WNBA power rankings: Can the L.A. Sparks overtake the Minnesota Lynx?

Kristi Toliver's shooting could play a role in whether the L.A. Sparks can overtake the Minnesota Lynx in the Western Conference. - Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Sparks sit 1.5 games behind the first place Minnesota Lynx with two regular season meetings left on the schedule. Do the Sparks have what it takes to move into first place?

The first three games of the regular season series between the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx can be summed up quite simply: the visiting team hasn't shown up.

In the first three games, the home team has won by no less than 24 points. And in each case, the visitors found themselves mired in deeper holes than that at some point before garbage time helped erode the point differential. The visiting team played so poorly in those first three games that it's almost impossible to take much from them: if the Sparks actually show up to their appointment in Minneapolis tonight (8 p.m. EDT, NBA TV), the outcome should be very different than their last visit.

Yet among the stranger narratives of this season is that both of these teams have had moments where they simply fail to bring it together as we might expect them to, the Sparks most recently falling short against an "infinitely more aggressive" Atlanta Dream as described by one observer. And yet, they're still arguably the two best in the league or at the very least among the league's elite.

The Sparks currently sit just 1.5 games behind the Lynx entering tonight's game, which is the first two remaining games between the two. With a win tonight, the Sparks not only cut down that lead but also take the season series, which gives them the tiebreaker while the Lynx finish the season with three road games and a meeting with the surging Chicago Sky. A loss leaves the Sparks within striking distance, but puts them in the difficult position of trying to beat a Tulsa Shock team that they've struggled to put away at times for two seasons running now and a wild card Phoenix Mercury team in addition to the remaining game against the Lynx.

So winning tonight on the road - hardly a given for them based on their track record this season - is really significant for the Sparks. But what do they have to do to break the pattern of the visiting team in the past?

Four Factors since the All-Star break

As described last week, the Sparks have actually been sliding backwards since the All-Star break by the numbers, as reflected by the latest 2013 WNBA Hollinger Power Rankings that have them in third behind the Chicago Sky right now.

Team Rating Scoring margin (L10)
1. Minnesota Lynx 108.42 +8.3
2. Chicago Sky 107.12 +9
3. Los Angeles Sparks 106.10 +5.4
4. Atlanta Dream 101.84 +2.1
5. Indiana Fever 101.04 +0.10
6. Washington Mystics 99.83 -1.50
7. Phoenix Mercury 98.81

+2

8. Seattle Storm 98.04 -0.80
9. Tulsa Shock 97.78 -1.8
10. San Antonio Silver Stars 96.12 -1.4
11. Connecticut Sun 92.74 -12.30
12. New York Liberty 92.41 -9.40

2013 WNBA Hollinger Rankings as of 9/2/13.

The reason the Sparks are sliding backwards: their only positive Four Factors differential since the All-Star break has been their scoring efficiency. In fairness, it's a strong differential - and, hey, if you can outshoot a team you can generally have a strong chance to win basketball games - but it means that anyone who can limit the Sparks on that front has had a good chance at beating them.

eFg%

Fta/Fga

Oreb%

Tov%

LAS

50.56%

26.07%

27.11%

16.36%

Opp

44.85%

27.45%

28.22%

16.29%

Weighted Differentials

eFg%

Fta/Fga

Oreb%

Tov%

LAS

0.57

-0.03

-0.05

-0.01

Four Factors numbers & differentials for the L.A. Sparks since the All-Star break as of 9/2/13.

Two things stand out in those numbers for the Sparks: their decreased free throw rate and their increased turnover rate, both of which are evident from comparing these numbers to the National Sports Rankings statistics.

The turnover differential actually reflects a small increase in their own turnover rate as well as a small decrease in forced turnovers, not a huge deal. But the negative free throw rate differential reflects a 5.5% drop in their free throw attempts since the All-Star break, which often suggests that a team is attacking the basket less aggressively.

Setting aside the specifics, the bottom line is that the Sparks aren't playing like a contender at all right now - teams with multiple Four Factors disadvantages simply don't make it very far. And although they've won 3 of their last 5 games, those wins came against Connecticut and Tulsa (2OT) at home and San Antonio (without Danielle Robinson) on the road. In other words, they hadn't really been tested recently until the Atlanta Dream took it to them.

In contrast, Minnesota is still beginning to hit their stride since the break.

eFg%

Fta/Fga

Oreb%

Tov%

Minn

53.21%

19.98%

26.81%

13.98%

Opp

46.10%

26.95%

25.91%

17.28%

Weighted Differentials

eFg%

Fta/Fga

Oreb%

Tov%

Minn

0.71

-0.15

0.04

0.28

Four Factors numbers & differentials for the Minnesota Lynx since the All-Star break as of 9/2/13.

The Lynx do have a low free throw rate, but when you have the scorers they have and the ability to maintain control of the ball that matters a bit less. And their rebounding differential reflects more of a dip in performance shortly after the break than any sort of fatal flaw.

For the season, the Lynx still have the best offensive rebounding percentage differential in the Western Conference (+3.8). And prior to the break they had a 31.57% offensive rebounding percentage, which would be good for tops in the league right now. It's not that they're a team that struggles to rebound - they can rebound, but these post All-Star break numbers largely reflect a brief letdown that is actually improving.

For the Sparks, it's clear what they have to focus on and it really comes back to the idea that basketball is a simple game: they just have to score efficiently, and that puts part of the focus on Kristi Toliver.

Toliver, a 40% career 3-point shooter, has shot just 3-for-19 from the 3-point line over the last five games. In those previous two wins against the Lynx, she shot a combined 7-for-12. It's a team game, the burden can't be placed entirely on one player but they will need a better performance from distance than what they've been getting from Toliver.

That breakdown tells us a lot about where the Sparks stand right now and perhaps even what the outcome of tonight's game will be.

Swish Appeal Power Rankings

Nevertheless, as with the defensive and offensive efficiency differentials, the MEV differentials show that the Sparks are still among the elite albeit falling.

Team

MEV

MEV Opp.

MEV Diff.

Minnesota

91.92

62.95

28.97

Los Angeles

83.49

65.71

17.78

Chicago

73.42

59.38

14.04

Phoenix

72.1

60.72

11.38

Indiana

64.51

62.71

1.8

Atlanta

68.24

66.59

1.65

San Antonio

63.95

69.81

-5.86

Washington

63.98

71.34

-7.36

Tulsa

66.74

74.39

-7.65

Seattle

60.58

72.23

-11.65

New York

57.5

75.25

-17.75

Connecticut

55.4

77.74

-22.34

WNBA MEV differentials since the All-Star break.

But that, along with the Four Factors story, leaves the picture across the league pretty clear.

1. Minnesota Lynx: They've been the best team in the league this season, even if they don't win the Western Conference by a wide margin. If their rebounding numbers continue to rise to normal, they should enter the playoffs as at least the favorite to represent the West in the Finals.

2. Chicago Sky: While the Sparks are falling, the Sky are rising, as described earlier today.

3. Los Angeles Sparks: They're going to have a hard time beating the Lynx tonight with the way they've been playing lately. And who knows where Phoenix will be by the end of the season.

4. Indiana Fever: The Fever aren't dominating opponents right now, but the healthier they've gotten the better they are. A small improvement they've made since the All-Star break is an improvement in their offensive rebounding percentage (29.70%).

5. Phoenix Mercury: Is this team a wild card heading into the postseason or should we assume that they are who their record says they are? I'm going with the former because their numbers still show improvement defensively across the board. But it's hard to know what to make of this team. If indeed there's a first round meeting between the Mercury and Sparks it's hard to know what would happen (especially if Penny Taylor is healthy?).

6. Atlanta Dream: They've been good at home this season, but their statistics have been plummeting for a few weeks now in the absence of Tiffany Hayes, Sancho Lyttle, and most recently Armintie Herrington. That means they are better than their numbers as a playoff opponent, but right now they're going through a rough patch.

7. Washington Mystics: As Albert and Zack have already discussed, they've been terribly inconsistent this season, which is both disappointing and a sign of improvement.

8. Seattle Storm: Turnovers continue to be a problem for them, but they've been a much more efficient scoring team since the All-Star break which is a positive sign as they look toward the playoffs. But can they beat the Lynx? They have two more shots (in a row) to show us before answering a similar question: "Can they beat the Tulsa Shock?"

9. San Antonio Silver Stars: More bad news: they've lost Davellyn Whyte for the remainder of the season with an Achilles injury. But if Phoenix implodes, they'll still have a chance to make the playoffs.

10. Tulsa Shock: The Shock have announced that Liz Cambage will be out for the season, but they've already beaten the Storm (twice) without her help.

11. New York Liberty: It's truly amazing that they're still mathematically alive for the playoffs.

12. Connecticut Sun: This season is painful now, but adding a lottery pick and getting healthy next season - or using the assets they have to make trades and undergo a true rebuild - means their future should be brighter.

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