May 13, 2021 

2021 WNBA season preview: Los Angeles Sparks

What will the team look like in their first season without Candace Parker?

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Photo Credit: Los Angeles Sparks Twitter Account

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It was an offseason of change for the Los Angeles Sparks. After 12 years, longtime franchise cornerstone Candace Parker opted to leave for her hometown Chicago Sky. Not only that, but the Sparks also lost perennial All-Star Chelsea Gray to the Las Vegas Aces.

Despite the losses, there are still some reasons to be a little optimistic about the Sparks this season. Former MVP Nneka Ogwumike, who is also a perennial All-Star, re-signed with the team on a max contract. Chiney Ogwumike, who sat out the 2020 season, also re-signed with the team.

The Sparks also made some intriguing free agent signings in former All-Star game MVP Erica Wheeler and Amanda Zahui B. They will also see the debut of Kristi Toliver who also opted-out of the 2020 season. Toliver returns to the Sparks after three seasons with the Washington Mystics.

Before the 2020 season, the expectation for the Sparks was championship contention, though they fell quite short of that after being ousted in the first-round of the playoffs by the Connecticut Sun.

This season, expectations should be a little more tempered, but there’s no reason why this team can’t potentially be one that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Who is going to replace Candace Parker?

That’s probably the biggest question the Sparks will have going into the season. Replacing a star player is never easy and to be quite frank, in Parker’s case it’s nearly impossible. There isn’t anyone on the roster with Parker’s versatility on both ends of the court.

But the Sparks don’t need to replace Parker, they just need to get strong production from the frontcourt without too much of a dropoff. Luckily for them, they potentially have one of the better frontcourt rotations in the league.

Nneka is still playing at an All-Star level and with her shouldering more of the offensive load this season, don’t be surprised if she comes close to reaching her 2016 MVP form. She’s in the prime of her career, is still one of the best interior scorers and defenders in the league, and has expanded her game to include more consistent three-point shooting.

Joining Nneka in the frontcourt rotation is Chiney and Zahui B. Chiney started the 2019 season kind of struggling a little bit to find her role with the Sparks, but as that season went on, she kind of settled into a bench role. Whether she starts or comes off the bench, she’s still a talented low post scorer with excellent footwork and is a strong presence on the glass. With a more defined role and expectations, her production should increase as well.

Zahui B. brings a skill-set to the frontcourt that is much needed in today’s game, the ability to space the floor. She’s emerged as one of the better three-point shooting bigs in the league and she’s a very capable interior defender as well. Her skill-set enables her to play alongside either Nneka or Chiney.

The frontcourt will also see reinforcements sometime in the second half of the season when Maria Vadeeva returns from her overseas commitments. Vadeeva is a solid low post scorer with a soft touch and an improving jump shot.

Backcourt play

The Sparks had one of the absolute best in the business when it comes to point guard play the past several seasons in Gray. But with her departure, they’ve got a pretty solid replacement ready to step in.

Toliver opted to sit out the 2020 season in the bubble, but she’s back and ready to make an impact on this team. She was most recently an All-Star in 2019 with the Mystics, and during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, she averaged 6.6 and 6.1 assists respectively. She’s also a sniper from long range with a career average of 38.7 percent from the three-point line.

She also brings plenty of championship experience having won a title with the Sparks back in 2016 and then another with the Mystics in 2019. She’ll have plenty of options to feed the ball to and it’s not a stretch to see her having a huge bounce-back season.

Wheeler is also looking for a bounce-back season after sitting out the 2020 season due to contracting COVID-19. When she last suited up for the Indiana Fever in 2019, she was an All-Star and took home the game’s MVP honors. She had the best season of her career that year with 10.1 points per game, 3.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and 38.4 percent shooting from the three-point range.

She’s become a strong wing scorer and playmaker and can share ball-handling duties with Toliver. She can get up and down the floor in transition and can be the passer or the finisher on the break.

The team should also expect strong play from both Brittney Sykes and Te’a Cooper. Sykes arrived last season in a trade with the Atlanta Dream and immediately became the team’s best perimeter defender. She was tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best wing scorer each game and was named to the All-Defensive Second Team. A capable slasher, the one area though that the team will need to see some improvement in is her three-point shooting.

Cooper might not have been expected to play a large role last season as a rookie, but by the time playoffs rolled around, she had carved out a nice role as the backup point guard. She’s a strong ball-handler and playmaker and can get her shot when she needs to. She’s also a solid defensive player. She’ll continue with her play steadying the second unit, and should take another leap forward in her development.

Will the rookies even make the team, let alone make an impact?

With the recent trade sending Stephanie Watts to the Sky, the Sparks have two more rookies on their roster, Jasmine Walker and Arella Guirantes, who are both hoping to make the team.

Should one or both make the final opening day roster, they have the potential to be X-factors this season. Last year head coach Derek Fisher showed he isn’t adverse to playing young players major minutes as he did with Cooper throughout the season.

Walker brings a very versatile skill-set in that she is capable of scoring in the paint as well as stretching the floor with her three-point shooting. She’s a double-double threat and can really reinforce the frontcourt.

Guirantes is another wild card. She was a projected lottery pick but ended up slipping to the second round on draft night. She’s an explosive wing scorer and can ultimately end up being the team’s top perimeter threat at some point. She has some real star potential.

Can this team make the playoffs?

The ultimate question that surrounds the Sparks is how good can this team be as they try to offset their losses and integrate new players in a highly competitive Western Conference.

The defending champion Seattle Storm aren’t going anywhere. The Phoenix Mercury and Las Vegas Aces have championship aspirations. The Minnesota Lynx will always be a formidable team. Only the Dallas Wings are a team that the Sparks are definitively better than.

Despite the roster revamp, the postseason isn’t out of the question for the Sparks. The top eight teams in the WNBA make the playoffs and the Sparks certainly have a roster capable of being one of them. But to reach that goal the Sparks are going to have to stay afloat among some very good teams, some of the best the league has to offer.

With only 12 teams in the league, every game is tough. No game is an easy win despite what a team’s record may be. The first couple of games of the season are going to tell us a little bit more about the Sparks and where realistically they might end up in the standings. They can’t afford to drop too many early games.

The Sparks will open regular season play at home on May 14 against the Dallas Wings.

Written by David Yapkowitz

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