The Los Angeles Sparks 2019 season should not be solely defined by their three-game sweep by the Connecticut Sun in the WNBA Semifinals. Instead, the LA Sparks should first relish their 3rd place finish in the WNBA Standings.
The Sparks finished with a 22-win regular season, despite key players like two-time MVP Forward Candace Parker, two-time Defensive Player of the Year Guard/Forward Alana Beard, Forward/Center Maria Vadeeva, Guard Alexis Jones and Guard Riquna Williams missed a combined 73 games due to injury and suspension.
Practicing with seven players and winning several games with eight active players in the heart of the season is commendable and something to hang your hat on. They should also be proud of their current 15-game home winning streak at Staples Center. Their most recent and only “home” loss in the playoffs happened at the Pyramid on the campus of Cal State Long Beach, which is in Los Angeles County but is 30 miles from downtown LA.
PLAYOFF EXIT IN THE LBC
However, all is not well that does not end well. It’s not necessarily the fact the Sparks lost to the Connecticut Sun. The Sun are are an excellent team with great chemistry highlighted by perfect health. Their starting five started all 34 regular season games and all eight playoff games together in 2019. By all measures, the Sun showed themselves to be a better team than the Sparks.
It’s how the Sparks lost the Sun, amid playing time controversy highlighted by the benching of Candace Parker and a visible lack of collective fight against a far more physical Connecticut team that is concerning.
The days of the LA Sparks being the most talented team in the WNBA are over. But that doesn’t mean the Sparks can’t be successful and compete for the championship. If the returning 2020 Sparks have a heart to heart with Head Coach Derek Fisher, they can learn from and move passed their untimely playoff demise.
No roster ever stays the same. As experienced as players like Candace Parker, 2016 WNBA MVP Forward Nneka Ogwumike, Point Guard Chelsea Gray and Forward/Center Chiney Ogwumike are, experience is still the best teacher. And there’s nothing like getting swept and blown out by 26 points and 22 points in the final two games of the season to open your eyes to new possibilities.
New possibilities could mean figuring how to play Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Chiney Ogwumike at the same time.
Parker averaged career lows across the statistical board: 11.2 points, 6.4 rebounds on 42.2% shooting from the field and 26.7% from 3 in only 26 minutes per game. Meanwhile, Nneka Ogwumike, a 2019 2nd team All-WNBA Selection, lead the Sparks averaging 16.1 points, 8.8 rebounds, while making a career-high 23 3-pointers.
Ogwumike’s her younger sister Chiney only started 14 games this season. She averaged a career low 9.6 points and 5.8 rebounds in only 21.8 minutes per game. Chiney found success as a part-time starter notching five double-doubles. But she primarily found herself relegated to coming off the bench for the first time in her four-year WNBA career.
It could also mean creating more “ISO GRAY” situations to empower the 2019 1st team All-WNBA selection Chelsea Gray. She averaged 14.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.9 assists in 32.6 minutes a game, to become the leading scorer on the Sparks.
WHO ARE YOUR FIVE BEST PLAYERS?
When Washington Mystics Head Coach Mike Thibault lost game 4 of the WNBA Finals, he decided his five best players down the stretch were Natasha Cloud, Kristi Toliver, Aerial Powers, Elena Delle Donne, and Emma Messeman. When the Mystics won Game 5 and ultimately the 2019 WNBA Championship, Coach Thibault decided the other Ariel should be included in the Mystics five best players. It was Natasha Cloud, Kristi Toliver, Ariel Atkins, Elena Delle Donne, and Emma Messeman who stood on the floor as the final buzzer sounded.
That’s not a traditional basketball lineup but it worked and worked well enough to win a championship. Three average to undersized guards, Cloud 5’9, Toliver 5’7 and Atkins 5’8 complimented by two post-game players with inside out games, Delle Donne 6’5 and Messeman 6’4.
There comes a time that regardless of traditional fit, a team needs to play their five best players to win basketball games. Coming into the season, many basketball minds considered Chelsea Gray, Alana Beard, Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Chiney Ogwumike to be the best five players the LA Sparks could put out of the floor at the same time.
Through injuries, Candace Parker and Alana Beard dropped out of the initial rotation. Players like 5’11 Forward Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and 6’0 Guard Sydney Wiese emerged as bonafide WNBA starters. Wiese started 16 games and averaged 4.8 points, 1.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 20 minutes a game for the Sparks.
Wiese is a versatile player and former college point guard at Oregon State. Wiese allows Chelsea Gray to play off-ball and conserve her energy during active recovery as Gray logged heavy minutes including playing all 40 minutes against the Atlanta Dream late in the regular season.
As rosters change year to year, it’s too early to say who the five best players on the Sparks will be. Development of rookie 6’7 Center Kalani Brown and rookie 5’11 Shooting Guard Marina Mabrey is important, especially since the Sparks traded their 2020 1st round pick to the Connecticut Sun to acquire Chiney Ogwumike.
However, it is safe to say four of the Sparks best five players are Chelsea Gray, Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Chiney Ogwumike. It is important for the Sparks leadership to build around and upon that to improve upon their 22-game regular season record in 2019.
CHELSEA GRAY, NNEKA OGWUMIKE AND THE 2020 SUMMER OLYMPICS IN TOKYO
Chelsea Gray and Nneka Ogwumike have accepted a unique opportunity that has the potential to make both of them significantly better basketball players. Through consistency and statistical performance, the Point Gawd and the Prez showed themselves to be the best two players on the LA Sparks during the 2019 season.
Gray and Ogwumike are core members of the USA Basketball Olympic training program. The keyword in the previous sentence is TRAINING. Normally, Gray and Ogwumike accept lucrative contracts to play overseas, while simultaneously trying to improve their games while playing a full season in Europe.
Meanwhile, USA Basketball recently announced that the national team will play four exhibition games in November.
Nov. 2- vs. Stanford (Ogwumike to play)
Nov. 4- vs. Oregon State (Ogwumike and Gray to play)
Nov. 7- vs. Texas A&M (Ogwumike and Gray to play)
Nov. 9- vs. Oregon (Ogwumike and Gray to play)
Gray and Ogwumike are two of eight players chosen to participate in the 2019-2020 USAB Training Program in advance of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Other players include Sue Bird (Seattle Storm), Elena Delle Donne (Washington Mystics), Skylar Diggins-Smith (Dallas Wings), Sylvia Fowles (Minnesota Lynx), Diana Taurasi (Phoenix Mercury) and A’ja Wilson (Las Vegas Aces).
Gray and Ogwumike will participate in the team’s five training segments that will take place between November 2019 and April 2020. That should be a welcomed alternative to spending six-months overseas playing heavy minutes to compensate for six-figure contracts.
The 1st Team All-WNBA Point Gawd and the 2nd Team All-WNBA Forward should be refreshed, confident and much improved players for the 2020 season. Both Gray and Ogwumike will have countless opportunities for skill development as well.
Whether it’s Gray’s gleaming point guard skills from Dawn Staley, Sue Bird and Skylar Diggins-Smith or Ogwumike picking up Nneka 2.0 techniques from Elena Delle Donne, Dan Hughes and Cheryl Reeve, both players will join a national team culture of greatness.
USA Basketball is set to receive excellent coaching from Dawn Staley (South Carolina), Dan Hughes (Seattle Storm), Cheryl Reeve (Minnesota Lynx) and Jennifer Rizzotti (George Washington).
The other benefit is in between the five national team training segments, Gray and Ogwumike will be able to do their own individual skill development. They will finally have time for personal and professional development on and off the court.
With a renewed and improved Chelsea Gray and Nneka Ogwumike, and a healthy Candace Parker, the Los Angeles Sparks have what it takes to remain in the upper echelon of the WNBA, and ultimately compete for the 2020 WNBA Championship.