The buzzword for the Los Angeles Sparks since the time they signed forward Eboni Hoffman as a free agent back in February has been versatility.
"Compared to last year we just have more versatility," said coach Jennifer Gillom in a February interview with Swish Appeal. "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."
While adding that versatility to the roster is certainly valuable after a 13-21 season, having a healthy Parker back in the rotation is arguably the single-most exciting reason for optimism for Sparks fans, as already noted by James Bowman in his 2011 WNBA Western Conference preview.
However, perhaps even more intriguing than the new additions or Parker's return, is what the Sparks did last season during Parker's absence - they were 10-14 without Parker and went 5-3 in August including winning 3 of 4 before suffering expected losses to the Seattle Storm during their regular season finale and first round playoff series. Point guard Ticha Penicheiro averaged 10.8 assists in August, forward Tina Thompson played like a MVP candidate in the minds of some, and Noelle Quinn got more efficient as a distributor.
It would be easy to look at the Sparks' August performance and dismiss it as the result of a light schedule - they beat the league-worst Tulsa Shock twice, the limping Minnesota Lynx twice, and the Eastern Conference's last place Chicago Sky. That's not exactly a murderers row by 2010 standards.
But what matters more than the outcomes in August is the way they played.
The Sparks visited the Storm for their third game of the season with Parker and in their regular season finale without Parker, which gave the Storm as good a perspective as anyone on the Sparks' development even before their playoff meeting.
And the team that visited Seattle at the end of the regular season was noticeably different.
With Parker out of the lineup and the team forced to look for other ways to create offense, the biggest difference was their ball movement. Rather than stagnantly looking for three pointers and relying on one on one play, the Sparks were reversing the ball quickly, coming around ball screens, cutting to the basket, and getting shooters open for good looks. With Penicheiro seemingly in command of everything happening on the court, the Sparks did an outstanding job of attacking gaps after the Storm rotated on defense.
Part of that offensive fluidity was the simple principle of taking advantage of what the defense gives you, but another part of it is changing the way the ball moves around offensively.
"I've watched how that team has matured and sort of come together over the course of the year," said Storm coach Brian Agler after the regular season finale last August. "They're starting to play through Ticha and Tina and DeLisha. And everybody else is saying, ‘I'm gonna space out here. If I get a shot, I'm going to take it. If not, then fine. I'm good with it.' Whereas I think early in the year they had Candace Parker and went through her and DeLisha and Tina weren't quite as big a factor in their offense like they are now.
"Now was that the right thing to do then? Probably so. But the dynamics have changed now and I think their role players are playing more to their roles than they were earlier because I think sometimes some of their players were trying to do a little bit too much. When they do too much, that means the stars aren't getting the basketball. Well they're playing through their stars right now."
When Parker went down, it was clear that the Sparks would need to move the ball more in order to have any sort of success going forward. The necessary improvement in their offensive fluidity combined with presumably increased comfort with first-year coach Jennifer Gillom's expectations is a prime example of a team forming chemistry over the course of a season.
This is not to say Parker was preventing chemistry - between time needed for the new pieces to come together and Penicheiro not being healthy early in the season, their late-season success was more a matter of them finally figuring out what worked. Nevertheless, with the same core from August returning, their late-season push also tells us something about the type of chemistry they'll need to be successful this year.
(For background on the statistics and thinking informing these questions and their answers, click here)
1. How balanced are the Sparks?
For whatever focus there was on improved ball movement late in the season, the Sparks had some major weaknesses. First, if nothing else, Penicheiro's early-season injury showed that they really didn't have an effective second option at point guard. Second, they were not a particularly good three point shooting team, which means that even if they were more fluid offensively they weren't necessarily able to stretch the defense much. But third, and most importantly, the Sparks were not a good rebounding team to say the least.
Los Angeles Sparks' Free Agent Signings Add Depth After A Season Without Candace Parker - Swish Appeal
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.
To summarize the Sparks' off-season, they addressed all those needs. Unfortunately, they also announced today that point guard Loree Moore will not play this season, which leaves Natasha Lacy as the free agent option to help improve that position. But one promising addition through the draft is Jantel Lavender, who might add an interior scorer which would make this offense even more dynamic.
Yet what's still a question mark, even with Parker returning, is how much they've improved their rebounding - they still don't have many players who are strong rebounders relative to their position.
2. How well do these players complement each other?
Adding Ebony Hoffman added versatility, but the fact that she's a forward who can hit threes but isn't a high usage player makes her a nice complement to players like Thompson, Parker, and Milton-Jones who all use more possessions than average for their style of play.
Last year with Parker, they'd often try to spread the court with Parker operating alone in the paint with four players out on the perimeter surrounding her. If the team continues to be most effective with Penicheiro on the floor, having one more three point threat to have on the court with her gives them a few more options. Then again, if this team is best with players in motion, there's no reason why Parker couldn't fit into that as a versatile player herself with role players able to hit shots when necessary from the perimeter and interior.
3. Which players might improve from last year?
Something else that might help the Sparks' rebounding is Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton, who is a promising offensive rebounder and had a valuable contributions ratio of 1.06, which is above average among interior-oriented players. Her minutes more than doubled last year and she got even more efficient, which bodes well for further improvement in an area that the Sparks need help with.
Another very intriguing player is Natasha Lacy, who was erratic last season with Tulsa but could help fill that point guard void as someone with the fourth-highest valuable contributions ratio of any distributor in the league.
4. How might new additions reinforce strengths and bolster areas of weakness?
Click here for the February interview with Jennifer Gillom.
WNBA Draft 2011 Prospect Capsule: Jantel Lavender – "It’s Great To See Your Hard Work Pay Off"
More on Lavender in our ranking of 2011 WNBA Draft center prospects.
5. How well does the Sparks' personnel fit their optimal style of play?
If the Sparks continue to play as they did in August, there's no reason to imagine that the new personnel won't help - they didn't just add random talent, but filled gaping holes in their roster with rebounding and depth. Even with Moore now out of the mix to make the roster, it would be surprising if this team didn't improve quite a bit this year.
But with all the new pieces and Parker returning, there's also a considerable coaching challenge for Gillom - not only bringing all these pieces into a coherent whole and maximizing the talent they have, but also figuring out how to make sure that the team continues spread around the touches even with Parker on the court.