“Skin in the Game” is a column by Joe Skinner about L.A. basketball.
With the WNBA conference finals in full swing, one team has been noticeably absent from this year’s playoffs: the Los Angeles Sparks.
The Sparks had an opportunity to clinch the eighth seed in their last game of the season but lost to the Dallas Wings by just three points. As one of the league’s original franchises, the Sparks have a 25-year history during which they have only missed the playoffs five times. This is the first time they’ve failed to compete in the postseason since 2011.
There were many factors that contributed to the team’s frustrating 2021 campaign.
The departure of all-time great Candace Parker last offseason was a significant loss for the team as she went on to have an All-Star season in Chicago. The roster continued to suffer as promising rookie Jasmine Walker along with veterans Kristi Toliver and Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike — each of whom have been All-Stars in their own rights — missed significant stretches of the season due to injury.
There was also some underwhelming production among the players that did remain healthy. Walker’s fellow rookie, No. 22 overall pick Arella Guirantes, appeared in 25 games but totaled just 79 points on 27% shooting and 22% from three. As a guard, a lack of scoring ability can be supplemented by playmaking, but Guirantes struggled in that area as well, tallying just 15 assists for the season.
This was surprising considering her impressive college career at Rutgers where she averaged 21.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game in her senior year, not to mention the long list of awards and accolades she earned. With another four seasons on her contract, Sparks fans hope that Guirantes will be able to make the most of her early career in the WNBA.
While the organization dealt with the challenges of a departed star player, a litany of injuries and a struggling rookie, they had to overcome certain obstacles off the court as well.
As the Clippers’ playoff run continued into late June, Staples Center’s usual midsummer tenants were pushed elsewhere. In the case of the Sparks, elsewhere was the Los Angeles Convention Center.
The LACC worked fine for spectators who prefer metal bleacher seating over the cushioned individual seats of Staples Center, but it did not provide the same home-court advantage of the Sparks’ true home arena. The team went just 4-7 in their first 11 home games — all of which took place at the Convention Center — then went 4-1 at home when they were able to return to Staples after the Olympic break. With such a drastic change, it’s fair to wonder whether the Sparks might have secured a playoff spot had they enjoyed a true home-court advantage for the entire season.
Despite the frustrating year, there were some bright spots worth noting.
New addition Erika Wheeler shined as she set her career-best averages in points, rebounds and blocks per game. Her assists, steals and shooting percentage numbers weren’t far behind her bests in previous years, either.
Another key contributor was fellow new addition Amanda Zahui B. While she didn’t have a career year quite to the level of Wheeler, her 3-point shooting ability at the center position brought a unique dynamic to the team. She made just 28% of her 3-point attempts this season (down from her career average of 31%) but managed to hit at a high enough clip to force defenses to respect her shooting ability from anywhere on the court.
Head coach Derek Fisher — who also became the team’s general manager last December — made use of this throughout the season. Without a center and her defender clogging up the paint, athletic slashers like Wheeler and Brittney Sykes were able to get easier points at the rim. Sykes — despite being a guard — grabbed the most offensive rebounds of anyone on the team thanks to her speed, impressive leaping ability and the open paint space left by Zahui B.
Another reason for Sparks fans to be optimistic was the development of Te’a Cooper. Though her offensive efficiency declined slightly this season, the second-year guard played nearly twice as many minutes as she did in her rookie season and earned an improved defensive rating. That experience will be valuable as Cooper is likely to see a diminished role and fewer minutes when Toliver returns to full health next season.
For the Sparks, 2021 was a bit of a roller coaster. It featured a less-than-ideal forced venue change, a series of unfortunate injuries and an incredibly frustrating conclusion to an incredibly frustrating season. But it also featured signs of hope for the future.
The 2022 season will include whatever new talent Fisher signs in free agency, further development from the team’s young players, the hopeful returns of Chiney Ogwumike and Walker from injury and another chance to compete for a WNBA title.
“Skin in the Game” typically runs Wednesdays.