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Spotlight: Phillips, Toliver boosting Sparks offense

The Los Angeles Sparks opened the 2015 season with 7 straight losses, tying a franchise-record. But that was when they did not have enough tools to solve the puzzle. With Erin Phillips and Kristi Toliver back in action, the Sparks' offense looks revitalized. They are .500 so far in July, and expect the team to be even more competitive in the next weeks.

Photo by Juan Ocampo, Getty Images NBAE

For the Sparks, there was simply no way you can solve a puzzle when you have missing pieces. They opened the 2015 season without Nneka Ogwumike, Kristi Toliver, Erin Phillips, and Candace Parker, and struggled to find the perfect combination on the floor as the team went 0-7 in June, tying a franchise record for worst start in a season.

Jantel Lavender was the best scoring option during that stretch where Toliver, Ogwumike, and Phillips were out. Farhiya Abdi and Jennifer Lacy played the small forward positions while Temeka Johnson was the main playmaker.

Ogwumike returned, but still, the Sparks did not have enough shot creators on the floor. Abdi and Lacy are excellent catch and shoot options but lack the ability to create for other teammates. And while Johnson did a great job while the starting backcourt was out, she could only do so much.

Without their usual backcourt players, Ogwumike and Lavender were forced to hold the leather away from the rim (usually the high post), and it took away their penchant for moving well without the ball.

These instances would result in isolation plays or either of the two hitting the other one with an entry pass underneath. However, it was not enough a tactic to lure the defenders out and spread the floor.

The Sparks still lacked a creator and some shooters to complement their bigs. Luckily for them, Toliver finally made her debut after a tour of duty for the Slovak Republic in the EuroBasket Women 2015.

The Sparks were 0-6, and she quickly changed the offense with her ability to hit from anywhere on the court and create shots for her teammates. Then Erin Phillips joined the fray, and things went well for the Sparks.

The return of the guards supercharged the Sparks' offense as Agler now enjoyed having the right pieces to run the system. Toliver can simply create her own shot, e.g. pulling up off the dribble or off a ball-screen, or shooting a three coming from a pass.

Phillips led the league in three-point shooting last year with 44.9 percent, and remains deadly from beyond the arc. With the two facilitating, Temeka Johnson started play more off the ball, and presented herself as a catch-and-shoot option after drive-and-kicks from the Sparks.

Enter Ogwumike and Lavender. Now the bigs do not have to handle the ball, and instead can concentrate on setting screens and rolling to the basket. That way, it creates space for the Sparks as their defenders should also be wary of Toliver and Phillips who are both threats from the outside.

Here are some shots of the Sparks' revitalized offense, which now features space and more outside threats.


Here, Toliver drives after seeing an opening. Notice that Phillips (right corner), Andrea Hoover (right wing), and the two bigs are all outside the paint, and it is drawing the defenders out of the shaded area. We will see more of that space below.


Here is a drive to the basket by Toliver after a backscreen by Ogwumike near the left elbow, and because the two are again surrounded by floor-spacers and Jantel Lavender on the weak side (a threat Courtney Paris cannot simply leave), Toliver gets an open lane and scores a layup.


Toliver, as I've said, can create her own shot -- something the Sparks were missing without her. Here, she pulls up after a pick given by Lavender. Brianna Kiesel went under the screen, and her recovery is late.


Here's an isolation in the dying moments of the Sparks' win over the Tulsa Shock. A simple high screen after Toliver asked for it lures Plenette Pierson out of the paint, and once again, there is an open lane for Toliver. She pulled up for a 13-footer in this play, giving her squad a 3-point lead.


Here, it's Phillips' time to facilitate. She calls a pick and roll with Ogwumike; Brittney Griner is way out of position, and gives Ogwumike an easy path to the basket after a pocket pass by Phillips.


Here's another pick and roll play. After Toliver gets double-teamed, Ogwumike is wide open. The latter drives to the basket for an easy bucket.

The Sparks also realized that in order for a 3-big roster to be effective, it should be either Ogwumike or Lavender setting the ball screens on top of the key, while Marianna Tolo cuts to the basket effectively when the defense commits after the pick and roll. They did this strategy in the final minutes of their win over the San Antonio Stars where they closed the game on an 11-6 run.

I do not have the net ratings, but I did a little raw on and off with the play-by-play data. The Sparks are 2-2 in their last 4 games, and they are outscoring opponents by 7.3 points/game when a combination of Toliver, Phillips, two bigs (Lavender, Ogwumike, Tolo, Hamson), and a small (Lacy, Johnson, Andrea Hoover, Jasmine Lister) is on the floor.

Stats-wise, the return of Phillips and Toliver have helped the Sparks shoot better from the outside. The team was only 31.3 percent from the three-point area in June (0-7), but are now shooting 38.1 percent in July (2-2). The presence of more ball handlers also reduced the Sparks' turnovers from 13.3/game in June to only 9.5/game in July.

The Sparks' offensive rating also spiked from 89.7 points per 100 possessions in their first seven games to a whopping 111.6 per 100 in their last 4.

Toliver is averaging 22.8 points/game and 5.6 assists/games in 5 stints this season, while Phillips is adding 9 points/game and 3.9 assists/game.

Ray Floriani wrote earlier that the Sparks will be dangerous in the weeks to come even after going 0-7, and they are slowly solving the riddle. Also, Los Angeles is doing it even without Parker, Abdi, and Beard. With the cohesion they are building, this team will definitely rise in the future.