Patiently Watching the Sparks: "The Olympians Have to Figure Out How to Play Together Every Night"

. Wednesday, August 19, 2009
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A good friend of mine is a LA Lakers fan and for years I – a Golden State Warriors fan – have had to listen to him whine and complain about how inconsistent and discombobulated the Lakers are…as they end up in the NBA Finals or infinitely closer to anything resembling success than my beloved Warriors.

So thankfully, he’s not a (huge) LA Sparks fan…because then he’d actually have something legitimate to whine about.

The Sparks’ 72-68 victory over the Washington Mystics last night was a perfect example of a situation where I would actually have to feel sympathy for the suffering of a LA fan.

And that's hard.

But that game was just brutal on so many levels.

Both teams entered the game on the outside of the playoffs looking in and there were times when I wondered if either team really even wanted to play in the post-season at all.

Just when one side seemed to make a play that would catalyze a shift in momentum, something goofy happened – dumb foul, turnover, a flurry of contested jump shots – that killed the momentum. And no, it did not shift the momentum to another side…it was like a momentum vacuum.

And it’s a special kind of bizarre to watch the Sparks struggle like that.

The Sparks have four Olympians on the team – center Lisa Leslie and forwards DeLisha Milton-Jones, Candace Parker, and Tina Thompson – all of whom have a post game or at the very least are capable of posting up players who defend them. When they make the effort to slow the game down and make entry passes into the post – as they did for a stretch of about 2 minutes 30 seconds in the third quarter when they briefly help a lead of 11 points until Leslie left the game – they do well.

But then they just stop.

And then I am literally sitting at my laptop, arms folded and rolling my eyes wondering why I’m watching a team full of post players take jump shots…over and over again. They shot 38% in the final quarter, which seems paradoxical for a team with a strong post game.

But that wasn’t even the worst part: the worst part didn’t come until the fourth quarter when I had to watch a team with four Olympic front-court players essentially play a two person game with guards Noelle Quinn and Marie Ferdinand-Harris in a tie game with less than two minutes left.

What saved them was making 10 of 12 free throw attempts in the fourth, which were partially a result of attacking the paint.

It’s inexplicable…right?

We could waste our time pointing fingers at various players, coaching, or the refs for making last night’s game so excruciating to watch. But ultimately, it does seem to come down to the one thing that everybody associated with the Sparks keeps saying ad nauseam – this team needs time to gel…and unfortunately, they have not done that to this point.

Of course, to some fans that type of answer is unsatisfactory because after all, they have four Olympians! They were destined to win this year! It’s the point guards, the point guards!


But how reasonable is it that this team would be playing good basketball right now?

Parker is still getting her legs back and trying to find her stride since starting her season late on July 5th. Leslie returned from an extended injury on August 4th. Once Leslie returned, guard Betty Lennox got injured.

All of that means that in addition to not having a pre-season together, they also have not even had a consistent healthy roster until August 11th.

That means the Sparks have only played 4 games with their full complement of players and have had no extended practice time together yet.

Therefore, they have not only had adjust to shifting lineups and new players adjusting to the system, but also the 2008 WNBA MVP slowly playing her way back into shape.

In those four games, they have gone 2-2, not losing by more than 6 points.

Are they meeting expectations? No. Most people had them winning a championship.

But is it really any one player’s fault? No.

Anybody who has played or coached a game of basketball knows that it is a game in which team chemistry/cohesion/togetherness/kumbayaness matters. The track record for these teams of all-stars across sports, and particularly basketball, is not so good.

Putting a group of players used to being the number one option -- or at least a primary option -- on one team and expecting them to magically work out roles is ridiculous, especially without practice. It’s not a fantasy league or all-star showcase…like, real defense is played and stuff.

Yes this team has a ton of talent, but does anybody really believe this is a well-constructed or balanced team?

And from what I watched last night, that lack of cohesion was the root of their problems – they are terribly inconsistent partially because they can’t seem to get themselves into a rhythm with one another. Even when they find a strategy that works, there doesn’t yet seem to be any confidence in that strategy…and thus they just move on to the next haphazard option.

With two minutes left in a tight game they all stood there looking at each other. There was no movement. No attempt to support the point guard – yes, it is the weak spot on this team of Olympians – and really no effort to make a play. So with the shot clock ticking, of course Ferdinand-Harris or Quinn had to take jumpers.

But how on earth can a team win like that?

They can’t. And they won’t win consistently until they establish what works well for them and what roles they each have in that strategy.

That’s common sense. The players keep saying it. Coach Michael Cooper keeps saying it. I buy the line. Mainly, because it’s common sense.

Once they get a chance to play more than four games with one another, perhaps I’ll change my tune.

Maybe it is coaching. Maybe it’s the point guard situation. Maybe Parker, Leslie, Milton-Jones, and Thompson are just a terrible combination. Right now we really cannot say. The WNBA season is simply not long enough for the Sparks to manage these circumstances.

All we can say is that it takes time for teams – even the uber-talented – to come together and play well as a unit. The Sparks are no exception.

And wasn’t it my friend from LA wailing about something similar in the summer of 2004 when the Hall of Fame saturated Lakers lost the NBA Finals to a gritty Detroit Pistons team that everybody thought was far inferior?

But I do hope this whole coming together thing happens before the next time I choose to watch the Sparks play.