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L.A. Sparks offseason preview: Should the team run it back, or shake things up?

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Cap concerns are starting to pile up as the Sparks look to win now around Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray.

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The Los Angeles Sparks have big decisions to make as they prepare for the offseason and shape their team for the 2019 WNBA season following their ouster in the second round of the playoffs at the hands of the Washington Mystics.

Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike are under contract through 2020, and head coach Brian Agler was inked to a multi-year contract extension last fall. The biggest question facing GM Penny Toler: What needs to be done to put the Sparks in position to compete for another championship in 2019?

“I think it comes down to this. We did this to ourselves. Teams that got rest, they took care of business. We didn’t,” Parker said following the team’s second round loss to Washington. “We did it to ourselves. We weren’t able to fix everything in this last game to get back to the semis. But I’m not, obviously, done with this. I think there’s a lot we can learn from this. We’ve learned a lot from winning and we can learn equally as much from this season. You can’t wait until the last minute to take care of stuff.”

The Sparks arrived home before sunrise August 20 after playing their regular season finale the day before in Connecticut. They hosted the Minnesota Lynx the next evening for their first round playoff game. Their round two matchup with the Mystics tipped less than 48 hours later in D.C.

Getting to 26 wins as they did in 2016 and 2017, regardless of travel and schedule factors, was going to be much more difficult this season for any team. Circumstances leading into this particular season brought a sudden influx of star talent, raising the level of competition across the WNBA on a night-to-night basis. Angel McCoughtry, Liz Cambage, DeWanna Bonner, Chiney Ogwumike and A’ja Wilson, all All-Stars in 2018, did not play in the WNBA in 2017.

”I would say this goes for everybody across the league — the grind is real and people can stick in that grind. Because this league is becoming even,” Ogwumike said. “There’s talent everywhere. There’s competition everywhere. Every single game matters.

“I think that we fought through some tough times in our season. I think that you can learn from this season as a whole, from this game as a whole. But you’ve really gotta take care of business in the beginning. You have to.”

In navigating a condensed season (three weeks shorter than last season), the Sparks battled injuries to their key players. Parker missed the first three games (back). Alana Beard missed four games in July after suffering a groin injury in the team’s July 12 loss against the Dallas Wings. Ogwumike missed three games in June with a back injury, then missed another three in July, as well as the All-Star Game in Minneapolis due to an illness. She also dealt with a bout of mono that kept her out of the regular season finale, though she did return to the starting lineup for the postseason.

With less time for recovery, let alone to get out on the practice floor, even short absences had a larger impact than they would in other seasons. Jantel Lavender missed the first four games of the year as she wrapped up her commitments with overseas club Yakin Dogu. Riquna Williams missed a July 5 game in Minnesota due to personal reasons. Maria Vadeeva was not able to join the team until June 9 due to issues in securing her visa.

Were the Sparks really a 19-15 team? Or were they much better for most of the season, only to be hamstrung by a few bad breaks along the way?

With Parker, Ogwumike and Beard all in the lineup in the regular season, the Sparks went 14-8. The missed games in June and July by Beard and Ogwumike took its toll as L.A. finished 8-12 after an 11-3 start. The constant in L.A. under Agler, who arrived in 2015, has become their team defense. The Sparks have finished with the second-best defensive rating for three straight seasons.

Their offense took a step back though, as they scored 101 points per possession (8th) this season after the team had finished second in offensive rating in 2017. And to add further to the point of the league getting better: Last season’s offensive rating for the Sparks of 106.5 would have been just the fifth-best mark this season, per WNBA.com.

”My rookie year — and if I’m forgetting somebody, I’m terrible — the positionless basketball was Lauren Jackson and that was it, right?” Parker said. “Now, how many people play that are 6’3 to 6’4 and play positionless basketball? I’m excited because now 6’4 to 6’5 isn’t just told to stand underneath the basket and shoot layups. Now they’re taught to dribble. My dad was looked at crazy because he had me out there dribbling.

“The NBA has progressed to that where there’s 6’10 to 6’11 guys shooting threes, crossing over. Now the WNBA is entering into that phase where we have skills.”

The Sparks already have taken steps with their core (Parker, Ogwumike, Lavender, Beard) to modernize their style of play. In Game 3 of their 2015 playoff series with the eventual champion Lynx, Parker, Ogwumike and Lavender were starting together. In the years since, all three have stretched their games out beyond the arc.

Over the last three seasons, Parker has been a 36 percent 3-point shooter, attempting 110 threes or more each season. Her previous career-high in attempts for a season was 62. Lavender did not attempt a triple in her first three seasons, then took 15 over the next three, and has attempted 16 in each of the past two. Ogwumike shot 7-of-34 beyond the arc in her first four seasons, then made 16-of-26 in her MVP season, 18-of-53 in 2017, and 9-of-26 in 2018.

L.A. can keep its entire frontcourt rotation intact. Lavender is also under contract through 2020 according to High Post Hoops. Vadeeva is on the rookie scale through 2021. The Sparks took 25.9 percent of their shot attempts from deep, the ninth-lowest percentage in the league per Swanny’s Stats. Ogwumike and Lavender may need to further explore their outside game for the Sparks to modernize their shot distribution.

Strange as it sounds, the Sparks may need the same from Gray. After leading the league in 3-point percentage in 2017, Gray’s 3-point attempt rate went down (30.3 percent to 24.3 percent) in 2018. Catch-and-shoot triples will be harder to come by now that her profile has risen, but as a next step in her development, Agler could call for more actions to give Gray opportunities to find open threes off the dribble.

Chelsea Gray, we can talk about her all day, how much she grew leaps and bounds this year. She’s gotta take that into next year to make us better,” Parker said.

“We told Chelsea three years ago that she was gonna be the best guard in the league,” Parker added. “We told her three years ago at dinner. We were sipping pinot noir — I was on my second glass of pinot noir. We told her she was going to be the best guard in the league in a couple years. And she went out and scored [11] straight points in the Finals against Minnesota in Game 5 [in 2016].

”When the game’s on the line, I feel like she rises to the occasion and loves that and relishes those moments. For her to be 25 years old and be able to take the game, there’s so much that she can improve and get better. And that’s the scary part. For me, I’m so excited to be playing with her, to be playing with the person [Ogwumike] to my right. Obviously I’m getting a little older, so I’m saying they can do a little bit more and I can kind of just smile in the background. It’s kind of my goal,” Parker quipped.

There are two other areas for improvement where Gray can be a driving force — pace and getting to the line. L.A. played at the slowest pace and had the 11th lowest free throw rate in 2018, according to WNBA.com. She’s faster than you think in the open floor and can attack mismatches from every level when given the space to do so.

Gray and Sims will be restricted free agents this offseason, meaning the Sparks will have the right to match any offer signed by either player if they extend a qualifying offer by January 14. If the Sparks extend a qualifying offer to Karlie Samuelson, the Stanford alum will be a reserved player, giving L.A. exclusive negotiating rights with the sharpshooting wing. But as Toler tries to work under the salary cap, things will get difficult in filling out the roster if both Gray and Sims get a raise.

Sims was also restricted last season and reportedly left some money on the table, making less than $10,000 above the minimum, to make room for Cappie Pondexter. Pondexter never caught on in the rotation and was released by the team back in June.

If we project the cap to be set at $996,100 for the 2019 season, the Sparks will have just under $507,000 in cap room if you factor in the four post players, Sydney Wiese and their 2019 first round pick (No. 7 overall). Early 2019 mock drafts have the likes of UConn forward/wing Napheesa Collier, Notre Dame guard Arike Ogunbowale and Australian forward Ezi Magbegor being selected in that range.

An answer the Sparks will hope to find early on is whether or not Beard, their 36 year old back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, plans to return for her 14th WNBA season. Beard and the team’s two most consistent 3-point shooters on the wing, Carson and Williams, will be unrestricted free agents.

To put another number to what L.A. will be dealing with in terms of salary cap, they cannot afford to run it back and pay those five players the average 2017 salary of Beard, Carson and Williams — just north of $110,000.

Knowledge of player salaries, which was not publicly available until High Post Hoops released its salary database earlier this season, sheds further light onto the importance of the question posed earlier of how good the Sparks really were at full strength in 2018. In 533 minutes with Parker, Ogwumike and Gray on the floor, the Sparks outscored opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions per Positive Residual. Tack the team’s 14-8 record this regular season with all three onto the back-to-back 26-8 finishes and you’re looking at a 73 percent regular season winning percentage.

With Parker and Ogwumike playing at an All-WNBA level up front and Gray likely still on the upswing, Toler and Agler have a star trio that has already won on the biggest stage. The challenge facing them now? Get the most out of it to compete for championships as the rest of the league continues to improve.

”We’ve sat up here one time as a champion and the other six together going out like this. So for me, it just validates how much I love my teammate to my right and my teammates just in general. I think you learn a lot about people when things don’t go your way,” Parker said. “My drive is my teammates. I love them. I care about them. We spend a lot of time together. I’m excited about that, but I’m ready to get some rest. I’m tired as hell. I can say it now.”