Undercut by the controversial semifinal sweep that saw first-year coach Derek Fisher all but bench a healthy Candace Parker and long-time GM Penny Toler lose her job after a profanity-filled locker room speech, much of 2019 was actually a success for the Los Angeles Sparks.
Though there’s plenty to unpack on that front, TBW colleague Ben Dull did so earlier in fine detail. So let’s focus on the frontcourt, where the Sparks are their most talented and confusing.
Los Angeles finished the regular season 22-12, good for third place in the league standings, matching runner-up Connecticut’s league-best home record at 15-2.
The team weathered a 4-6 start to hit the All-Star break at 11-8, largely treading water. Los Angeles played to a nearly even +6 +/- in the first half, scoring 1,485 points while surrendering 1,479. During their 11-4 second-half surge, however, their offensive efficiency increased—points per game climbed from 78.2 to 82.5; the team’s field goal percentage jumped from 41.0 to 46.1—as did their defensive impact, largely around the rim—even with the increase of points for LA, scoring against dropped 1.3 points per game; opponents saw a large decrease in rebounding, dropping from 37.7 per game to 34.5 per game post-All-Star; teams had their blocks against the Sparks decrease from 5.4 to 3.5.
All in all, the Sparks went from +6 in their first 19 games to averaging a +6 differential over the second half, with the overall +90 good for second in the league (and accompanying the second-best record over that span of games).
Why focus on those numbers down low? Because the Sparks boasted arguably the deepest frontcourt in the game.
Candace Parker got a late start to the season after suffering a hamstring injury in the Sparks’ first exhibition game.
Without a preseason, it took her a while to play back into game shape, and she rarely looked like her dominant self. She posted career lows in points (11.2), rebounds (6.4), and field goal percentage (42.2%), while scoring single digits in eight of her 22 games.
By the time the 2020 season tips off, she’ll be 34 years old, so is this a sign she’s done, or can it be chalked up to a lost season of hamstring and, later, ankle woes? Her stats have mostly fallen short of career averages for four seasons now: Three of the last four years in scoring (15.7 PPG vs. 17.0 career PPG), four straight in boards (7.7 RPG vs. 8.5 career RPG), and four in a row from the field (45.6 FG% vs. career 48.0 FG%).
While we’ll get more into Chiney Ogwumike’s up-and-down season in a little bit, her struggles alongside Candace Parker were a huge issue for the crowded LA frontcourt.
The two most frequent lineups the Sparks employed were the starting five with and without Riqana Williams, who served a midseason ten-game suspension for domestic violence. Both those lineups were net positives of +3.6 and +4.2. The next two largest stretches by minutes played were experimental lineups: one with Chiney subbing in for Nneka, the other a “big” lineup with Parker and both Ogwumike sisters. Those short-lived looks stumbled to plus-minuses of -3.8 and -6.5.
That logjam, especially with Nneka often occupying the low post, disappeared when shooters and slashers were added to the floor for spacing.
Former MVP Nneka Ogwumike once again found herself in the same conversation, finishing fourth behind Elena Delle Donne, Britney Griner and Jonquel Jones. Her 16.1 points per game were good for ninth, her 8.8 rebounds for 4th, and her 20.5 efficiency for third.
When Candace Parker began the season injured, Nneka carried the early-season offensive load, putting up 16.6 points and 9.4 rebounds on 47.2 percent shooting in 30.1 minutes during the season’s first half. Post-break, she dipped to 25.1 minutes per game, compiling 15.4 points and 8.0 rebounds on a much better 56.9 percent from the floor. She was also named to the All-Defensive team for the fifth straight season (and First All-Defensive team four of those five).
Much of Nneka’s damage came in the low post, where she shot near nine percent higher from the field than the league average. She rarely wastes movement: She’ll catch off the post, face up, and go; she’ll power dribble and throw up a reverse; she’ll fight for position and clean up with easy putbacks.
Once her game expanded past the post, her midrange attacks often extended out to the right wing, but her most preferred threes came from the top of the key or the extended elbows:
Chiney’s first season in LA following a trade from Connecticut was a roller coaster. With her 21.8 minutes per game the lowest of her career, she also posted career lows across most categories, with the largest dip in field goal percentage. Coming into this season, she’d averaged 57.6% from the field, before dropping down to 49.4% as a member of the Sparks. Her usage rate dipped to a career-low 19.5, which made sense with two-thirds of her season coming off the bench.
Nonetheless, she still continued to clean glass. Chiney ranked fourth in offensive rebounding percentage, grabbing a career-high 46.6% of the available second chance-producing boards—that number aided by the attention demanded by LA’s other bigs on the floor. She cleared 30% of total rebounds again, a mark she’s hit every year in the league.
Chiney’s struggles came in her attempts to adapt to a bench role midseason.
She had been a frontcourt starter to begin the year when Parker was out with injury. In 14 games and 28.7 minutes per, she averaged 14.1 points and 8.3 rebounds on 51.6% shooting, with a +/- of +4.1. But there was there was a precipitous drop once in her relief role: 6.1 points alongside 3.8 boards while shooting just 46%, dropping her +/- all the way down to -2.6.
Her season highs in points and rebounds came during a thrilling back-and-forth loss early in the season against New York, when she went for 26 and 14—where seven of her boards were on the offensive glass, with three leading to direct putbacks. For this team to improve next season, they need to get Chiney comfortable with her bench role.
A 6’7” rookie center out of Baylor, Kalani Brown also found inconsistent minutes off the bench. During the game with her most minutes played (23), Brown matched her season-high of 12 points in a hard-fought 86-74 win over the Las Vegas Aces. She and Liz Cambage battled hard until the final whistle and kept it going with postgame chats and twitter barbs.
Brown’s season-long game took place almost exclusively around the basket, with all but 15 of her 113 attempts coming from under ten feet. She shot just five of 15 on jump shots at least ten feet from the basket. However, she has the ability to pick and pop, especially in rhythm, so she hopefully can use this offseason to expand her game and confidence.
While her stats were a steep drop-off from the 15.8 and 8.2 line she put up at Baylor last season, the packed frontcourt is more of a worry than her year-one production.
Playing in just 15 games during 2019, Maria Vadeeva flashed brilliance in the limited minutes of her sophomore campaign. Her per-36 averages were off the chart: 23.4 points and 11.6 bounds. In reality, however, she only played 12 minutes a game.
Nonetheless, she always gave herself the green light with the ball in her hands. When on the floor, Vadeeva’s usage rate was 28.9, second in the league behind only New York’s Tina Charles. She got after it on the glass as well, ranking 11th in rebounding percentage, bookended by teammate Nneka Ogwumike and Aces center Liz Cambage.
Vadeeva flashed her potential during the season opener, (her lone start while Parker was out with injury). In that 83-70 loss to the Las Vegas Aces, she put up an impressive line or 24 points, five rebounds, an assist, two steals, and three blocks. That performance was a tease, as she would leave for the EuroBasket tournament and, by the time she returned at the start of August, rejoin a loaded group of forwards with not enough minutes to go around.
She’s spending her offseason playing in Russia for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a team loaded with WNBA talent: Jamierra Faulkner, Brittney Griner, Emma Meesseman, Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot. The Sky-heavy squad also has James Wade, Chicago’s head coach, aboard as an assistant. In three games thus far, Vadeeva is pacing UMMC with averages of 24.3 points and 10 rebounds. Last week, she went off:
There is no shortage of talent up front for Los Angeles, but they must find a way to better utilize all the weapons they’ve got. According to spotrac and High Post Hoops, all five aforementioned players remain under contract next season. The recent extension of CBA negotiations should not affect free agency, but it would make sense for the Sparks to try to move one of these frontcourt members.
After all, they finished seventh in overall rebounding last season, even with their size.
I don’t see them trading either of the Ogwumike sisters: Nneka is their best player, and Chiney’s only been with the Sparks for a year. (Plus all her offseason work with ESPN brings great exposure to the team and league.) Unless Parker demands a trade, she’s not going anywhere. It would seem too quick to cut bait on Brown, though lots of teams could use a player of her size. The best return would probably be for Vadeeva, who has so much potential but is blocked for minutes in Los Angeles.
If they decide to run it back, they should look at the Las Vegas Aces, who had to balance Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson. When on the court together, the two ran high-low actions to space the floor.
Nneka Ogwumike attempted a career-high 2.1 threes per game this past season, as the league-wide trend towards positionless basketball continues to spread. Further comfort from the outside would allow Coach Fisher to run alternating sets for her and Parker, so both can save the energy otherwise spent constantly fighting for post-position.
Finding a role Chiney could excel in, while also leaning on the two younger players, can help take pressure off both Parker and Nneka. Her chemistry with her sister is already there, and a full offseason with Parker might help to smooth out some of the issues they had playing side-by-side. Brown makes the most sense as a backup 5, due to spacing, while the other three have more flexible games. Vadeeva makes the most of every opportunity she’s given, so finding her extra minutes is crucial.
If they enter 2020 healthy and hungry, leaving this season’s rough ending behind them, they’ll be a strong contender for the title.
Myles Ehrlich is a TBW staff writer from Brooklyn, NY. He has been writing since childhood when it passed the time better than rolling scenery and folk CDs on family road trips. He legitimized his passion at New York University and The Writer’s Foundry MFA. His work has been published with Castings, MASH Stories, and flashfictionmagazine.com. When not writing, Myles is usually playing, watching or reading about sports. His east coast WNBA fandom resides with the New York Liberty; his west coast with the Las Vegas Aces.