Swish Appeal had the opportunity to chat with Los Angeles Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom on Tuesday and briefly discussed last month's free agent signings, particularly what their five new additions of Ebony Hoffman, Natasha Lacy, Loree Moore, Courtney Paris, and LaToya Pringle might bring the team.
"I think we will be able to see a lot of depth this year - that's a change that has been made," said Gillom during the phone interview. "Usually you have your starting five and then once they go out you struggle. I don't think you'll see that this year. We've made a lot of additions this year (so) that we'll have more depth. So compared to last year we just have more versatility...It definitely serves a purpose when we have adversity like we did last year when Candace Parker went down and players on the bench had to step into bigger roles."
The Sparks' 2010 numbers confirm Gillom's point about depth: the Sparks had the second-lowest bench scoring output in the league last season (17.2) behind the San Antonio Silver Stars (15.6). Four Sparks starters accounted for 64.5% of the team's overall statistical production and that's without Candace Parker for most of the season - with Parker their starters' output would have been well over the 72% that the Silver Stars had (given their playoff starters without Chamique Holdsclaw).
So almost no matter what training camp decisions they make, they will be a deeper team this summer.
Gillom most excited about Hoffman
The player Gillom seemed most excited about was Ebony Hoffman, whom they signed as a free agent from Indiana. Hoffman adds yet another player to the Sparks' roster with post-season experience and among the more versatile forwards in the league.
"Ebony Hoffman was a great pickup for us - her versatility, her leadership, her tenacity - Ebony Hoffman is an All-Star to me," said Gillom. "She's just as good as any player we have on our team and on any given night she can be a go-to player."
However, Hoffman's biggest contribution might be her three point shooting - the Sparks were looking for three point shooting last year, but still finished 8th in the league (33.67%). Hoffman gives them another player who can hit threes at over 30% and that will unquestionably spread the court more for their post players to work.
Paris adds potential depth in the post
If the bench was a weak spot for the Sparks, the post play was probably the fatal flaw, primarily because of their rebounding. The Sparks had a league low 46.2% rebounding percentage last season and, perhaps more importantly, a league-low 23.6% offensive rebounding percentage, which would help explain why their 10.5 second-chance points per game was second lowest in the league.
So the Courtney Paris signing might be among their most intriguing come training camp time.
"Courtney Paris (has) always been a dominant player, we signed her to a training camp contract," said Gillom. "She's been phenomenal in her college career and she's been playing well overseas. She's a big body and that's something that we lacked last year: an inside presence."
Paris' WNBA career might not have gone as well as some might have expected - she was cut by the Chicago Sky last season and questions about her conditioning have always hung over her head. Nevertheless, one thing that did translate successfully from her college career to her rookie year was her rebounding - she was among the best in the league in her rookie year with the since-folded Sacramento Monarchs. If she has continued to develop well as a player and comes into camp able to disprove the lingering concern about conditioning, she could not only make this team but help immensely.
Sparks vastly improve their point guard situation
With a player like re-signed veteran Ticha Penicheiro running point, one might expect that the Sparks would be one of the league's better ball handling teams - Penicheiro was the most efficient point guard in the league with a pure point rating of 8.85 and the Sparks' assist to turnover ratio of 1.26 was third in the league.
However, if there was a problem in the backcourt, it was that Penicheiro was not only their most efficient distributor, but also their only true distributor. Kristi Toliver is more of a pure scorer than distributor. Although Noelle Quinn was an above average ball handler with a pure point rating of 1.53, she also tended to look for scoring opportunities more frequently than the average point guard. And with Betty Lennox missing most of the season due to injury and likely not returning, the Sparks would have been without a strong backup for Penicheiro.
So signing Natasha Lacy and Loree Moore certainly gives the Sparks additional options to look at in training camp. And Moore stands out as a veteran whose experience running point for the New York Liberty before suffering an injury in training camp last year is particularly exciting for Gillom.
"Loree Moore is a veteran in this league who has played a lot of years in New York who has had a good career and we'll hope that she'll come back and continue her success with us," said Gillom. "I always thought a lot of her when she played in New York so I know that she will be a great, great addition to our team."
Moore is also a well-reputed backcourt defender in the league and gives the Sparks another look option to look at in the backcourt. Lacy was turnover-prone in her 18 games with the Shock last year, but still rates as one of the more distributor-minded point guards in the league and had a strong free throw rate of 27.5% in addition to also being another strong defender in the backcourt.
How far can this depth takes the Sparks?
The Sparks' two biggest problems last season were depth and rebounding and they've addressed both in free agency in addition to significantly bolstering their backcourt. And they have Candace Parker coming back. And they have the fifth pick in the draft, which they could easily use to add another rebounder or another versatile forward.
Regardless of which of these new signings makes the final roster or how much we might assume that age might catch up with veterans, at the very least we can say that this Sparks team will be better than last year. But where exactly does that leave them in the Western Conference?
Even if Swin Cash chooses to sign elsewhere, the Seattle Storm are a playoff team. With Diana Taurasi more rested that she's been in years, Phoenix will continue to be a force to reckoned with. And with the likely addition of Maya Moore, another lottery pick, and some combination of trades, it's hard to imagine a scenario where the Minnesota Lynx miss the playoffs again (barring another injury-riddled season). The San Antonio Silver Stars and Tulsa Shock still have time to make moves, but at the moment, the Sparks appear to have the edge talent-wise.
So the Sparks should be a playoff team once again, but how far they go might depend on what their Western Conference opponents accomplish this off-season.