Los Angeles Sparks fans got up close and personal with a tumultuous season, shortly after having to question whether they'd even continue to have a team in LA.
Veteran additions were supposed to push this disappointing Sparks team over the top. A coaching change, lineup shuffling and missed time all played a role but the Sparks still have to feel like they have second life in an otherwise disappointing season.
Strengths: Transition scoring
Even considering the mediocre season the Sparks have had, they're still one of the most talented teams in the league on paper. Gruda/Wiggins/Herrington all provide quality minutes, Lindsay Harding was once a starter on playoff teams, even Farhiya Abdi is a young stud overseas. They haven't produced to expectations but the talent is there and opportunities will be aplenty.
The Sparks best offense is dependent on their defense. Having led the league in points off turnovers per game (19.1) the Sparks will need to manufacture buckets in the best way possible. The game tends to slow down and coaches work to limit possessions in the postseason so relying on their opponents to turn the ball over could prove to be their doom considering every team is elite from here on out for the Sparks as the fourth seed in the West.
Weaknesses: A lack of dominant strengths
The Sparks strengths may not sound like the greatest strengths but it's because there aren't many to begin with. Besides on paper, the Sparks just didn't perform as an elite team this season. Scrolling through league stats, you'll regularly find the Sparks at league average in nearly every category. When you think Sparks, nothing in particular stands out; or at least, nothing positive. This team doesn't do any one thing really well and goes into the playoffs with no real identity even after a full 34-game season.
MVP: Candace Parker
Everything for the Sparks begins and ends with CP3. The face of the franchise seemingly from day one, the pressure is on for Parker to produce something other than individual accolades.
Los Angeles is a proud city and are used to their purple and gold basketballers competing at the highest level (at least with Dr Buss right?) and a former LA champion, Magic Johnson, is now part of the ownership group and will want a winner. This postseason's performance could mean a lot more to Parker than any other year as decisions by the ownership group will likely begin as soon as the Sparks' season ends. Personnel moves are highly likely and I've said on several occasions that Candace Parker is part of the problem (does everything well, but no one thing great. Do we have a running theme here?) and her value on the trading block could offer the best return for the Sparks.
X-Factor: Kristi Toliver
The best three point threat and ball-handler for the Sparks can make life simple for LA or miserable. When she's on, she's one of the best shooters in the world and can hit shots from all over but when she's off, it's bad. It leaks over into her facial expressions and mood and she tends to fade on the offensive end and that's something the Sparks CANNOT allow. Starting the big frontcourt requires that guards hit shots to space the floor and Toliver is option #1. She won the final Player of the Week award of the season after having an underwhelming (seeing a theme here as well) return on an All-Star performance in 2013, so if that's a sign of what's to come for Toliver, LA leaps back into contention.
Synopsis: A clean slate
The Sparks, led by interim head coach and GM Penny Toler, will want to wipe the slate completely clean. The uncertainty that was the Sparks offseason, coaching change and the constant lineup shuffling are enough to rattle even the most focused of stars but considering this is still a crew of relatively unproven playoff performers, the Sparks may be in trouble. Entering another offseason of uncertainty, likely without a playoff win, could be damning for the organization and what's left of the current regime.
Considering the venue and the new ownership group, the Sparks may want to grab the phone. Ogwumike is a potential brand name now that Chiney has joined sister Nneka in the pros. The WNBA threw a hint by having the sisters share the WNBA Community Assist award plaque even though both their names were listed. -- You've got half the job done Penny! Make it happen!
Penny Toler DID do a fantastic job of bringing in some of the best available talent; but as mentioned by Nate and I here on several occasions, the pieces never really seemed to add up. The team has completely lost confidence in Lindsey Harding's ability to run the team and it'll be interesting to see if they take chances at allowing her to play and try to find a rhythm or if they call it quits and take a chance without the vet in the rotation while she sends text messages about offseason moves at the end of the bench. (That's probably illegal but, still..)
L.A. can take solace in the fact that they're one of the group of teams with a ceiling that includes a chance to win a WNBA championship and could still do so by getting hot now. The Sparks allowed themselves to crawl deeper in the hole to start as they'll be on the road in both of their potential Western Conference series but the Sparks road record (9-8) proved better than their home mark (7-10) so if any team has a chance, it could be LA.