2013 WNBA preview: Harding's addition can help L.A. Sparks maximize Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike combo

Candace Parker (front) and Nneka Ogwumike form one of the most dangerous front lines in the WNBA, but the question is how to maximize their talent. - Photo by Kirby Lee | USA Today Sports Images

A statistical preview of the Los Angeles Sparks based on the season preview framework described in our primer the other day. For those not interested in all these words, the tl;dr version is essentially the first section of 2012 review and the last section titled "key question". For more on the major moves during the Sparks' offseason, check out their offseason storystream.

2012 summary & offseason changes

Earlier this offseason, we laid out three key points for the L.A. Sparks in a review of their 2012 season:

  • Keep the younger rotation players together.

  • Add another frontcourt player if DeLisha Milton-Jones leaves.

  • Bring in another player who can play point guard.

Clearly they also saw the importance of the third point there by signing free agent Lindsey Harding. And in fact, in doing so, the Sparks were one of the few teams in the league that directly addressed a glaring need from last season: ball control.

eFg%

Fta/Fga

Oreb%

Tov%

TeamFacs

MEV

Adj Synergy

LAS

50.00%

29.71%

33.48%

17.38%

5.57

81.36

0.36

Opp

45.95%

26.88%

30.46%

17.00%

5.03

67.08

0.32

Weighted Differentials

eFg%

fta/fga

Oreb%

Tov%

LAS

0.40

0.06

0.13

-0.05

And, for the most part, their 2013 season outlook hinges on that one move.

2013 WNBA Draft summary: A'dia Mathies brings defensive presence to backcourt

With their selection of Alina Iagupova being voided by the league and Brittany Chambers being waived, the Sparks will enter this season with one 2013 draft selection: A'dia Mathies from Kentucky.

Mathies gives the team a player who fits in one sense as a wing defender who might have the length to play a little bit bigger than her size when matching up against other shooting guards. Offensively, she wasn't a turnover prone guard in college and just not doing that will help a Sparks team that was particularly turnover prone last season.

The fact that she wasn't a terribly efficient scorer at Kentucky - in large part because she had a tendency to settle for jumpers - might not end up mattering: this team has enough scorers on the interior and perimeter that Mathies won't be relied upon to score nearly as much.

What also bodes well for Mathies on the Sparks is that she was a 40% 3-point shooter as well. If she can become a reliable shooter from beyond the arc and a solid defender off the bench, she could really add to the Sparks guard rotation.

Balance

When you look at the 2012 numbers for the Sparks' roster, it's easier to see how important Harding is: last year's primary perimeter players were turnover prone relative to their peers and they just didn't have many options to turn to other than Parker, who is a very good ball handler for her style of play as most people know.

Player

S%

P%

I%

S-P-I style

TS

Turnover%

Oreb%

FTP

Alana Beard

0.80

0.91

0.06

PS

53.49

15.30%

1.18%

21.02%

Candace Parker

0.31

0.33

0.74

IU

53.58

13.19%

9.79%

20.68%

Ebony Hoffman

0.23

0.47

0.68

IU

43.44

16.58%

7.48%

15.38%

Jantel Lavender

0.27

0.06

0.88

IU

54.29

16.52%

12.21%

16.88%

Jenna O'Hea

0.14

0.85

0.57

DU

67.66

11.98%

6.65%

20.00%

Kristi Toliver

0.77

0.88

0.10

PS

63.58

16.36%

3.46%

34.16%

Lindsey Harding (ATL)

0.79

0.90

0.08

DS

49.53

10.91%

1.93%

23.93%

Marissa Coleman

0.22

0.59

0.67

U

42.47

12.99%

5.24%

15.52%

Nneka Ogwumike

0.32

0.19

0.74

IP

58.35

8.79%

12.74%

31.53%

2012 statistics and playing styles for the L.A. Sparks returners and veterans.

Harding gives them an experienced primary ball handler, which puts less pressure on Parker and Toliver to handle the ball and allows them to set up as scorers. That puts a lot of weight on Harding to turn that problem around, but it certainly makes them more balanced than last season with a true distributor around to run the offense.

The remaining problem though is that the Sparks don't have any particularly strong rebounders outside of Nneka Ogwumike and Jantel Lavender, who is the team's second best remaining offensive rebounder but only played 14.4 minutes per game last season. So Lavender's development as a rebounder and defender could really go a long way to making this a more balanced team than they were last year and help them avoid some of the lapses they had at times.

Versatility

It's almost impossible to say that a team with Parker on it isn't versatile: she can do so much on the floor by herself that a number of lineup configurations could conceivably work with her.

But again, the question of how versatile this roster is really comes back to the Harding acquisition: they have a pair of solid interior scoring options in Ogwumike and Parker, Beard (once fully healthy) and Toliver who can both play off the ball or handle if necessary, and Mathies and Jenna O'Hea could add additional 3-point shooting options that they didn't have for the majority of last season. Having Ogwumike and Parker as post-up threats - particularly if the latter doesn't settle for jumpers - makes them a potentially deadly inside-out team.

They can put a number of different lineups out there, but the problem is that it's clear that they're going to be a better rebounding team with Ogwumike on the floor and it would be surprising if their offense doesn't run better with Harding on the floor. Again, Lavender improving - as a rebounder and scorer - could really help this team's rotation and give them more threats to put pressure on the defense; her VCR of .93 - above average for an interior player - suggests that she could continue to perform efficiently in more minutes.

But where they really need to find an answer is that small forward spot, where there are a number of strong players around the league and they just don't have an immediately obvious answer.

Complementarity

Yet for all the talent the Sparks have, the big question since the day that Ogwumike was drafted last season was how she would fit with Parker, which is the kind of thing you just try to figure out once the pick is made because she's such an elite talent. But that's pretty much the dilemma that played out last season and it shows up pretty strongly in the numbers.

Player

Usg

Pts/zpt

Floor%

PPR

Ast Rat

Alana Beard

18.39

1.79

42.80

-1.02

0.20

Candace Parker

26.92

2.05

64.87

-2.43

0.15

Ebony Hoffman

14.39

1.33

33.58

-3.37

0.11

Jantel Lavender

18.67

2.02

52.26

-5.31

0.08

Jenna O'Hea

10.21

2.55

51.86

3.24

0.32

Kristi Toliver

23.84

2.22

52.61

-1.24

0.22

Lindsey Harding

20.75

1.86

46.99

2.96

0.23

Marissa Coleman

11.71

1.35

38.28

0.00

0.19

Nneka Ogwumike

20.53

2.87

80.66

-1.67

0.08

2012 Sparks' usage and efficiency numbers for returners and veterans.

Looking at the usage and efficiency numbers, it is sort of odd to see that Ogwumike is the team's most efficient scoring option and then see that two other players have more offensive responsibility. So one question I wondered often last season was whether the Sparks should make Ogwumike the focal point of the offense with everything else revolving around that.

But a closer look at situational statistics suggests that wasn't actually the problem - the bigger problem was how they used each player.

Parker's skillset offers so much possibility that it's hard not to give into the temptation to try everything - it goes back to the whole Michael Cooper quote before her rookie year after her being like the entire Showtime Lakers roster in one player. And she's proven that there isn't much she can't do. The sticking point is that she does some things considerably better than others; with Ogwumike on the roster and Harding able to handle the ball more, the Sparks would be well-served to play to Parker's strengths in order to maximize the talent of their roster.

The following is a situational breakdown for Ogwumike and Parker (via Synergy Sports) with the type of play, percentage of time used, and their percentile rank relative to the rest of the league with the player's associated rating for that play in parentheses.

Type

Ogwumike % time

Parker % time

Type

Ogwumike PPP ranking (rating)

Parker PPP ranking (rating)

Transition

12.30%

19.40%

Transition

96% (excellent)

35% (average)

Post-up

19.40%

18.90%

Post-up

63% (good)

78% (very good)

Isolation

5.30%

18.00%

Isolation

54% (good)

56% (good)

Cut

18.20%

9.20%

Cut

78% (very good)

47% (average)

Spot up

11.50%

9.20%

Spot up

49% (average)

45% (average)

ORebs

17.80%

9.00%

ORebs

84% (excellent)

89% (excellent)

P&R (roll)

7.80%

6.40%

P&R (roll)

45% (average)

65% (very good)

2012 situational statistics for Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker (ordered by "Parker % time").

I ordered this by Parker's percentage of time with each play to highlight a bit of discrepancy to what she's doing most often and what she does well.

About 53% of those transition situations were instances where Parker was the lead ball handler, where she had below average results (ranked 23% in the league). Similarly, isolation situations are a mixed bag for her - she's fine when she's driving from the right or middle, but rates below average to poor when driving from the left or pulling up for jumpers (13.5% of the time with a rank of just 17%).

Based on those numbers, the Sparks probably are getting the most out of Parker when she operated in those situations. And - aside from scoring off offensive rebounds, which is difficult for a player ball handling and shooting jumpers as often as Parker did - her strength was scoring in almost any post-up situation.

The reason the comparison to Ogwumike is interesting is something that we could pretty much glean from watching the Sparks without these numbers: they used Ogwumike as their primary post-up threat while putting Parker in space to do almost everything else.

But what if they flipped that?

Parker is better in the post than Ogwumike and Ogwumike is better off cuts than Parker. That would seem to beg for high - low sets with Parker inside (on the left block, where she's an excellent scorer) and Ogwumike in the high post or sets with a guard delivering the ball to Parker with Ogwumike cutting from the weakside. From the post, the skillset that she displays somewhat inefficiently in isolations or transition is maximized: she's excellent scoring on the left block or kicking out from either block.

In other words, you could argue that the Sparks had it backwards last year: Parker is probably best as the primary post threat rather than trying to do everything just because she has the skillset to do almost anything; Ogwumike is a player that can find opportunities to score more efficiently in an offense where she's put in motion rather than - or in addition to - posting up.

And that becomes much easier to do when Lindsey Harding is around to handle the ball.

Harding proved what an efficient playmaker she can be in the Atlanta Dream's run to the 2011 WNBA Finals and if she can bring that to the Sparks they can run the kind of sets that put Parker in her best position to succeed while decreasing the number of situations she's in where she's trying to make plays with the ball. If they can both limit the number of difficult situations is in while make the offense more fluid they might also get more out of their role players.

Last season, many of the Sparks' role players were almost non-factors: O'Hea and Marissa Coleman had usage rates under 12%, which makes them "nearly invisible" by Ken Pomeroy's framework; Ebony Hoffman had a low floor percentage of 33.58% in limited time last season; Beard was an above average perimeter player, but not by much. They just need players who can contribute consistently aside from their primary options.

X-factor: Marissa Coleman

Coleman started both of the team's preseason games after starting 28 games for the team last season and falling almost entirely out of the rotation during the playoffs. But she had the lowest VCR on the team last season and that low 11% usage rate.

Yet what's obvious is that Coleman is going to have her chances to perform and if she can get her 3-point percentage back up to where it was in 2011 with the Washington Mystics (36.8%) while continuing to be a rather efficient passer relative to her style of play, she could help make this Sparks offense even more dynamic.

Depth

The other thing that opens up if Coleman can earn and hold down that small forward spot is the chance to start a better defensive lineup with Harding, Beard and Coleman with Toliver coming off the bench for scoring punch. And although Toliver's 2012 campaign probably earned her the respect of starting, with Harding in town she might be better off the bench much in the way the Connecticut Sun use Renee Montgomery.

There's no question that Harding's presence would probably give Toliver considerably more and higher quality opportunities to spot up in drive and kick situations, which might seem like a good situation for a 3-point shooter of Toliver's caliber. But that takes away from her major strength, as demonstrated by her situational data (via Synergy).

Type of jumper Frequency Rank (Rating)
Off the dribble 49.2% 98% (Excellent)
Catch and shot 20.2% 84% (Excellent)

Kristi Toliver's performance on jumpers in 2012 (via Synergy).

Toliver is excellent in just about every isolation situation going right. She's excellent in just about any pick and roll situation going right and shooting (she was rated below average to poor in situations passing out of the pick and roll). And when you have a weapon rated in the 98th percentile in the league there's no sense in not using it.

Given the Sparks' roster, they'd be extremely effective bringing Toliver off the bench for a scoring boost with a big who can set a good screen and a guard (like Beard or Mathies) who can defend. In late game situations, they could play Harding and Toliver together to keep defenses off balance (much in the way the Golden State Warriors managed Stephen Curry and Jarrett Jack, though essentially "in reverse").

That also makes the Sparks a deeper team that could keep up the scoring pace for a full 40 minutes with little let down, particularly if they can get more out of their other wings this season.

Defensively, they still face challenges though. Parker rated as "poor" in pick and roll situations when she had to switch onto the ball handler and that wasn't lost on teams last season: the San Antonio Silver Stars seemed to figure out that the Sparks weren't adept at guarding pick and rolls and tortured them with it last season. As long as Parker is on the floor, that's the best way to exploit her and the Sparks don't have the depth on the interior to really find another option.

Key question: What will their rotation look like?

This can be a very balanced and versatile team that should continue to beat teams with scoring efficiency as they did last season, especially with the addition of an efficient distributor to direct the offense. They were an average synergy team last season and could become a high synergy team depending on how the ball is distributed.

In addition, with Harding around to set up players for perimeter shots more efficiently by driving and kicking it out, some of these 3-point shooters who had sub-par years last season could really step up and make this a very dangerous inside-out team. Harding's presence also means that a player like Candace Parker might be able to do less and play to her strengths more often while Toliver could be utilized as a scoring boost off the bench where she would be the focal point of the offense.

Depth could be an issue for the Sparks, especially if Beard declines, Mathies doesn't develop into a solid contributor, and their other role players continue to be non-factors. Even with a fourth solid scoring option in Harding, great teams can usually get more from their role players than the Sparks did last year.

And in a competitive Western Conference, maximizing everything they've got will be essential.

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