“Close” counts in horseshoes and hand grenades but not in WNBA playoff seeding. And for the Los Angeles Sparks, the team with the most playoff appearances in league history, “close” is no consolation.
The 2021 season was as up-and-down as they come for Los Angeles. Rookies and veterans alike were hounded by the injury bug all year, and the coaching staff was forced to constantly shuffle lineups. Despite valiant efforts from available players to overcome these challenges, the negative impact of these injuries was reflected in the team’s play. Two separate six-game losing streaks had the Sparks against the ropes. After pulling out wins against Seattle and Atlanta, they had a chance to sneak in as the eighth seed.
After the Mystics fell to Minnesota in their final regular season contest, the stage was set. All the Sparks had to do was win their game to secure a spot in the playoffs. Their opponent, the Dallas Wings, were locked into the seventh seed in the playoffs regardless of Sunday’s outcome. However, Dallas does hold Los Angeles’ first-round pick in the 2022 draft, so beating the Sparks and keeping them out of the playoffs would mean a higher pick for the Wings.
The final game, poetically, came down to one final opportunity. Los Angeles found themselves down by three with 7.1 seconds on the clock with possession of the ball. Coach Derek Fisher drew up a play, but like so many other things this season, it didn’t go as planned.
“It was a variation of a similar action we’d run [on an] out of bounds possession a little bit earlier,” Fisher told the media postgame. “We didn’t execute it cleanly the way it was designed.”
Nia Coffey inbounded the ball, and Erica Wheeler dribbled into a slightly contested three-pointer. It was close but off the mark. As the buzzer sounded on their 87-84 loss to the Dallas Wings, it became clear that the WNBA’s 25th season would be moving forward without its flagship West Coast franchise.
The Los Angeles Sparks are on the outside of the WNBA Playoffs looking in for the first time since 2011.
Weathering a Storm of Unprecedented Change
Getting as close as the Sparks did to making the playoffs is a testament to the resiliency of the leaders throughout the organization and the depth of their roster. Many teams would have fallen apart in dramatic fashion if they went through as much change as the Sparks did this year.
Prior to the 2021 regular season, Los Angeles experienced a series of seismic personnel shifts. Coach Derek Fisher was named general manager after the well-publicized dismissal of Penny Toler several months prior. One of the most dramatic roster turnovers in WNBA history took place as Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray, Riquna Williams and five other Sparks found new homes or were waived from Los Angeles’ roster. After re-signing with the team to play one final season, Seimone Augustus changed course, retired and joined Fisher on the coaching staff.
The leadership, experience and poise of those veteran players would be nearly impossible to replace, especially over the course of one offseason. More tangibly, it was going to be just as difficult to replace those players’ production. Of the 1,868 points scored by Los Angeles in the Wubble, over 64.0 percent (1,199) of those points came from players who would no longer be on the roster during the course of the season. Plus, Parker’s departure meant losing the league’s leading rebounder and 2020 Defensive Player of the Year.
After several re-signings and the additions of Amanda Zahui B., Erica Wheeler, Bria Holmes and Nia Coffey, coach/GM Derek Fisher acknowledged in a pre-training camp press conference how different things would be: “It’s a new era of Sparks basketball.”
As we moved into the 2021 season, the hits came early and often for a Sparks organization that had already been through so much in the preceding months. Maria Vadeeva ended up staying overseas for the entire season which was a major blow to Fisher’s front court depth. Plus, both Ogwumike sisters missed significant time; Chiney only suited up for seven games, and Nneka was out for about 10 weeks during the middle of the year. The adversity didn’t end there. Number seven overall pick Jasmine Walker, who herself is 6’3” and would have provided good size up front, missed nearly the entire season with a torn ACL. Guard Kristi Toliver, who Fisher had raved about in the preseason, saw her season end in early September due to a broken pinky finger.
Because of all the injuries, twelve different players were inserted into the starting lineup at some point this season for Los Angeles. This was matched only by the Washington Mystics, who also found themselves on the outside of the playoff picture.
Given the circumstances, it’s rather impressive that the Sparks got so close to the playoffs. But for a fan base that’s accustomed to winning, moral victories are a tough sell. The 12-20 finish of this year’s squad has fans underwhelmed if not flat out disappointed.
Looking Forward to the Offseason and 2022
Through rose-colored glasses, this disappointing loss means more rest for the banged-up Los Angeles Sparks. With Dallas controlling their first-round pick in the 2022 draft, the Sparks will hope that last year’s first rounder Jasmine Walker is ready to return from her unfortunate torn ACL. Since there are only four free agents (forwards Maria Vadeeva, Nia Coffey, Lauren Cox and guard Te’a Cooper) on the roster, their most realistic path to improvement will likely be internal development and continuity.
One thing to hang your hat on as a Sparks fan is the veteran leadership that Nneka Ogwumike brings to this squad. After their defeat to Dallas, coach/GM Derek Fisher told me that “Nneka is the foundation of where [they’re] going.” He went on to accredit their sticking together as a team to her toughness and said, “That’s why we’re building this group around her and with her, and you know she’s going to come back and be even better than she was this year.”
We bid adieu to the 2021 Los Angeles Sparks—a team that got close but was unable to overcome the myriad of obstacles that fell in their way at every turn.