One piece of the puzzle at a time, things are falling into place in Los Angeles.
First came coach Carol Ross, who restored order to a franchise that had lost its way. Then came Nneka Ogwumike in the draft, the Rookie of the Year who is the prototypical WNBA power forward. And then this year, the Sparks added point guard Lindsey Harding, which shifted and shuffled the roster into an even stronger alignment.
The Sparks still lack a real back-to-the-basket center, but they’ll just have to make do with Candace Parker, merely one of the best players in the world.
One big question, though, is the health of wing Alana Beard, who has yet to play in preseason. Word is that she’s just being rested so she’ll be ready for the regular season, but there are rumblings she won’t be playing much at all in the early part of the summer.
But what really matters in L.A. is what happens in September, because this Sparks’ team has a legitimate shot at a WNBA title. Of course, they need good health, and a little luck, but with their offensive firepower and just enough defense, they have nothing to fear from anyone.
Point guard: Lindsey Harding, A'dia Mathies
The Sparks had two serious weaknesses last year, and addressed one of them with the addition of Lindsey Harding, who came over from Atlanta as a free agent. Harding might not be an elite WNBA point guard, but she’s very close – 1.7 A/TO, 11.2 ppg scorer, though lacking in shooting range. Last year’s sometime point guard, Kristi Toliver, can play a few minutes there, and there’s hope that first-round pick A’dia Mathies can run things, but she had only 80 assists in 1,081 minutes at Kentucky so clearly she doesn’t, or at least didn’t, have a get-everyone-involved mentality. Still, L.A. is way ahead of last year, and Harding could easily boost the games of all the returners even if she doesn’t score much herself.
Shooting guard: Kristi Toliver, Jenna O'Hea
The only problem with a Lindsey Harding-Kristi Toliver backcourt is size: Toliver is generously listed at 5-7, and though Harding may be 5-8, she’s still not a great matchup for tall two guards. Toliver, though, isn’t really a great matchup for anyone, at either end of the floor. The cold-blooded shooter has great range and no conscience, which makes her hard to guard, but her relatively slow feet make it hard for her to stay in front of quick opponents. Mathies can also play here, but she too isn’t that tall (5-9), which means Jenna O’Hea, at 6-1, may have to play more defense than her resume suggests she ought to. But O’Hea, like everyone else, can score, so even if the Sparks give up a few more points here than Ross would like, they’re going to still come out ahead.
Small forward: Alana Beard, Marissa Coleman
If Alana Beard is healthy, she can definitely defend on the perimeter, and though she’s not the 6-1 the roster has her listed at, she’s tall enough to take on the Diana Taurasis of the world – that is, if she’s healthy. Beard’s career has been marred by injury, and her days of 30 minutes a game seem long gone. That means Jenna O’Hea and Marissa Coleman will get minutes here, though Coleman has shown little in her WNBA career to suggest she can play at the level the Sparks need to fulfill her potential.
Power forward: Nneka Ogwumike, Ebony Hoffman, Farhiya Abdi, Candace Parker
Nneka Ogwumike was the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, and she lived up to every expectation – and conceivably could have done more if the Sparks had ever run a play for her. As it was, she got her 14.0 ppg pretty much on her own, though with Harding running the show, Ogwumike might get more touches. Even if she doesn’t, she’s a beast, and she’s likely to play more than the 27.8 mpg she did last year. Why? Behind her are the aging, if not fading, Ebony Hoffman and untested Swedish rookie Farhiya Abdi. Sure, Candace Parker really belongs at power forward, but L.A. needs both on the floor as much as possible, and Parker is much more versatile.
Center: Candace Parker, Jantel Lavender
Though Candace Parker is an extremely skilled and versatile player, she’s really not a center – and if the Sparks need muscle, they’ll have to call on Jantel Lavender. There’s nothing really wrong with the 6-4 Lavender, but there’s nothing really right either, and she’s not good enough for Ross to contemplate playing her, Parker and Ogwumike at the same time. Parker will get her points, rebounds and blocks no matter where she plays, and she’ll be fine defensively against most posts in the league, but this second hole in the Sparks’ roster has yet to be filled. Of course, fans of other teams are happy that it remains a missing link, because if it weren’t, L.A. would be all but unbeatable.