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Sparks begin WNBA season with high hopes, and with Candace Parker back on full-time duty

Candace Parker, shown during a game last season, led the Sparks with 24 points in a win over Phoenix on Friday night.
(Ann Heisenfelt / Associated Press)

In 2015, the Los Angeles Sparks made the playoffs for the fourth year in a row and for the eighth time in the last decade. But that’s not a realistic portrayal of how things really unfolded: They posted a 14-20 record (their fourth worst ever), and lost to the Minnesota Lynx in three games after sneaking into the postseason.

The Sparks begin their 2016 season Sunday against the Seattle Storm, and they’re counting on finding some consistency — a trait that eluded them for large portions of last season — to drive them back to winning ways.

The full-fledged return of Candace Parker should help.

Parker sat out the first half of last season to rest and recover from a grueling international slate. The Sparks started 3-13 in her absence, but she wasn’t rusty in her 16 appearances, averaging a team-high 19.4 points, 10.1 rebounds and 6.3 assists. Now, she’s back on a full-time basis, and healthy.

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“It’s huge for us to start off well,” Parker said. “Any time you start off with some leeway in your building going toward the season instead of trying to figure it out at the end, you’re already two steps ahead. This is my ninth season in the WNBA and my first time at day one of training camp. I hope that makes a huge difference.”

She also might be playing with more to prove than usual, though it depends on whom you ask. In late April, the U.S. women’s Olympic team was announced, and Parker — a two-time WNBA MVP — was left off the roster. The decision sent shock waves through women’s basketball circles, and left Sparks Coach Brian Agler stunned.

“I still can’t believe it,” Agler said. “I don’t have the answer for it, but it’s shocking . . . her effort has been good, she’s playing well. From that standpoint, we haven’t seen anything drop off at all. In fact, I think she’s probably a little more motivated.”

Parker, for her part, was noncommittal about how the Olympics snub might be affecting her mind-set and confidence.

“Measuring motivation, I don’t know,” she said. “My focus is now on the Sparks, there’s no other outside focus. If things had been different, I mean, we still haven’t won a championship, so I’d still be motivated to come in and make a difference for this team.”

Parker will be getting help from a familiar group, including forward Nneka Ogwumike (15.8 points, 7.0 rebounds per game); center Jantel Lavender (14.5 points, 8.3 rebounds); guard Kristi Toliver (12.4 points per game); and guard Alana Beard. Ogwumike and Lavender were All-Stars in 2015, though Ogwumike was sidelined with some early season ankle issues.

“I think we’re going to be in a better spot initially with the way our roster works,” Agler said. “Last year, early, not only were we depleted, but we had injuries on top of that in the beginning.”

General Manager Penny Toler made moves to bolster the backcourt, trading for 23-year-old point guard Chelsea Gray. She was particularly excited to play with Parker.

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“I think her versatility is great,” Gray said. “She can step out, hit the outside shot, drive the lane and post people up. The options for her to score in different ways are endless.”

The other notable off-season acquisition was guard-forward Essence Carson, who played for eight seasons with the New York Liberty and was an All-Star in 2011.

Agler, beginning his second season, noted that the players who already know his system have a leg up comfort-wise, but that he’ll need everyone to mesh if they want to aim for more than another first-round exit.

“Our microscope goal is to put ourselves in position, position ourselves every day to win a championship,” Agler said. “You can’t win a championship on day one, or day two . . . but we definitely can put ourselves closer to that by improving.”

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