Remember when the Aces signed Liz Cambage and the general consensus was “well, she’s really talented and even though the fit next to A’ja Wilson is a little odd, the talent is going to win out and things will work,” and then things…sort of worked?
Well, it’s time for that again, only this time replace “Aces” with “Sparks” and “A’ja Wilson” with “Nneka Ogwumike.”
But Nneka is 2022 is no A’ja Wilson and Liz in 2022 probably isn’t the same as 2019 Liz. So, how is Los Angeles going to make this work? Can they make it work? And how does the addition of Chennedy Carter and Jordin Canada help—or not help?—things?
Let’s start by revisiting Liz in Vegas.
Did Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson Work Together?
The Aces were very good when they had Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson on the team. But were the Aces very good when they had Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson playing together on the team?
From a pure numbers perspective, the answer is…yeah, but it’s complicated.
Per Positive Residual, the 2021 Aces had a net rating of 8.0 in the 546 minutes that the two shared the floor last year. That’s a good number. It’s better than the 4.5 net rating the team had with A’ja on and Liz off, while the 144 minutes of Liz on the floor and A’ja off the floor resulted in a net rating of 21.8.
But in 2019, the lineup wasn’t nearly as effective. Playing both together led to a 2.8 net rating. Playing A’ja only resulted in a net rating of 7.1, while Cambage was only at 8.2.
So, we’ve got one year where the pairing worked. We have one year where it…sorta worked, but wasn’t as good as just playing the two alone.
What does that mean for the potential of a Nneka/Liz pairing?
Can Nneka and Liz Work?
Like with the question of the A’ja/Liz pairing, the answer to this is complicated.
Nneka and Liz could work fine. Nneka is a little stretchier than A’ja is, taking 29 threes last year and connecting on 37.9 percent of them and also shooting better in the midrange than Wilson. Theoretically, the offensive frontcourt fit is better here, though I do worry about the other end of the floor, because both Nneka and Liz are best on the five at that end.
Of course, this also depends on how the rest of the lineup looks. Nneka won’t be a full-time stretch four or anything—she’ll likely live around the midrange on offense but will sneak out beyond the arc sometimes, leading to a frontcourt that might look a lot like the Aces one, only with more instances of the team clearing out room for Liz to work alone inside.
But you also need the other three positions on the floor to have the shooting ability to keep defenses honest. The Aces didn’t always have that, though last year the addition of Chelsea Gray and Riquna Williams helped with that, which partially accounts for why the A’ja/Liz pairing produced better results than in 2019.
Does Los Angeles have the kind of spacing it needs to make this work?
The team brought in two really talented guards this offseason in Chennedy Carter and Jordin Canada. Carter’s shooting from deep has been a question mark since college, as she’s shown some nice flashes from there but not really enough yet to force defenses to play her tight on the perimeter.
And then there’s Canada, who shot a career-high 21.4 percent from three last season. It was her first season shooting over 20 percent from behind the arc.
Theoretically, if the Sparks decided to run out a lineup with Nneka, Liz, Carter, and Canada plus someone else (Brittney Sykes or Katie Lou Samuelson?) for periods of time, that lineup has the potential to be a spacing disaster. Nneka almost has to become a spot-up shooter in a lineup likely to keep the paint from being completely clogged, but even then, defenses would have an easy time shutting things down.
For this frontcourt to work, Los Angeles has to maximize the time that the two play with at least two shooters.
But who are those shooters?
Kristi Toliver has been a nice shooter in her career, but is coming off of her worst season from deep. Has the 35-year-old lost some of her shooting touch? Sykes has shot under 30 percent from three in three of her five WNBA seasons, so while she brings a lot defensively, she doesn’t alleviate spacing concerns.
There’s Samuelson, but she struggled from deep her first two seasons—last year’s 35.1 percent mark from deep might have been a product of playing with Seattle.
This team just doesn’t have reliable shooting, which is going to make it extremely tough for this to work out.
That’s not to say it won’t. Talent is talent. Maybe players like Arella Guirantes and Jasmine Walker can become those floor-stretching threats that allow Cambage to operate inside. Maybe the team trades Amanda Zahui B., whose importance decreases now, for some shooting?
Whatever the case is, the Sparks will need to get better at shooting the basketball if they want to make the most of what should be one of the best frontcourts in the league. Nneka and Liz fit together fine in a vacuum, even if you have to play Nneka out of position. It’s just that the Sparks aren’t a vacuum—they’re a real, live team with a glaring issue on the offensive end.