In an annual survey of the league's 12 general managers, the Los Angeles Sparks have been picked to win their fourth WNBA championship, a quest that begins Sunday where last season ended — in Minnesota.
The 2018 campaign is about redemption for the Sparks, who lost in five games to the Minnesota Lynx in the finals after beating the same team for the championship in 2016. Sunday's game tips off at 2 p.m. Pacific time at Target Center and renews what has recently been the WNBA's fiercest rivalry.
"It doesn't matter if they picked us first or 12th," Sparks coach Brian Agler said. "Surveys are always interesting to look at, but they don't guarantee anything."
The Sparks, however, will be without star Candace Parker when they play the Lynx in the opener, the team announced Saturday. She did not travel with the team and is listed as day-to-day while she receives treatment for what the team termed a minor back injury.
The survey revealed 33% of the GMs predicted a title for the Sparks, who also won championships in 2001 and 2002. Defending champion Minnesota was the general managers’ second choice to win the title, receiving 25% of the vote.
"I don't see us getting to the level we want to play at until mid-June," Agler said. "We just made final cuts [Wednesday]. The shortened season means less practice time, but veteran players can absorb and implement things quicker because of their experience. A big part of my job is to keep players as fresh as possible on game night. Last year, there was more change in our starting lineup. Once everyone settles in I envision us starting the same way we ended the season last year and adjusting from there."
Helping Parker, the 2016 Finals MVP and a two-time WNBA MVP, lead the charge for a title will be wing Alana Beard, the Associated Press’ defensive player of the year and forward Nneka Ogwumike. They are joined by returning veterans Essence Carson, Chelsea Gray, Jantel Lavender and Odyssey Sims, as well as second-year guard Sydney Wiese. Executive Vice President and GM Penny Toler added to the core in the offseason by signing two-time championship guard Cappie Pondexter through free agency. She spent the last three seasons with the Chicago Sky.
"We kept our core together so we want to continue the culture, but whenever you can add a playmaker it makes a huge difference," said Parker, a two-time MVP who has averaged 17.4 points a game during her 10-year career in Los Angeles, including 16.9 last year. "Cappie is a playmaker who can play defense, can get a shot for herself and her teammates, and who has won a championship, so she's a fantastic addition."
Center Maria Vadeeva, the Sparks' first-round draft pick in April, was a teammate of Ogwumike’s for Dynamo Kursk, the 2017 Euro League champion, and will add depth in the post. Ogwumike received one vote as the league's most likely MVP. Minnesota’s Maya Moore was the top pick for the award with 33% of the vote.
Gray was second in the league in minutes played last season at more than 33 a game and had a team-high 17 points and 10 assists in 28 minutes in the Sparks' preseason finale against the Chinese national team.
"When you've played a team so many times you know each other, it comes down to doing something outside your comfort zone," Parker said of Sunday's marquee matchup. "It's about going into your bag of tricks. You know each other's offense so well, so you really try to force them to do what they don't want to do."
Sparks guard Riquna Williams missed the 2016 season because of a torn Achilles tendon and sprained a knee last year but still played in 23 regular-season games and contributed off the bench in the WNBA Finals. The club also signed former Mater Dei High and Stanford standout Karlie Samuelson on Saturday.
Minnesota has won four championships in the last seven seasons but Parker and her teammates are motivated to begin a new dynasty in Los Angeles. The Sparks have qualified for the playoffs 16 times — more than any other franchise.
"Rivalries are what sports is about," Parker added. "We've split with Minnesota the last two years and the fact that they're having their ring ceremony is salt to the wound. It adds motivation for us, but even if we win by 30 [points] we can't take back last year. Without a doubt, defeat is the harshest feeling. It lives with you, you feel sick. You recall where you were and who you were defending. Last year, we didn't rebound well, we didn't finish plays. They did ... that's why they're the champions."
The Sparks continue their road trip Tuesday against the Indiana Fever and Thursday against the Connecticut Sun before making their home debut May 27 against the Phoenix Mercury at Staples Center.