Sports

Magic-era Los Angeles Sparks shape roster for a defensive lockdown

SportsProfessional BasketballBasketballWomen's National Basketball AssociationTulsa ShockMagic JohnsonAtlanta Dream

With a change in ownership and several key additions to their roster, the Sparks will renew their chase for their first WNBA championship since 2002 when they open their regular season Friday in Seattle.

Much has changed for the Sparks since a Brittney Griner turnaround jump shot with 4.9 seconds to go in the final contest of their first-round series against the Phoenix Mercury knocked them out of last year's playoffs.

An investment group led by Lakers great Magic Johnson and Dodgers' controlling owner Mark Walter bought the Sparks in February after the team's previous owners said they could no longer finance the unprofitable franchise. Since then, the new owners have bankrolled additions such as defensive specialists Armintie Herrington, Candice Wiggins and forward/center Sandrine Gruda.

But one thing remains the same.

"Our desire to win a championship is not a secret," Sparks Coach Carol Ross said during the team's media day.

For the past few seasons the Sparks felt they have been on the cusp of title contention and this year they plan to focus on defense to achieve that goal.

The team hired two new defensive-minded assistant coaches, Gail Goestenkors and Gary Kloppenburg, to help them on that side of the ball. Goestenkors coached Texas and Duke, where the Sparks' Alana Beard and Lindsey Harding played. Kloppenburg is the former coach of the Tulsa Shock. Herrington is reunited with Ross, who coached her in college at Mississippi and was her assistant coach at Atlanta.

Candace Parker, the reigning league most valuable player, said she'll be looking to lead by example by stepping up her game on every defensive possession.

Center Jantel Lavender said the new defensive additions to the team can help shift things in their favor against Western Conference opponents and the defending champions, the Minnesota Lynx, who have reached the finals the last three years, winning twice.

"I think with us having depth at the defensive position like that and players we can just throw at [Minnesota's] Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore … That's the major thing we were missing in the past couple of years and this year will take us to the next level," Lavender said.

The 5-foot-9 Herrington was a WNBA all-defensive first-team selection last year with the Atlanta Dream and was fourth in league in steals, averaging 2.3 a game.

"I'm really just ready to step that defensive level up," Herrington said. "If I can get the defensive-player-of-the-year award I'm really looking to get it."

The team's emphasis on defense also plays into their offensive game plan, where the Sparks' lineup sacrifices size for speed. "Steals and rebounds are the best times to run," said Harding.

In the season opener the Sparks will face former teammate Jenna O'Hea, who was traded to Seattle in April for a second-round draft pick. Seattle, which will have Sue Bird back this year, finished last season with a .500 record before losing in the first-round of the playoffs to Minnesota.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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