Gray continues to play like the best point guard in the WNBA, she has the ability to lead the Ogwumike’s, CP3 and the rest of the Sparks to the promised land.
8. Candace Parker’s elite passing ability complements Chelsea Gray.
Even with Chelsea Gray, there is a case to be made that Parker is the best passer on the Sparks.
At 6’4, her height allows her to see over and around the defense. Meanwhile, as much as she likes to put a little sizzle on her passes which sometimes leads to turnovers, Parker is willing to make the fundamental bounce pass to Nneka Ogwumike for an easy bucket.
Parker also has a triple double in WNBA career as well, which gives the Sparks another bonafide playmaker when Gray needs a break or is having a rare off night.
9. ISO Gray. That’s the play call to win it all.
At the end of every quarter, it seems like Chelsea Gray takes and often makes a clutch shot.
Her ability to go one on one is a constant, especially since she can absorb more contact than her frame would suggest. And don’t foul her. She’s leading the league at 96% from the free throw line.
Many teams have to scramble to find a player who is clutch enough to deliver, when the shot clock is off and it’s game time. Not the Sparks. They have Chelsea Gray and that’s a priceless asset when you have a roster, that’s arguably is the most talented in the WNBA.
10. When the bench learns to maintain even the smallest lead that will make the Sparks starters unstoppable.
Since the Sparks have arguably the most talented roster in the WNBA, depth should not be an issue. When the Sparks are at full strength, there’s should be no drop off in interior play when your first post player off the bench is Chiney Ogwumike.
Equally as important is the impact of back-to-back defensive player of the year Alana Beard off the bench. Beard is a defensive anchor who will allow Kalani Brown, Marina Mabrey and Sydney Wiese to play through mistakes.
“We have to go through those experiences. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that in September and October when we need those players to play three minutes, so that some starters can come off the floor for three minutes and we can’t maintain a lead off any kind, we’re not going to win the championship like that. So we have to go through this in July in order to understand what it takes to win,” said Fisher.