2019 represented a year to forget for Candace Parker. Hampered by injuries, the two-time MVP missed 12 games and had career per-game lows in minutes (26.0), points (11.2), rebounds (6.4), blocks (0.8), and field goal percentage (42.2%).
It’s not a coincidence that 2019 ended in disappointment for the Los Angeles Sparks, who were swept from the playoffs in rather ignominious fashion, losing their three-game series to the Connecticut Sun by a combined 57 points.
If L.A. wants to reverse course, the team will likely require its face of the franchise to do the same. Which means that the Sparks’ biggest question mark ahead of Saturday’s start to the coronavirus-shortened 2020 WNBA season is whether Parker’s stumbles a year ago were due to injuries and a new system, or to the natural regression of an aging player .
Much has been made of the challenges facing WNBA players as they all congregate in the same place for the next few months, prompting Parker to admit that, “Everyone here is kind of fighting individual battles.” But despite that, Parker sees the pandemic-driven bubble as an opportunity to regain a competitive advantage as she prepares to start her 13th season.
“I think it’s health for me, and it’s always been that,” she said about the key to the unique season. “If I can keep my body healthy then I can play ... A lot of people I think looked at the negatives of the bubble, and for me as an older player I looked at it as a positive. We’re not traveling. 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. The ride to practice in LA is an hour for me, so that’s sitting on my back, putting pressure on that. Everything is here.”
Indeed, Parker won’t have to sit in a car in congested traffic, drive a bus to a road arena, or try to squeeze her 6’4 frame on a commercial airline. The Sparks don’t play a single back-to-back during the truncated 22-game season.
The circumstances are far from ideal — Parker noted that the future champion doesn’t deserve an asterisk, but rather an exclamation point — yet if Parker were to design a season with optimal parameters for her, it would probably look a lot like the one the Sparks have waiting for them.
The stakes are simple. If Parker repeats her 2019 performance, the Sparks likely repeat their 2019 fate. But if Parker is the healthy, dynamic player we saw in years prior, then L.A. carries a three-headed monster of superstar talent in her, Nneka Ogwumike, and Chelsea Gray. With stars like Elena Delle Donne and Jonquel Jones opting out of the upcoming season, that’s a roster that would likely find itself with realistic championship aspirations.
L.A. is, after all, only four years removed from hoisting a trophy with that very core. Parker was on the short list of the best players in the world that year. A return to that status puts a fourth Sparks championship well within reach.