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Sparks’ Team Chemistry: A Bigger Problem Than Point Guard Play

At the beginning of the L.A. Sparks-New York Liberty broadcast yesterday a 9-year-old "Sparkscaster" claimed that the Sparks are "unbeatable".

Before you laugh off his comment as ridiculous, let me confess that prior to the start of the 2008 it indeed seemed elementary to me that the Sparks would dominate the WNBA. Of course, I didn’t know much about the league, except that Lisa Leslie is good (in addition to Lauren Jackson and Diana Taurasi). In fact, it seemed unfair to put Candace Parker on the same team as Leslie.

But losing two straight home games to rather average teams is hardly the mark of an "unbeatable" team.

It would be easy to blame yesterday’s loss to New York on Lisa Leslie’s foul trouble. Or perhaps you agree with coach Michael Cooper’s comment from last Thursday about the Sparks’ point guard play.
"We've got to get us a point guard, somebody who can handle pressure and do all the things that we need her to do. We've just got to rebound from this."
However, guest commentator Derek Fisher nailed what I see as a larger, more systemic problem for the Sparks to address: Parker and Leslie are an excellent foundation for a championship team, but it sometimes seems like the Sparks expect to win games by overwhelming their opponents with talent instead of playing good basketball.

Leslie’s foul trouble becomes a problem because she IS the Sparks’ defense – without her the lane is wide open. On offense, they are likely to go cold if Parker isn’t able to create something or Leslie is crowded by a zone.

I watched this game closely because I wanted to get another look at rookies Leilani Mitchell, Essence Carson, and Erlana Larkins. But what stood out to me was the disappointing play of the Sparks.

So in this post, I’ll take a look at the three potential problems identified above: the Sparks’ point guard play, their offense, and the defensive void created once Leslie fouled out…all with a side of statistics.

Point guards Brown and Johnson are not the problem

Let’s start with Cooper’s comment about his point guards. Granted, he was frustrated and was probably being characteristically hyperbolic, so this might be a straw man attack. But Kiesha Brown and Temeka Johnson are the easiest targets on a team that just seems to stagnate on offense occasionally. After all, a point guard is responsible for a team’s rhythm right?

So I updated my point guard rankings to see how they’re performing this season. Brown ranked as the 6th best point guard, right behind Sue Bird. The big difference between the two is plus/minus: Bird has a rating of 20.7 – best among starting point guards -- to Brown’s 2.5. Here’s the top 10:

1. Lindsay Whalen 132
2. Candice Wiggins 123
3. Deanna Nolan 112
4. Ivory Latta 106
5. Sue Bird 100
6. Kiesha Brown 93
7. Katie Smith 91*
8. Ticha Penicheiro 88
9. Shannon Johnson 80
10. Dominique Canty 73
10. Leilani Mitchell 73

*I replaced Alana Beard with Katie Smith in the latest rankings

The way I see it, the sizable gap between Brown and Bird represents the gap between just being a starter and being an all-star. Guards Katie Smith (who essentially splits point guard duties with Nolan) and Ticha Penicheiro (who is past her prime) fall just below her. Certainly they could upgrade at point guard…if they could get Bird, Latta, Nolan, Wiggins, Whalen, Penicheiro or Smith. Good luck with that.

The Sparks point guards are neither dynamic nor flashy, but they are solid -- when the team runs a coherent offense, the point guards are able to distribute the ball well. Their difficulty with the full court press is as much a result of the team lacking a coherent press break as it is the point guards' fault.

The one big knock on the LA Sparks guards could be that they’re not quick enough to get by their defenders and create scoring opportunities for teammates or guard speedsters like Leilani Mitchell. However, that should not be a problem given that they have two extremely talented big players.

In other words, I don’t see the Sparks’ problem as a matter of personnel as much as strategy.

The star-dependent offense gets stagnant

You have to give some credit to the Liberty’s defense for stopping the Sparks on offense. The Sparks looked completely baffled by the Liberty’s zone defense. Instead of forcing the zone to move and finding holes for cutters, the Sparks resorted to settling for jumpers. When Leslie was in, the Liberty just packed it in and forced the Sparks to look elsewhere for opportunities.

Instead of forcing the defense to respond to their stars, the Sparks were the ones constantly off balance, as DeLisha Milton-Jones said after the game. I think using Parker differently could solve that problem.

Parker is big enough to play in the post, but at this point she’s not strong enough to hold position in the post. She will be eventually. So it seems like the Sparks are constantly shifting her role in the offense to respond to the defense – she plays the post, the wing, and the "point forward". But I think that’s too much.

Just because Parker can do everything doesn’t mean she should do everything, every single game. During this game she played the low post, ran the point, guarded McCarville as well as both Mitchell and Loree Moore. Why?

Actually, I think Parker is in a similar situation to the Seattle Supersonics’ forward and Rookie of the Year Kevin Durant. Durant will eventually be a small forward, but he wasn’t strong enough to play small forward consistently so the Sonics made a decision early on to play him at shooting guard.
"In my opinion, that's where he's best suited right now," said new Sonics coach P.J. Carlesimo, who Tuesday ran his first practice as an NBA head man since Golden State fired him in 1999. "Because of the way he shoots the ball, the way he handles the ball, and the fact that he is not as physical right now as he's going to be before he's done...

"He's like -- he's not like Magic Johnson at all -- but he's like Magic in that you can play him probably any of four positions, if not five. Playing the 2, he's not going to get beat up, box to box, the whole game."
I hate to quote PJ Carlesimo – I’m a Bay Area sports fan – but I think he got this one right. Parker and Durant are in different places because Parker’s college experience was longer and much more successful, but they need to do more as a team to put her in a position to succeed.

Defense suffered without Leslie

Part of working together better as a team has to be working on the team defense. The Sparks were up 7 points when Leslie fouled out and ended up losing by 11. That’s an 18 point swing.

However, at the end of the game the problem was about strategy as much as personnel. They chose to press speedster rookie Leilani Mitchell and just got burned multiple times. Bruchu from the X’s and O’s of Basketball blog described this problem perfectly:
You cannot full-court press a team that has superior speed to you. It just won't work. You need players, specifically guards, that are at least as quick as your opponent. Take a look at these pictures, in both cases, Mitchell has already passed hip-to-hip and the defenders are in a trail position...
Yet even before they put on the press, they were getting beat to the rim by the Liberty’s perimeter players, not to mention their complete inability to contain Shameka Christon, who had a career-high 28 points, including six threes. Ouch.

Since their help defense rotations are a bit slow, having Leslie in the middle as an intimidator at least forces the defense to think twice. Without Leslie, their defense seemed to just fall apart.

Strategy should fit personnel, not vice versa

The Sparks problem seems to boil down to the way they use their personnel rather than not having the right personnel.

Brown and Johnson are handling the point guard position well enough to win with two superstars. I return again to Bruchu for a summary of the Sparks’ problems:
I said earlier in the year, the problem with the Sparks is the lack of footspeed in the backcourt. Coach Cooper wants to push the ball, but they don't have the speedy guards to be able to play that way. Unless that changes, against quicker teams, they will instead need to rely more on a half-court game and use their superior size advantage in Candace Parker and Lisa Leslie.
Some ideas…

The Sparks don’t have the quickest perimeter players, but they can distribute the ball well to their two stars, which seems appropriate. First, is it just me or do the Sparks spend a lot of time standing still on offense? Why not set screens for Parker or run a pick-and-roll with Leslie?

Watching the San Antonio Silver Stars repeatedly run the pick and roll with Becky Hammon and Ann Wauters makes me think that the Sparks could do something similar, although Parker is certainly not the shooter that Hammon is. The bottom line is that if you put a player like that in motion she’s almost impossible to guard – bigger players can’t keep up with her and smaller players won’t be able to defend her around the basket.

Second, if standing still is preferred to setting screens, why not run a high-low double post offense with Parker and Leslie? Or have Parker flash to the middle from the wing and force the defense to respond to both of them? If they immediately collapse on Parker, she can use her skills to find Leslie, if they choose to collapse on Leslie, they can deal with Parker in a one on one with someone at the free throw line. Pick your poison – heads you lose, tails Sparks win.

There’s a fine line between clever strategy and over-complicating the game for your team. Leslie and Parker are big and talented players and the Sparks have got to find a way to use that to their advantage.

Transition Points:
  • I watched this game primarily to get another look at rookie Essence Carson who got an honorable mention in WNBA.com’s rankings and ranked 11th in my rookie rankings. Unfortunately, Carson was ineffective in this game going 1-5 with four points…
  • Rookie Leilani Mitchell, who ranked #16 in my rookie rankings, had a huge effect on this game down the stretch, using her speed to get the basket and put pressure on the Sparks’ defense. I guess it just shows how deep this rookie class is…
  • I also find it interesting that the Sparks had the opportunity to draft the 5’5" Mitchell with the first pick of the second round this year but chose 5’2" Shannon Bobbitt instead. While Mitchell torched their full court press, Bobbitt was inactive for the game. Guess hindsight is 20/20…
  • Dominique Canty’s numbers also fell drastically when I updated the point guard rankings. Every single one of her numbers were down since the first rankings I posted. For those that believe she is the problem with the Chicago Sky, she dropped from 4th to 10th, only slightly ahead of Mitchell (11th) and Johnson (12th). It will be interesting to continue to keep track of her progression as the sample size grows…and gets more accurate…