During a disastrous third quarter for the L.A. Sparks in their 79-75 loss to the Washington Mystics last Thursday evening, play-by-play announcer Jim Watson wondered, “What in the world is going on at Staples?” With the Sparks announcing the firing of head coach Carol Ross last night, it’s a good time to answer that question of what went wrong and what might need to change.
After the L.A. Sparks lost four straight games – and seven of nine – in excruciating fashion earlier this season, reserve center Jantel Lavender replaced struggling point guard Lindsey Harding in the starting lineup and the Sparks seemed to go from total disaster to merely inconsistent.
They immediately won 3 of 4 games after the change that has now become status quo and at least seemed to turn things around temporarily before losing 3 of 4, including another ugly loss to the Chicago Sky at home on ESPN. Despite the latter rough stretch, which included justifiable losses to the Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury, the bright spot during that whole time has been the play of Lavender.
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In her last 12 games as a starter since that point, Lavender has shot 57.85% from the field and been a particularly dangerous threat from the mid-range, which gives the Sparks a viable high-low option on offense. That shooting percentage is lower than what she was doing as a reserve – she was shooting 63% as a reserve this season – but that can easily be accounted for by her increased minutes and associated increase in shots. Overall, Lavender has built upon the improvement she showed last season and has risen to the top 10 in the league in scoring efficiency this season (61.4% – 7th, according to Basketball-Reference) – in contrast to other posts shooting lower percentages without stepping out to the perimeter, that’s extremely impressive.
Lavender hasn’t just been improved this season, but she has been outstanding and a major bright spot on a team with two All-Stars. And yet, somewhat paradoxically, we could also begin with that decision to move Lavender into the starting lineup as a reflection of just about all of the Sparks’ problems that led up to last night’s firing of Carol Ross – experimenting with the big frontcourt lineup of Lavender with All-Stars Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker isn’t unjustified, but it hasn’t eliminated some serious problems for the Sparks.
Lack of three point shooting is hurting the Sparks’ spacing
The major issue with starting Harding was that her scoring efficiency is at a career-low, including a career-low 32.5% shooting from 2-point range. One of her major assets in previous stops with the Atlanta Dream and Washington Mystics was her ability to use her speed off the dribble to both score off the drive and get herself to the free throw line – neither has happened this year.
And unfortunately, that puts the Sparks in a major bind.
L.A.’s main problem is that they’re not a very good three point shooting team to begin with (32.8% is below average and second-lowest in the Western Conference) and putting Lavender in the lineup for Harding doesn’t exactly help: with Alana Beard not being a consistent three point threat (she has only made 6 in 21 games this season), Armintie Herrington never being known for her shooting touch and none of those starting frontcourt players being very dangerous from deep, (smart) teams are just sagging into the middle and daring the Sparks to shoot the three or waiting for them to make the obvious pass into the post.
The Sparks’ inability to spread the court not only makes it harder for post players to find space to get off shots, but also makes it difficult to pass the ball into the post, whether playing against man or zone – in their efforts to get the ball inside, they often find themselves trying to force the ball through narrow lanes or throwing lobs that are hard to handle if they make it to their intended receiver. Even when Sparks player try to drive they find themselves running right into 2-3 defenders waiting to rotate over in help.
At no time was that more evident than during that ugly home loss to the Sky, when the Pokey Chatman just threw a really basic 2-3 set at the Sparks and watched as they tried to force shots from the perimeter or inexplicably attempting to go one on one.
An example of what the Sparks are seeing over and over again from opposing defenses occurred during their win against the Seattle Storm. With the Sparks only up three points early in the fourth quarter, they were trying to look into the post to Parker off of an offensive rebound. The problem was that Jenna O’Hea just completely ignored Alana Beard at the three point line to create a very difficult angle for an entry pass.
Figure 1: Screenshot from the Sparks’ 65-57 win against the Storm on June 25 (click to see larger image).
Lavender did end up getting the lob to Parker, but with a poor angle on the pass Parker received it along the baseline in the middle of a double team without any space to really make a play. Despite a third consecutive offensive rebound after a missed mid-range jumper, the Sparks came up without points in a close game against the team (then) above them in the standings.
The big lineup worked against the Storm because they’re already a small team and Crystal Langhorne was unable to stay with Sparks bigs on the move, contest shots well inside, or score over the Sparks’ frontcourt. But against bigger, stronger teams, the lineup creates more problems than it solves.
Turnovers resulting from disorganization, poor spacing
Worse than just producing empty possessions, the clogged middle has resulted in live ball turnovers: three turnovers in the final two minutes of their loss to the Stars helped lead to a home loss that might loom large when we really start looking at playoff seeding. Their 23rd and final turnover of their 79-62 loss to the San Antonio Stars on June 22 is more of an extreme case than a representative one, but illustrates the type of problem their poor spacing creates.
Figure 2: Screenshot from the L.A. Sparks’ 72-69 loss to the San Antonio Stars.
Just as we saw in the Storm case above, the problem is that with this three forward lineup they can’t keep the defense honest. In this case, with an end-of-game lineup of Harding-Herrington-Parker-Ogwumike-Lavender, the Stars almost completely ignored the perimeter. That caused three related problems.
First, getting that pass to Parker was difficult with Appel able to cheat off Lavender. Second, once she did get the ball, she didn’t have much space to work. Third, once she looked for the mismatch to Ogwumike on the block, Stars guard Becky Hammon was able to cheat so far off of Herrington that she could cut off that pass. That meant that by the end of this play, the Stars were double-teaming two players and just ignoring everyone else.
Figure 2a: Screenshot from the L.A. Sparks’ 72-69 loss to the San Antonio Stars prior to turning it over.
The result: a turnover as Appel came from behind Parker to bother her with no pass available to Ogwumike in the low-post exacerbated by Stars forward Danielle Adams being able to keep Parker off the low block. While Parker was trying to make a play with no viable scoring option and the shot clock dropping under 10 seconds, Adams poked the ball away from behind and the Stars came up with a huge steal a that helped prevent the Sparks from winning the game.
Of course, the reason that this is non-representative of the Sparks’ problems is that Kristi Toliver wasn’t available for that game – put her out there on the perimeter and there’s no way the Stars could have played things that way. But that only mitigates the problem without negating it.
The Sparks’ lineup problems
First, Toliver has never been known as a great defender, which leaves the Sparks with problems trying to guard two positions: Toliver matching up with point guards and any one of those starting frontcourt players matching up with small forwards (see Tierra Ruffin-Pratt’s 19-point explosion in the Sparks’ loss to the Mystics on Thursday). Good teams are going to isolate guards and attack the rim or spread the court and force the Sparks’ bigs to play in space where none of them are especially effective.
Figure 3: The L.A. Sparks trying to defend the Minnesota Lynx’s high post set in an 83-72 loss.
Second, while Toliver helps with spacing as the team’s lone consistent 3-point threat, so many of their offensive sets are scattered or still take them away from their strengths – consider this set in their loss to the Lynx in which Toliver is completely out of the play in the weakside corner while nobody is posting up a Lynx team without veteran power forward Rebekkah Brunson.
Figure 4: A L.A. Sparks offensive set against the Minnesota Lynx in an 83-72 loss.
Third, with Toliver off the floor, the team is still left without a playmaker, which leads us back to Harding.
Despite her shooting woes, Harding is actually enjoying a career year as a distributor: her 4.56 pure point rating is a career-high by a significant margin and it’s primarily because her turnover rate has also dropped about one per 36 minutes below her career average. With her off the floor, they’re left with a bunch of lesser distributing options: although Toliver is a better distributor than she gets credit for (3.94 PPR), there’s no question that she’s still best with the ball in her hands as a scorer. Lineups with either Beard or Herrington leave them with someone defenses don’t have to respect as shooting threats. Candace Parker is actually a relatively efficient ball handler as well for her size (0.97 PPR), but defenses would love nothing more than to have her away from the basket: the more she hangs out around the perimeter, the more likely she is to shoot jumpers instead of getting more efficient scoring opportunities posting up.
So it’s really a matter of pick your poison: no matter what guard combination they play, they’re going to have a problem somewhere. And that’s all compounded by the original point that having Lavender and Toliver on the floor as starters really is the team’s best starting lineup by almost any standard.
The big lineup is the best lineup, but not generating wins
You could explain the Sparks’ lineup situation in a number of ways, but the numbers tell a rather simple story that’s worth paying attention to: their “best” lineup statistically is also just inherently flawed.
2014 season numbers for the L.A. Sparks as of 7/18/14 (via Basketball-Reference).
Two related things really jump out on that list: they only one above average guard on the roster (by PER’s standard of 15 being “average”) and only four players on the current roster who you could even consider remotely efficient scorers.
That’s quite a heavy reliance on four players, exacerbated by the fact that playing those top four together creates problems. You could imagine all sorts of other lineup combinations – and the Sparks have tried a number throughout the season – but nothing is working for the previously described reasons.
And that chart above further highlights the chief structural problem on this roster: their top two players play the same position.
It’s hard to overstate the problems that having both Ogwumike and Parker on the roster create and we’re seeing all of them come to the fore this season with only one real shooting threat on the roster. They’re making all sorts of tradeoffs with no matter what lineup they run out there and good coaches are exploiting relatively obvious weaknesses. And Parker doesn’t do the team many favors when she is hanging around the perimeter shooting off-balance jumpers instead of punishing people in the post
What should the Sparks do next?
The only way out of this for the Sparks is to take a risk by trading one of those top stars to clear a redundancy and balance the roster, but trading either All-Star is an extremely risky proposition and very difficult in a league that has just 11 trading partners (rather than the 29 options offered by the NBA).
We could go through all the various trade scenarios – and have already discussed some of the options in a previous post – but the bottom line here is that the Sparks’ problems run deep, much deeper than coaching, and there isn’t an obvious way out other than making a trade that would immediately be derided as lop-sided to work against the Sparks.
When a coach can play a roster’s best lineup and still not be able to find a way to win consistently, the problems point straight back to the structure of the roster. Concerns about heart and focus aside, questions that have been bubbling beneath the surface can no longer just be ignored in favor of keeping their considerable star power – there’s almost no way to justify bringing this roster back as-is next season regardless of who’s coaching.