The Los Angeles Sparks had title expectations heading into the 2020 season. With an already star-studded roster and the addition of All-Star guard Kristi Toliver, the team was tied with the Las Vegas Aces as a favorite to win it all this fall.
The WNBA season — which was scheduled to start May 15 —has not proceeded as planned due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, despite the changes to the season and two key players opting out, title hopes for Los Angeles persist.
The Sparks are set to open their season on July 25 against the Phoenix Mercury at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. This will be the first of the 22-game regular season, the entirety of which will be played at the IMG Academy. Much like the NBA, the WNBA set up a “bubble” in order to keep players safe from the spread of COVID-19.
The Sparks lose two notable players in forward Chiney Ogwumike and Toliver, who both opted out of the season for health concerns.
“Though I want very much to compete with my team, to be a leader and show up for them, I am not comfortable with the risk to my physical health — short-term and long-term — given the many unknowns of COVID-19 and the risk of injury,” said Toliver in a statement on the team’s website.
Ogwumike decided to opt out due to concern about injuries, which have already plagued her early on in her career.
“My previous injuries have given me strength and built character, but unfortunately they require me to be careful with my preparation leading up to a season,” Ogwumike said. “This year is unprecedented in many ways, therefore my team and I have come to the decision to be proactively cautious and put my body first.”
Additionally, 2018 first-round pick Maria Vadeeva will not be with the team this season because she has decided to remain in her home country, Russia.
The loss of these three players will certainly hurt the Sparks’ depth, but the team still has an excellent group in place, led by former MVP forward Candace Parker and All-Stars guard Chelsea Gray and forward Nneka Ogwumike.
“We were able to pick up a couple of, I don’t want to call them replacement players, but players that were available to us when Kristi and Chiney opted out,” head coach Derek Fisher told the Los Angeles Times. “Te’a Cooper and Reshanda Gray, they have been great with our group.”
There will also be an increased role for former MVP and four-time WNBA champion guard Seimone Augustus. She will provide additional veteran leadership and bring plenty of championship experience to the team.
While these three role players will need to play meaningful minutes, the season will likely come down to the health and production of Parker.
Parker missed 12 games last season, and when she was on the court she averaged 11.2 points per game, a significant decrease from her career average of 17. If Parker can return to her previous form in the bubble, the Sparks will likely have success on the court.
While many players have doubts about playing in a bubble, Parker sees it as a positive.
“We’re not traveling,” Parker told SB Nation. “We’re not gonna have to recover on a flight after a back-to-back. We’re not gonna have to get up early and travel.”
Head coach Derek Fisher enters his second season with Los Angeles in 2020.
His first year with the Sparks was successful; however, questions were raised about his relationship with his players during the playoffs. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported that going into Game 3, an elimination game for the Sparks, Parker and Ogwumike offered a change to the game plan. Fisher responded by blaming the loss on Parker.
Fisher played Parker only 11 minutes in the losing effort, a move that multiple players believed was “premeditated.”
The tension between the star player and the head coach will certainly be a focus in the Sparks’ first few games, as spectators will try to see if they have moved past it for the good of the team.
If Fisher is on the same page with his players and Gray and Ogwumike can remain healthy, the Sparks should be in position to bring a title back to Los Angeles. They start their campaign Saturday in their face-off against the Phoenix Mercury at noon.