Before training camp begins today, weekend plans for Sparks center Lisa Leslie included watching last year’s WNBA playoffs. Rewinding scenes, such as the buzzer beater from San Antonio’s Sophia Young to force a deciding Game 3 in the Western Conference finals or the Sparks’ blowing a five-point lead in Game 3 with two minutes left, helped Leslie reconfirm why the Sparks underachieved.
“We made it so much harder than it had to be,” said Leslie, who will retire at the end of the season as the league’s all-time leading scorer. “We have no one to blame but ourselves.”
With the Sparks deemed among the WNBA title favorites, General Manager Penny Toler, Coach Michael Cooper and players alike unequivocally say the 2009 season will be a failure if they don’t win the championship this year.
“A lot of our disappointments last year came because we didn’t have chemistry at the right time,” said Cooper, who has won two WNBA titles with the Sparks but will leave the team after this season to take over USC’s women’s basketball team.
Chemistry also seems to be the prevailing factor that would determine the Sparks’ success in 2009.
L.A. has a loaded frontcourt that includes Leslie, veteran forwards Tina Thompson and DeLisha Milton-Jones and last season’s most valuable player, forward Candace Parker, who gave birth last week to a girl and will miss an undetermined part of the season.
In addition to selecting forwards Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton (Purdue, 13th), Ashley Paris (Oklahoma, 22nd) and guard Britney Jordan (Texas A&M;, 35th) in the WNBA draft, the Sparks made several off-season moves.
In a three-team trade, the Sparks signed guard Noelle Quinn, a former UCLA standout, in exchange for a 2010 first-round pick and traded Raffaella Masciadri to the Minnesota Lynx. The Sparks traded Sidney Spencer to the New York Liberty for the first-round selection that ultimately went to Minnesota.
After waiving Murriel Page, the Sparks signed veteran guard Betty Lennox to what Toler termed a “long-term deal” as well as Kristi Harrower and Marta Fernandez. The Sparks also picked up a first-round pick from the Phoenix Mercury after trading guard Temeka Johnson.
Despite the depth and versatility that Toler thinks enable the Sparks to play “any style of basketball,” she and Cooper recently discussed the team’s need for clearly established roles.
“We have to have a definitive starting lineup after around that first week in practice,” Toler said.
Toler acknowledged the spots for Leslie, Thompson and Milton-Jones are secure. Cooper said he’ll have six to choose from to fill the backcourt, including Lennox, Quinn, Harrower, Fernandez, Shannon Bobbitt and Marie Ferdinand-Harris, with the latter two sharing backcourt duties last year. Cooper has to cut down his 15-member roster to 11 by June 5. The Sparks’ season opener is June 6 against the Detroit Shock.
“It’s like an orchestra, and we’re all instruments,” Leslie said. “With one instrument missing, it doesn’t make it quite right. On any night, any instrument will have their own solo.”
That will dictate whether the Sparks play an up-tempo style Cooper envisions that “flashes back to Lakers Showtime.”
The former Lakers star plans to hold scrimmages in the evening sessions, while limiting practice drills for the morning. In addition to having a definitive starting lineup, Cooper hopes to establish a consistent bench.
And the Sparks want to make sure that leads to a championship. As Leslie said, “We’ve never had a celebration for winning the Western Conference.”