I was going to post this along with my early season thoughts, but I held off until after the outdoor game between Los Angeles and Seattle, which Seattle controlled the entire game for the win. With the Sparks now sitting in the cellar at 1-6, the question isn’t so much can they make the playoffs but more with how they can right the ship.
I mentioned in my earlier blog that something that’s going to hurt the Sparks is the fact that they have a lot of players at the ends of their career. Right now, that’s not what’s hurting them the most. Players like Thompson and Milton-Jones are still players to be reckoned with. But whether it’s next season or the season after, they’ll likely no longer be part of the Sparks’ equation. Ticha Penicheiro is still amazingly savvy and a great assist-maker. However, I don’t think any team in the league considers her much of a scoring threat, which lets them essentially play five-on-four. Also, Ticha’s body has been breaking down over the past few seasons. It seems like her best role right now is to be a mentor to whoever the organization chooses to be their point guard.
Speaking of point guard, I have to talk about Kristi Toliver. It’s no secret that I’m very high on her, but I also think that she can unintentionally sabotage herself. She is a shooting point guard. If the plan is for her to be one of the first options, she’ll give you game. However, if you ask her to be an assist-making point guard her play becomes more passive. The net effect on offense is that she’ll stand instead of move. She won’t work quite as hard. Even so, you’ll likely get 15-20 ppg from Toliver. Her weakness is definitely on defense. She’s been much more likely to go under picks than through them, which isn’t such a good thing in the WNBA. Since that wasn’t her M.O. in college, it implies a bit of an intimidation factor (she’s not willing to sacrifice her body to get through the screens) or bad advice from the coaching staff.
I don’t put all of the defensive woes all on Toliver’s shoulders. She’s but one of five. Fact is, L.A.’s defense isn’t very flexible. Those screens Toliver goes under–the other defender is so tight on their man that they can’t easily switch, and if the PG goes under, they are forced to go under two players instead of one by splitting the offense and defense. Overall, L.A. simply isn’t a good defensive team in their sets compared to many in the league. One-on-one, they are adequate, but can give up easy shots when they give help. Their zone doesn’t seem to worry anyone at this point. There seems to be a lack of understanding what everyone’s assignment(s) is, as well as a lack of discipline in sticking to the system and the scouting report.
I’d be remiss in not focusing a light on Candace Parker. She’s an incredible talent, but in some ways she’s the weak link of the team. Yes, she can put the team on her shoulders, but if the WNBA has taught us anything it’s that no team makes it to the top without a corps of three players (ideally four, if we include a defensive specialist) that every opponent must guard against. Right now, with L.A. the system is designed much like the Chicago Bulls in the Jordan era: there’s the star and then there’s everyone else. That doesn’t fly in this league.
This season, the Sparks have shown themselves to be at their best when they turn the spotlight off of CP3. Ironically, that makes her even more effective because it loosens the coverage on her. When the ball is moved around the offense, when all the green-lights are looking to create the best scoring option, that’s when the team lives up to its potential. Too often this season, the Sparks are a half-court team with only Parker as the primary option. This simply won’t yield a lot of wins, and it’s certain to beat down Parker for the long-term.
So…how to fix the Sparks? First, I’d commit to one of the young point guards and have Penicheiro put them into an intense program to hone their skills. Toliver’s still my first pick (surprise, surprise coming from me), but it could also be Riley. Whoever it is needs to be the 2nd green-light equal to Parker. They need to work out their own chemistry with CP both on-and-off the court so that whatever it is they do in a game is instinct. This will never happen if you have revolving starting point guards, so the organization needs to back one and give them time to gel with the franchise player. Also, whoever the point guard is needs to be vocal and a leader — someone who can say “no” to CP.
Next, the offensive sets need to evolve. Too often they are half-court old-school. It’s not that I’m against half-court (seriously, I’m not), just that if you are going to play it then you need to have one of the motion offense variants. You can’t have players just standing about. At a minimum, the point guard needs to penetrate more often as it often disrupts the defense. Also, I think you need to encourage your players to shoot when they have a good shot for them — everyone is an option. After all, making the extra pass makes sense only when the extra pass improves your situation. Too often, I’m seeing various Sparks bailing on a shot in the same way as college players who don’t have permission to shoot.
On defense make the rule: no one goes under screens. Either fight through or switch (not both, which I’ve also seen them do too often). Also, the tight coverage on the player setting a pick seems to be backfiring because it limits the defender’s options. One half-step looser could make all the difference. Most importantly, players have to be as committed to defense as on offense. While the sometimes iffy officiating is definitely a factor, the team still needs to be intelligently aggressive when defending their basket. I continue to see players losing focus.
Those are my quick thoughts from the ol’ arm chair. They are free and likely worth what you paid for them. The Sparks have the pieces, and it’s still early enough in the season that they can get a winning record, but they aren’t going to do it by staying their present course. I think just a few tweaks could make a lot of difference.