When I asked Los Angeles Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom prior to their loss in Seattle last week about who is emerging as the team's leader in the absence of Lisa Leslie, she talked about how much forward Candace Parker has developed in the off-season.
"Candace is slowly but surely trying to fulfill that role," said Gillom. "She's added on the inside game to her repertoire and I think she's doing a good job of it. Of course, the more games she plays the better off she's going to be. As you know, she won the game for us huge against Phoenix and it was a post move. So that goes to show you she's improving in that area."
Prior to the Storm game, rookie point guard Andrea Riley sounded optimistic about the team's chances moving forward because they seemed to be gaining some momentum.
"We are kinda struggling a little bit, but I think we're about to get on a win streak," said Riley. "Practices are getting more intense and everybody's focus is getting a little better."
Of course, Riley's assertion could be dismissed -- she obviously hasn't been around the league long enough to make a strong assertion about the direction her team is headed. However, they did manage to win the Minnesota game that Parker left due to her injury. And the fact is that the team's 3-7 record is somewhat deceiving -- they've played the Storm three times who nobody in the Western Conference has found a way to beat, lost two close ones to the Mercury, and veteran point guard Ticha Penicheiro has been in and out of the lineup. The bottom line is that there's more we don't know about how good the Sparks could be at full potential than what we do know.
While Parker's season-ending shoulder injury won't necessarily impede her individual development going forward, it leaves the 3-7 Sparks in a precarious situation without the player who is not only trying to fill that leadership role but also the team's statistical leader. So the obvious question is what does this mean for the Sparks moving forward?
In terms of leadership, while Parker is coming into that role, the team has other veterans on the team who can also step into that leadership role.
"To be honest, I think it's DeLisha more because she shows it a lot," said Riley. "If anything it would be Ticha too. I think those are the two key people on our team. Ticha has a state of mind that is unbelievable. She doesn't worry about anything, she's not negative at all, and she stays positive and that's the same thing with DeLisha and that's why we're going to get better each game."
Added to that is veteran Tina Thompson who currently stands behind Parker and DeLisha Milton-Jones as the third most productive player on the team. The team will find leadership from somewhere.
The problem is replacing Parker's production on the court. If we assume that the Sparks record would have improved with Parker in the lineup, she was an obvious MVP candidate this season. Not only was she responsible for 30% of the team's production, but she was also by far the top scorer, rebounder, and shot blocker on the team not to mention leading the team in free throw attempts.
So can we find hope for the Sparks?
The obvious place to look might be the Ewing Theory, which postulates that a team inexplicably plays better when a star player who receives "an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest" goes down. Most recently, the Orange County Register took a look at another application of the Ewing Theory in SoCal as it applies to the Anaheim Angels who lost Kendry Morales and have gone 7-1 since. If you want pure hope, the Ewing theory is it. But as I think we're all aware of, hope is not a plan, especially as related to the Ewing Theory.
However, the Gravity and Levity blog did an interesting job of adding nuance to the Ewing Theory by reframing the issue as a network problem (click here for more on that). While people have taken issue with the math behind the analysis, it's a interesting conceptual model with which to think about how a team might adapt and recover from the loss of a star.
One way to think about recovering from the loss of a star as a network problem is whether a team's "traffic patterns" change: how do they move the ball around the court (or not) differently when they have the ball? While the blog describes it as an efficiency problem -- and to some extent it is -- that doesn't describe the situation in its entirety.
One way to think about it is that Parker averages 38 touches a game, 9 ahead of Milton-Jones and Thompson who both get about 29 a game. She also has the highest usage percentage -- an estimate of the percentage of team plays used to make a scoring play while on the court -- at nearly 29%. If they run a similar system without Parker those touches have to be either "redestributed" somehow or assumed by someone else. If they change the offense entirely, the entire distribution of touches will change. Either way, the Sparks will need to find someone else that can create offense for themselves (nobody else on the team averaging significant minutes had a usg% above 20%) or rely more heavily on ball movement to find scoring opportunities.
The best-case scenario is that without an emphasis on trying solely to get the ball to one player all the time a) players share the ball more and b) somebody else steps up to pick up the scoring slack. The assumption there though is that somebody a) is not realizing their full potential with the star on the court, b) will surprisingly step up in an effort to replace the production that the star provided, c) will change their tendencies when the star goes out. In other words, while there is a place for statistics to predict the outcome of this situation, there are so many tactical and style-related questions for each player on the floor, that it's difficult to know how the team might respond. For example, it's impossible to predict Washington Mystics wing Monique Currie stepping up with Alana Beard out for the season and likewise it's difficult to predict Seattle Storm point guard changing her tendencies when Lauren Jackson has been injured (although she's done it enough now that it's probably safe to expect it).
However, we can look at the Sparks' tendencies thus far to know what to look for. First, unless they become a run and gun team (seemingly unlikely), the Sparks will have to "replace" Parker in the post. Obviously, Parker can't be "replaced" but somebody has to be in the paint just for balance, whether you run a strict high-low offense or a more fluid motion offense. Thus far this season, the two possible options for the Sparks have contributed most to the team as scorers whereas Parker does more for the team as a rebounder.
Thompson is one option in the low post. However while her true shooting percentage is similar to Parker's, her 2 point% is much lower (44.15% to Parker's 52%). So Thompson and her three point shooting are probably better on the perimeter. Milton-Jones on the other hand has a 2 point percentage of 52.56% but a slightly lower offensive rebounding percentage than Thompson. In terms of running a fluid offense though, it might help for Milton-Jones to be in the post because of her assist ratio of 15.02%, higher than Parker or Thompson and useful for a team that will no longer look for the majority of its scoring in the post -- Milton-Jones might be the better candidate in many situations to play the post position while Thompson complements her as a high post player.
However, against bigger teams, none of that will work -- LA would simply face too much size inside to be effective, similar to the challenge they've faced repeatedly against the Storm this season. So it probably behooves them to change systems entirely. But to what exactly? The Sparks aren't shooting threes particularly well this season, sitting at 7th in the league at 34.1%. That's with a low post threat like Parker who creates open shots simply by drawing double teams. That means the team would have to rely very heavily on ball movement to get shots, which to this point has not been their strong point, but there's not much choice.
If that's the case, the burden for recovering from Parker's injury will fall heavily on the shoulders of Ticha Penicheiro and -- if Penicheiro does not remain healthy -- Noelle Quinn plus the Sparks combination of young guards in Andrea Riley and Kristi Toliver. The Sparks offense visibly runs more smoothly with Penicheiro in the game and her playmaking ability will be essential to drive and find shooters whereas before they looked to the post. It's very possible that with improved ball movement, the team will find better shots, which leads to spreading the court by hitting thees and creating lanes for others to drive. That's not impossible to imagine.
Nevertheless, the biggest loss here is defensively. One of the Sparks' biggest challenges is already offensive rebounding percentage differential and Parker was their best defensive rebounder, cleaning up about 30% of the available defensive rebounds. Losing that is not simply a matter of replacing it, although obviously with only one ball to rebound on each play, it's possible that Parker is just cleaning them up before someone else can. But rebounding and stopping centers -- tonight, that will be the Connecticut Sun's Tina Charles -- will be a challenge. They could end up giving up numerous second chance scoring opportunities.
In any event, none of this takes into account how a team comes together to deal with adversity and as the Mystics have shown this season, somebody may well step up and surprise us in Parker's absence and still get the team back on track.