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WNBA 2019 Team Preview: In acquiring Chiney Ogwumike, the Los Angeles Sparks (#6) are preparing to win now

The Sparks figure to remain one of the WNBA’s top teams heading into the 2019 season. However, are they just a bit too frontcourt-heavy?

2019 NBA All-Star Celebrity Game - Arrivals
The Sparks picked up a frontcourt weapon when they acquired forward and ESPN broadcaster Chiney Ogwumike over the weekend. Questions remain about the team’s backcourt.
Photo by Jeff Hahne/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Sparks finished the 2018 WNBA season sixth in the standings behind a 19-15 regular-season record. Though they were able to defeat the Minnesota Lynx in their first-round playoff matchup, the Sparks were blown out by the Washington Mystics in the second.

Leading up to the start of the 2019 season, the Sparks made significant changes while keeping their star frontcourt duo of Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike. Head Coach Brian Agler left the Sparks and joined the Dallas Wings. Derek Fisher replaced Agler as L.A.’s new head coach. Over the weekend, Chiney Ogwumike, Nneka’s younger sister, was acquired from the Connecticut Sun for a 2020 first-round draft pick.

Given the Sparks’ strengths and moves, are they primed to return to the WNBA Finals after an early exit last season? With Chelsea Gray still unsigned, does the team have enough backcourt weapons to complement its frontcourt weapons?

Season outlook: The Los Angeles Sparks in 2019

Familiar faces

The Sparks’ success depends on the chemistry of their frontcourt. Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike form the franchise’s duo down low. Veteran center Jantel Lavender and 2019 rookie Maria Vadeeva also return.

In the backcourt, two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year Alana Beard returns, but Chelsea Gray remains unsigned.

Notable newbies

In February, Los Angeles signed Tierra Ruffin-Pratt in free agency. Ruffin-Pratt will be a strong perimeter defensive presence for L.A. and give Beard additional time to rest since she will be 37 later this year.

The Sparks made a couple of trades as well. The team acquired Alexis Jones from the Minnesota Lynx in exchange for Odyssey Sims on April 22. And on April 27, the Sparks acquired Chiney Ogwumike from the Connecticut Sun in exchange for a 2020 first-round draft pick.

In the 2019 WNBA Draft, the Sparks drafted Baylor center Kalani Brown seventh overall, Notre Dame guard Marina Mabrey 19th overall and Spanish guard Ángela Salvadores 31st overall.

Biggest obstacles

Here are the biggest challenges the Sparks face this season:

  1. Is there another trade coming? The Sparks have many frontcourt players who are worthy rotation players but they haven’t added significant firepower to their backcourt. Parker could play as a guard if need be, but Los Angeles is rumored to be in negotiations to trade for Liz Cambage from the Dallas Wings. So, are some of the Sparks’ newest frontcourt additions just part of a package to acquire Cambage this summer?
  2. Do the Sparks have enough firepower on the perimeter if they cannot re-sign anyone else? There is no guarantee Cambage will come to L.A. If this ends up being the case, can Beard and Ruffin-Pratt hold the fort on the perimeter for at least one season? Ruffin-Pratt, in particular, hasn’t been a reliable shooter, while Beard will turn 37 later this year.
  3. How well can Derek Fisher manage a potentially unbalanced team? With Chelsea Gray’s status unclear — and Odyssey Sims and Essence Carson signing with the Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury in free agency, respectively — the team is frontcourt-heavy and backcourt-limited. Fisher comes to L.A. with a team that arguably has the most frontcourt talent in the WNBA. However, he must find a way to mask the team’s lack of backcourt depth, at least until a trade brings more guards to L.A. Finally, this is Fisher’s first year in the WNBA. Can he — a former guard in the NBA — adequately utilize a frontcourt-heavy rotation if that’s the hand he’s dealt?
  4. Can all the frontcourt players stay happy with fewer minutes? The Sparks have made multiple moves to shore up the frontcourt in the draft and free agency. But the rotation could be too deep to the point where stars could be unhappy with less playing time, especially if the Sparks aren’t winning consistently.

Game zone

Preseason opener

Los Angeles Sparks vs. Phoenix Mercury

When: Saturday, May 11, at 10 p.m. ET

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, AZ

How to watch: To be determined

Notes: Preseason games are more about determining rotations and which reserve players will make the team than about how the stars fit. For Los Angeles, this may be a bit different because All-Star forward Chiney Ogwumike is joining a frontcourt that already includes her older sister Nneka, Candace Parker and Jantel Lavender. If that wasn’t enough, rookie Kalani Brown is looking for minutes as well.

Season home opener

Los Angeles Sparks vs. Connecticut Sun

When: Saturday, May 31, at 10:30 p.m. ET

Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA

How to watch: WNBA League Pass, additional networks to be determined

Notes: This is the Sparks’ second game and Chiney Ogwumike won’t wait long for a reunion with her former team. This match is in L.A., so she won’t get push-back from opposing fans. But it will be interesting to see how she will fare against the Sun’s frontcourt rotation which includes Jonquel Jones and Brionna Jones.

Marquee matchup

Los Angeles Sparks vs. Washington Mystics

When: Tuesday, June 18, at 10:30 p.m. ET

Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA

How to watch: CBS Sports Network

Notes: This is a rematch of the Sparks’ last game of the 2018 postseason; they were blown out by Washington, 96-64. Washington has a strong frontcourt in Elena Delle Donne and LaToya Sanders which makes this match a must-see already. But if Emma Meesseman hasn’t reported to Europe for Women’s EuroBasket training, this game will be even more anticipated than before.