The Los Angeles Sparks have only played two games since Fred Williams was named interim head coach on June 7. After a road heavy schedule to start the season during which the Sparks were playing almost every other day, they got a break in the schedule to help ease in Williams as head coach and to try and build up the chemistry and cohesiveness that has so far eluded them to this point.
The lack of practice time due to being on the road so early on was one of the team’s most pressing issues when it came to trying to get everyone on the same page. Despite the chance to get in some real practice time, the Sparks have still struggled the past two games, the latest coming on the road against the Dallas Wings on Sunday afternoon. Similar to the Sparks’ loss against the Las Vegas Aces on June 11, they started off strong against the Wings, only to falter as the game went on. They were outscored 26-15 in the third quarter and never seriously challenged the Wings in the fourth quarter as they fell, 92-82.
It’s been some of the same issues that have plagued the Sparks all season. For a team that has been among the WNBA’s elite defensively the past couple of seasons, the Sparks have done an about-face this year and haven’t been able to sustain consistent defensive performance for a full 40 minutes. They’ll have stretches where they defend very well and then stretches like the third quarter against Dallas where they allowed the Wings to shoot 55.6 percent overall and 75 percent from three-point range.
After the game, Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike theorized that the Sparks’ defensive woes sometimes tend to lie with their lack of transition defense.
“With transition defense, you have to have a focus on it, but also understanding shot selection is also what contributes to transition defense. There are times when I don’t know if we’re very aware of when the shot is going up for us to know to get back,” Ogwumike said. “And then also when we have turnovers, that’s what leads to transition. They scored off our turnovers and that’s what a great team is going to do. So we have to be able to take care of the ball and understand shot selection so we can bring it out of the hoop more often instead of just kind of starting at our three-point line and going into their offense.”
Turnovers have certainly hurt the Sparks, especially against the Wings. They turned the ball over 17 times, leading to 21 points off turnovers for Dallas. The Wings scored 35 fast break points in total compared to the Sparks’ 20. The Sparks are averaging 14.4 turnovers per game which places them in the bottom half of the league in that regard. Only the Atlanta Dream, New York Liberty and Minnesota Lynx average more turnovers per game.
Cutting down on turnovers could be addressed with the return of Kristi Toliver, an experienced point guard and ball-handler, a veteran to help try and steady the ship. Toliver had been unavailable to begin the season due to her duties as an assistant coach for the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. She had been back with the team for a couple of weeks but hadn’t played due to reconditioning. Toliver made her 2022 season debut against Dallas and dished out three assists with only one turnover. She replaced Lexie Brown in the starting lineup and after the game, she remained optimistic about where this team could go.
“There’s a lot of newness; I don’t want to dominate the room with my thoughts or opinions. It’s something I’ll certainly collaborate with the coaches. My wheels are always turning, but I don’t want to overstep and so I’m trying to find that balance right now,” Toliver said. “I’m trying to physically get myself in a place where I can kind of do my thing and lead by example in that way. But it’s baby steps. We still got a long way to go; it’s certainly not panic mode or anything like that. We’re in the thick of the journey right now.”
Overall though, Williams was pleased with the energy the Sparks came out with and he also liked the shot opportunities they got, noting that they just didn’t drop in the second half. But he echoed Ogwumike’s sentiments that the Sparks’ main issue came on the defensive end, specifically in transition.
“I liked the shots we got today; I just wasn’t really pleased with the defense in transition,” Williams said. “I was really kind of pleased with it for us halfcourt-wise, but when you give up 35 fast break points, that means you’ve really got to practice more on getting back on D.”