The Sparks rise and fall by the “next woman up” motto.
It’s been a necessity since starting the season without two-time league MVP Candace Parker, who injured her left hamstring in the first preseason game, and two-time defensive player of the year Alana Beard, who began the season with an injured left leg. The pair of veterans returned to the lineup only to be sidelined again by injuries along with second-year center Maria Vadeeva and third-year guard Alexis Jones.
With the 10-game suspension of veteran guard Riquna Williams after a WNBA investigation into allegations of domestic violence, the Sparks will host the Dallas Wings on Thursday with only seven players available. They could try to add an eighth player through a hardship waiver.
The Sparks (9-7), though, are in fifth place in the standings, only two games behind league-leading Las Vegas.
“I think it’s the attitude of no excuses. We’ve had so many different lineups. Some people can’t play,” said veteran forward Chiney Ogwumike. “But the cool thing is, is that it’s giving a lot of opportunity for us to grow.
“For us to still be competitive, we’re in the top [five] range in the WNBA on top of all that. We have something to be proud of and build towards.”
Second-year guard Sydney Wiese answered the call to start the season when she was inserted into the starting lineup. Wiese’s presence in addition to Chelsea Gray’s late-game heroics kept the Sparks afloat with a 4-2 record.
A few games later when Nneka Ogwumike sat out a game for rest, rookie forward Kalani Brown stepped up and had a career night against the Las Vegas Aces with 12 points and four rebounds in 22 minutes.
Finally healthy and at full strength, the Sparks gave a glimpse of their potential by defeating the Washington Mystics, then the top team in the WNBA, at home by 17 points.
The Sparks were cruising until Parker sustained an ankle injury on the road against Dallas on July 9. It was also announced that Vadeeva injured a knee during the EuroBasket tournament. Beard (hamstring) and Jones (knee) were also sidelined that week.
The Sparks struggled at times on offense. Williams’ insertion into the lineup helped snap a four-game losing streak and spearheaded a three-game winning streak. They went 5-1 and she averaged 16.8 points as a starter.
The shorthanded Sparks battled Indiana for a 90-84 victory and pulled out a 76-71 overtime victory against the Atlanta Dream on Sunday with an eight-player rotation. Then came Williams’ suspension on Tuesday.
“Honestly it’s a challenge, but it’s one of those things towards the end of the year everyone is going to be more ready due to the adversity that we’ve had,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “We have a new team, new coach, new philosophy, and [we have to] build that in adverse situations. We walked into this. [It’s] probably the hardest scenario any team can figure out. We’re never trying to get too high, never trying to get too low, but this is as hard as it gets for a team.”
With Williams’ suspension, the Sparks’ rotation has dwindled to seven players — three former All-Stars, one veteran, a second-year player and two rookies. Despite that, coach Derek Fisher remains hopeful the smaller rotation could work in the Sparks’ favor.
“When numbers keep getting smaller it simplifies it, to be honest. You play the players you have. We don’t have a choice at this point,” Fisher said. “When it’s so crowded one mistake can get [players] put on the bench. When you have other options they think about that but when they know there’s no one else there that can get the job done, sometimes [players are] more free and willing to be more aggressive and take more risk. In a competition you have to be aggressive and take some risks. Hopefully it will work in our favor on some level.”
The Sparks will take on the Wings in a 12:30 p.m. tipoff at the Staples Center.
“Whoever suits up, suits up. [There] won’t be any excuses for performance. We have to find a way through,” Fisher said. “My job will be harder in terms of managing timeouts and substitution patterns to make sure we’re as fresh as we can be. But it is what it is. For those players who wish they could play more, here you go.”