It was a season of losses. But it was more wins than last year. It was again missing the playoffs. But there were career highs for individuals. There also was hope and progress. But it also was the lowest point in the franchise's 27-year history.
Here's what went right, what went wrong and what's next for the Los Angeles Sparks:
What went right?
Individually, many players were in their prime this season. Jordin Canada came into camp with no promise of making the team and turned that into the starting point guard job and a career year. She averaged 13.3 points, 3.1 rebounds and six assists per game. Her 2.3 steals per game is just one statistical indicator of her greatness on the defensive side of the ball. Canada’s ability to apply ball pressure, fight off screens and wreak havoc on her opponents is why she was named to the All-Defensive First Team.
Nneka Ogwumike is already a living legend and icon in this league. In year 12, she has reached the top of her profession, averaging 19.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.7 rebounds this season. She was not just the team's best player—she had one of her best seasons ever. Ogwumike made the All-Star team and was selected to the All-Defensive Second Team. Canada may have initiated the offense, but everything was about Nneka. Whether it was feeding her an entry pass, giving her the ball in a horns set, rotating an action so she could re-position herself and fight off a defender. The team went where Nneka went and defenses struggled to contain her. In a season riddled with disappointment, Ogwumike was a bright spot.
Dearica Hamby wasn't even supposed to be here. "We were going to be happy if she joined us at the All-Star break,” head coach Curt Miller said during his exit interview. She was not only available before the All-Star break, but she played in every game. It is a feat no other player accomplished for the Sparks. Her numbers don't jump off the page, but, given her contentious ending in Las Vegas and the fact she gave birth this winter, such a quick return was unexpected and seemed unrealistic. However, Hamby is a superwoman and superathlete, and next season she's on a mission to remind everyone she's an All-Star. "I'm gonna have a big board in my room that says, ‘I'm still an All-Star,’” Hamby told the media during her exit interview.
What went wrong?
To have a championship season, you need two things: skill and luck. The talent must be good enough to rival any opponent and then the breaks must go your way. From 50-50 balls to officiating to injuries, the odds have to tilt just right for it to lead to a banner hanging in your arena. Even in the best case scenario, this Sparks team could not have competed with the New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces in a playoff series. But it's clear we never got to see this team's full potential due to injuries decimating the roster.
Chiney Ogwumike played in just ten games. Lexie Brown, the Sparks starter and 3-point sniper, only played in 12 due to a bacterial infection. Layshia Clarendon, LA’s other starting guard, missed 16 games.
With all these key players unavailable, Miller had to scramble to find the best options. LA rolled out 18 different starting lineups, tying the WNBA record for a single season. That's a stat you want to stay far away from.
It's hard to speculate how good a healthy Sparks team would've been, given we never saw it. However, even from an optimistic perspective, you can see this team still had struggles, especially offensively. The Sparks had an offensive rating of 98, third lowest in the W. They were often too reliant on their bigs. With the league having so many talented forwards and centers, Ogwumike, Hamby and Azurá Stevens had long days at the office with defenses collapsing on them and daring the Sparks guards to shoot. That usually was a good gamble, given LA’s apprehension to even take the 3 (19.2 3-point shots per game, second-lowest attempt rate) and their lack of execution on the shot (33.3 percent from 3, fourth-lowest percentage). Maybe the return of Brown and Samuelson magically fixes this, but color me skeptical. Guard play needs to improve, and running actions to put those guards in a better position would help. If not, LA will once again be in a lot of dog fights, scratching and clawing to score enough to keep up with the league's most high-powered offenses.
With no more basketball to play, it's time for general manager Karen Bryant to focus on the draft. With a lottery pick and a draft class that is primed to be one of the best in years, picking up a top prospect could expedite this process and put the Sparks back to being a top-four team and a championship contender.
Free agency and retaining the right players will also be vital to reshaping this Sparks team. Key players like the Ogwumike sisters, Canada and Samuelson are unrestricted free agents, meaning Los Angeles has to either re-commit to these players or find starters, and essentially All-Star-caliber players, to replace them.
The good news is LA has plenty of roster spots (up to six) and cap space (approximately $759,799) to make the necessary moves to bring this franchise back to its winning ways.
Year one of the Bryant-Miller era was a mixed bag. Year two will have more expectations, scrutiny and no grace for missing the playoffs for a fourth-straight time. That cannot happen. Los Angeles is a city of champions—if you're not winning, you're not trying. And if you're not trying, the fans will let you hear it with their absence from the stadium, their jeers on social media and a call for new management. I'm optimistic 2024 will be a better season in SoCal than 2023. It better be, or another upheaval will be underway.
Win or lose, one thing is certain, LA is never boring.