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Sparks go for 500th win against Wings with improved defense

Interim coach Fred Williams finally has this Los Angeles squad excelling on one end of the floor.

Los Angeles Sparks v Dallas Wings Photo by Tim Heitman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Los Angeles Sparks are going for history tonight. The team will attempt to win its 500th overall game against the Dallas Wings, after falling just short when hosting the Las Vegas Aces Monday.

Even though the last season-plus has been a bit of a slog for one of the WNBA’s most successful franchises, the Sparks are still on track to set a momentous first, whether that comes Friday, Sunday, or sometime later in the year. No other organization has collected 500 wins, and the Phoenix Mercury — who also debuted with Los Angeles in 1997 — are closest with 434, per Across the Timeline.

The start of the 2022 season was not befitting one of the league’s glamour franchises, but the Sparks are beginning to turn a corner since parting ways with Derek Fisher and elevating Fred Williams to interim head coach. The offense, perennially a struggle in the Fisher era, is last in the league; however, L.A. is returning to its defensive roots.

“Coach Fred, basically, he says our identity is to be aggressive on defense,” Nneka Ogwumike told Swish Appeal. “And so we kind of have to own that, we have to understand that there’s no rest on the defensive end and just making every little, you know, movement, play, decision just a little bit more difficult. Or a lot more difficult.”

Before the coaching change, the Sparks were last in the league in defensive rating, allowing 107.2 points per 100 possessions, somewhat shocking since they had been a top-three defense each of the last six seasons. Even as offenses have become more efficient, L.A. hasn’t had a defensive rating higher than 98.8 since 2015.

Since Williams became the interim head coach, the Sparks are much improved, if not yet at their previous heights. They’re sixth in the league over the last month with a 101.2 defensive rating. That number is even a bit inflated since it includes two games against the Aces and one against the Sky.

Most importantly, L.A. looks more like itself on the defensive end, in particular the aggressive, flying around, turnover-forcing unit that has existed since defensive assistant Latricia Trammell came aboard in 2019.

One of the catalysts for the team’s improvement has been Brittney Sykes, recently returned to the starting lineup and playing upwards of 30 minutes per game. Sykes is the best Sparks perimeter defender by a significant margin, with all due respect to Jordin Canada and Lexie Brown, and having her intensity on the court to start games is key for L.A.

Sykes’ blocks get the highlights — deservedly so, let’s be clear — but her pressure on the ball challenges opponents throughout the entirety of possessions. She’s a one-woman press, in the words of Mystics coach Mike Thibault; she loves to trap ball-handlers on the sideline; and she fights through screens to disrupt actions, often taking some shots to the ribs in the process. Sykes is never out of a play either, because her quickness and wingspan allow her to recover in the rare event that she does get beat. She’s the team leader in stocks (steals + blocks) and has a knack for creating momentum-changing defensive sequences.

“She’s just a crazy athlete,” Brown says about Sykes. “She has extremely long arms to make those types of plays. And I love being out there with her defensively because it makes me more aggressive cuz I know I got her behind me. And when she’s aggressive, I got her. So having a teammate like that is great.... She makes very timely defensive plays and she’s so valuable for us.”

Even with Sykes back in the starting five, L.A. has plenty of other defensive stalwarts off the bench. Brown and rookie Olivia Nelson-Ododa have the requisite speed to keep up the activity level, but the real star has been Chiney Ogwumike. Ogwumike is the only Spark with a positive net rating (plus-2.6 while L.A. as a whole is minus-6.2), and much of that value comes on the defensive end.

Ogwumike has improved her mobility throughout her career, an impressive feat especially considering her injury history, and that makes her a natural frontcourt partner with any of the team’s other three bigs. She can switch out onto the perimeter or protect the rim, all while speeding up the opponent with her almost frenetic movement. This is the best rebounding season of her career as well, a necessity on a Sparks team that tends to struggle on the glass.

Much improvement remains for a squad that still sits at 10th in the league standings, but the growth trajectory is visible and it feels sustainable considering L.A.’s recent success as a defensive unit. The team’s fourth-quarter performance against Seattle, holding the Storm to nine points in the final ten minutes on their home floor to secure the win, feels like a watershed moment for this group. The Sparks didn’t really have any marquee road victories in the Fisher; perhaps beating a healthy Seattle team could be a turning point.

After pushing the Aces in the next game, even if it was a loss, winning against the Wings would help conserve the momentum that L.A. is building. And meeting a historical benchmark would be a powerful reminder of what this franchise has achieved and what it is still capable of.