by Aaron Fischman
The Los Angeles Sparks open their 2013 season Sunday evening with lofty expectations, one year removed from a tremendously successful season that was halted by the Minnesota Lynx in the Western Conference finals.
In 2012, Carol Ross’ first year at the helm, the squad improved by nine wins, a considerable jump in winning percentage from .441 to .706. Surprisingly, for a franchise that has experienced so much success throughout the WNBA’s history, it was its first 20-win season since 2008, Candace Parker’s rookie year. In fact, ’08 and ’12 are the only seasons Parker has played at least 30 games.
Last year, the Sparks cleaned up, winning most of the league’s biggest awards. Ross earned Coach of the Year honors, first-overall pick Nneka Ogwumike won WNBA Rookie of the Year and guard Kristi Toliver was recognized as the league’s Most Improved Player after increasing her scoring average from 11.2 to 17.5 points per game. Meanwhile, she managed to raise her field-goal percentage to 49.1, including 42.4 percent from three-point range. In the most important individual category, Parker finished second in MVP-voting, earning 253 points, just behind Connecticut’s Tina Charles, who got 345.
Parker put the team on her back last postseason, averaging 28.8 points per game on 57.3 percent shooting. In Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, the MVP runner-up played all 40 minutes and scored 33 points to go along with 15 rebounds, five assists and four blocks. Even so, the Lynx won by a single point, effectively eliminating the Sparks from title contention. Parker didn’t touch the ball once on her team’s final possession.
“Last year definitely hurt,” said Parker. “I do think about it a lot. We just are coming back with last year in our mind for sure.”
Although Toliver’s drastic improvement as a scorer has been well documented, as the team’s primary ball-handler, she struggled to avoid turnovers (3.7 TOs/game). As a result, the team added true point guard Lindsey Harding this offseason and plans to move Toliver to the off-guard position.
“Kristi is a scorer,” noted Harding. “That’s what she’s really good at. So for me to help her be the best she can be, to help our team be the best we can be is incredible. The same with Alana (Beard), too. She’s always been a wing player (and) you get her back to that position most of the time…I think that’ll definitely be beneficial for us.”
Although Parker argued that moving Toliver off the ball will require an initial adjustment, she, too, concluded that the shift will ultimately pay dividends: “I think overall, it’ll be better, because she’ll be able to come off more action and be able to do more things that way.”
Harding was the first-overall pick in the 2007 WNBA Draft, but has become something of a journeywoman, now playing for her fourth team in seven years. Even so, she is lauded for her leadership, stout defense and careful ball handling. Harding’s 2011 Finals appearance (when the Dream got swept by the Lynx) makes her only the second current Spark to have played on the league’s grandest stage; Ebony Hoffman is the other (her Fever lost to the Mercury in ’09).
“[Harding] brings a lot of energy,” said Parker. “I think that she’s going to be able to be that defensive presence that we need that’s going to get over screens and lock down her man. I think she definitely has a lot of leadership qualities that we like and I’m excited to add her to the team for sure.”
Harding stressed that it would take some time to learn her teammates’ tendencies, but also acknowledged her familiarity with many players on the team. In 2011, the veteran point guard played for coach Ross, who was a Dream assistant at the time. She’s also played alongside Beard at Duke and with the Mystics, with Parker on the women’s national team, and for years, against Toliver in the ACC.
“I just want to be the best I can be,” said Harding, “and keep growing as a player and as a leader…setting the tone offensively and defensively, because it does start with me.”
There’s ample continuity from the ’12 campaign, as the Sparks return eight players, including four starters. With Harding essentially replacing DeLisha Milton-Jones (now with San Antonio), the team expects to become both smaller and faster.
“I think this is going to be the first year that we’re small,” said Parker.
“We’re normally the team that is posting other guards up and things like that, so that’s going to be the biggest thing: missing her (Milton-Jones’) size on the perimeter.
“We’re going to have to really focus on blocking out, rebounding and stuff like that.”
The Sparks, however, hope to utilize their improved quickness in transition this season. “That’s the plan,” said Harding. “I’ve always been a running type of player since I started. That’s going to be a strength. We want to use our speed.”
That said, running the fast break in every instance would not be wise, according to Parker.
“We want to run, but I think we still need to know when to run and when to move the ball,” maintained Parker. “That’s the key. We definitely have to get ball movement and find the best option whether it be in transition (or) whether it be slowing down the pace and running a half-court offense.”
For the 2013 season, the WNBA has added restrictions against flopping, implemented a defensive three-second rule and extended the three-point line by more than one and a half feet (from 20 feet, 6.25 inches to 22 feet, 1.75 inches). According to Parker, on both sides of the ball, her team must adjust to these new rule changes.
“Offensively, we’ll have to adjust to what works versus defensive three seconds,” said Parker. “Spacing is going to be key. With the new rules, we’re going to have to definitely play more one-on-one defense.”
Although Harding is new in town, she’s well aware of the Sparks’ disappointing end to the previous postseason and very much wants to hang another championship banner in the Staples Center rafters.
“I know their expectations are not just the playoffs, not to get to the Finals, but to win a championship,” said Harding, “so that’s why they brought me here. That’s why they have this team together. My expectation is to do whatever I have to do to put us in that position to win a championship.”