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  • Candace Parker made her long-awaited return to the Sparks last week but L.A. has continued to struggle amid trying to find minutes and touches for all of its highly-touted bigs. Will things get easier for a team that has the talent to contend this year?
By Kellen Becoats
June 24, 2019

Coming into this WNBA season, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team with more hype surrounding it than the Sparks. Short of the Aces, the Sparks were considered surefire contenders for the championship and, after the acquisition of Chiney Ogwumike from the Connecticut Sun, L.A. was expected to have one of the most fearsome frontcourts in the league.

Losing out on acquiring Liz Cambage surely wouldn’t feel so bad when Candace Parker returned to the lineup, and the Sparks' starting caliber players at the 3, 4 and 5 looked like Monstars who were set to dominate the league and take advantage of a wide-open WNBA field.

Oh, how things can change in a month.

We all figured it was going to take the Sparks a while to work out how to integrate Chiney into the lineup, but her relationship with sister Nneka was pointed to as a reason for optimism that it would be a short process. And for the most part, Chiney adapted well to her time on the West Coast, averaging 14.9 points and 7.3 rebounds—including a 26 and 14 game against the Liberty—before Parker returned to the Sparks.

Trying to fit Parker back into the lineup, however, has proved to be a far more daunting task. As The Athletic's Sabreena Merchant detailed well here, Parker is best used as a power forward who can initiate the offense from all over the floor. But with the wealth of frontcourt talent at L.A. coach Derek Fisher’s disposal, he initially opted to put her at the 3 and try and play Parker and both Ogwumikes in a supersized lineup.

The results were less than encouraging. As Merchant mentioned, in the 15 minutes in which those three shared the floor, L.A. had 11 turnovers and the spacing looked incredibly cramped, making it hard for each player to make her mark on the offense. That wasn’t the only reason that L.A. got smacked, 81–52, by Washington—you can thank a 22-piece from Ariel Atkins and the Sparks shooting 28.8% from the field for that—but it likely discouraged many Sparks fans who thought the return of Parker could help lift the team out of mediocrity.

The next two games—another lopsided loss, this time to the Storm, and a 10-point loss to the Mercury in which the Sparks never looked particularly close to turning the deficit around—saw Fisher toy with the lineup a bit more.

Chiney was taken out of the starting lineup and Fisher opted to only play two of his frontcourt stars at a time, essentially using them in platoons to get the most out of their play. The idea was smart but having those three and to a lesser extent, Kalani Brown, fighting for touches has still caused problems.

It certainly can’t be ignored that Parker didn’t look quite like herself in her first two games back, putting up identical 1 for 9 shooting performances and failing to hit a three in 48 minutes. But there is reason for (slight) optimism.

Parker rebounded from those two games in Sunday’s matchup against the Mercury. She hit two threes and finished with 12 points, 11 rebounds and three assists and looked closer to the player we all know.

Frankly, throwing Parker straight into the fire and having her play against Washington and Seattle and hoping for the best always seemed like it could produce a mixed bag of results. But she’s learning to play in this new L.A. offense and—despite early struggles—the Sparks are more than capable of breaking out of the growing tier of teams seemingly perpetually stuck around .500.

Parker will get better as she gets more games under her belt, and her play next to Brown, a legit defensive presence who can throw down in the middle with the best of them is intriguing. Nneka Ogwumike is only shooting 2.2 threes per game but her 42.1% three-point percentage is something the Sparks could use to encourage her to jack it up more and stretch the floor when she shares the court with Parker.

Having the two-time MVP able to facilitate with one of the Ogwumike sisters extending her range and the other constantly slashing to the rim is what I imagine many of us dreamed of when the Chiney trade went through.

Growing pains are hard. They’re even harder when you have a first-year coach and you're trying to find your team identity with so much in flux during the first month of the season. But neither this team nor its system is broken and the Sparks have until Thursday before they play again. The schedule doesn’t get any easier in the near future, however, with the Aces coming to Staples Center before the Chicago Sky—who hold the second-best record in the league (!!!)—come to L.A. Then the Sparks get another date with the Mystics on July 7 before facing the Wings.

With a month of the season in the books and most teams having played roughly a third of their games, the league hierarchy is starting to take place. If the Sparks want to regain their contender status, they’ll need to sort out their frontcourt situation and, after spending the first seven games of the season learning how to play without Candace Parker, relearn how to play with her.

Layups

Coach Dan Hughes is back on the sideline after his cancer surgery! His presence should bring happiness to all of our hearts and the Storm have been busy while he was gone, compiling a 7–4 record and overcoming multiple injuries to almost every star player on the roster. It’s good to have you back, coach.


The people demand Diana Taurasi (and the Mercury, who have gone 3–6 sans Taurasi could probably use her too). Here’s hoping we see her Friday.


The WNBA needs to fix this ASAP. It's been mentioned countless times before but we would never accept this if it was happening to a men's professional team. 

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