LA Offense Needs Spark of Creativity


The Los Angeles Sparks’ season has been quite unique. You could say they’ve underperformed, over-performed, or been exactly what they should be, and you’d be right in some ways. For a team that lost as much talent that they did, expectations were all over the place. Add in some early season injuries, and those expectations shifted even more.

The Sparks have found ways to remain competitive, though. They have done it through stifling defense that is a nightmare for most teams. Their players are versatile and scrappy enough for them to seamlessly switch through the opponents’ actions. They force turnovers on a league-leading 23.4% of opponent possessions, per WNBA.com. LA is also sixth in defensive rating (99.4) coming into the break.

So what has gone wrong? Why isn’t a team with such a vaunted defense winning more games?

The answer is quite simple. The half-court offense is stagnant.

Obviously, losing Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray (and Nneka Ogwumike, even just temporarily) is going to have a detrimental effect on an offense. LA also struggled with injuries to Chiney Ogwumike, Kristi Toliver, and Jasmine Walker. But it’s not like the Sparks don’t have capable offensive players still. Erica Wheeler is a proven scorer. Amanda Zahui B.can light it up. Brittney Sykes has looked better on that end.

The issue isn’t the players. It’s the system. Derek Fisher’s offense is too repetitive, and doesn’t seem to have back-up plans when teams stop their first action.

The Main Motion

The Sparks start most of their possessions with a high pick from a big, usually Zahui B. This allows their guards to get downhill and into the paint, which is usually where you want your shots to come from. For the Sparks, however, the results have been mixed, for a handful of reasons. For one, LA’s guards are small. If they don’t create separation, they can easily be stopped, especially by bigger teams:

Wheeler receives the pass from Zahui B with 14 seconds left on the shot clock and nowhere to go. Brittney Sykes fakes a backdoor cut, then returns to the corner. Aside from that, no one else moves. The Sparks need to implement a few reset options for these situations.

Another issue making things difficult for LA is their lack of shooting across the board. Only three Sparks are shooting above 35 percent from deep: Karlie Samuelson, Nia Coffey, and Kristi Toliver.  Samuelson has knocked down 11 of her 22 attempts in the 13 games she’s played with LA so far. It’s fair to assume the team will keep her around for as long as possible. Coffey has emerged as a great catch-and-shoot threat, knocking down 38.4% of her 3.8 attempts per game. Toliver, who missed six games in the first half, is LA’s best shooting lead guard, in both catch-and-shoot and pull-up situations.

Beyond those three, LA’s outside shooting leaves a lot to be desired. Zahui B hasn’t consistently shot the ball well. Te’a Cooper is still hesitant to shoot from deep. Brittney Sykes is much better utilizing her athleticism against her matchups. However, Derek Fisher doesn’t call plays that often get his guards the ball in their preferred spots.

Low-Quality Looks

Because the Sparks’ guards have lacked a true shooting threat, teams have packed the paint pretty consistently against them. That has made things tough for LA. That said, the offense generates shots at the rim and from outside, which is usually where teams hope to get their looks. The Sparks are average at-best at converting:

Pick Up the Pace

LA has thrived in transition, generating a league-leading 19.3 points off turnovers each game. They look to push the pace off of their opponents’ miscues. They could improve their offense by picking up the pace in half-court settings as well.

The high screen play usually leads to a shot in the paint fairly early in the shot clock, but it’s predictable. The Sparks’ guards thrive on being unpredictable. Wheeler has always been known for her shiftiness. Cooper and Sykes like to overwhelm their opponents with strength and athleticism. Those skills are often best utilized when defenders are off-balance or still getting set. Te’a misses this shot, but does a good job of attacking Vandersloot after Nneka’s screen gets her just a half-step’s worth of space:

The Sparks could use more of that explosion. Cooper had a rough start to the year but seemed to settle in before the break. Hopefully she maintains her momentum upon return.

The clip also shows another issue for LA, though: lack of movement off the ball.

Minimal Movement

Part of keeping your opponent on their toes is sending them different looks. LA has struggled mightily with that. The following possession provides a good example of the lack of explosion and creativity in their offense:

The concept is good: get Kristi Toliver receiving a pass after two screens, ideally for a shot. But the execution falls flat. LA did not do a great job putting pressure on any defender. A stronger screen for Wheeler could’ve opened up a driving lane. Once Toliver received the pass, a well-timed cut from a corner could’ve generated a good inside look. Instead, Zahui B is in a protective stance on the three-point line, neutralizing any chance she had to shoot, and Wheeler is forced into an iso with five seconds on the shot clock. One or two additional off-ball movements could drastically change the outcome of these possessions for LA.

Potential Fixes

Getting Nneka, Toliver, and eventually Chiney back will help the Sparks’ offense tremendously. But a systemic change is still needed.

One change that could help would be re-tooling Nia Coffey’s role in the offense. Coffey provides the Sparks with a great amount of versatility. She’s tall and strong enough to battle inside, yet quick and crafty enough to work outside. Running plays for her on different parts of the floor could help open things up for the other Sparks, while also providing Coffey with easy looks.

Coffey should also be utilized more in those high screen actions, as her catch-and-shoot opportunities often lead to three points…

and provides an improved level of comfort than the other bigs when away from the basket. Even though she misses here, that’s a level of controlled unpredictability that can serve LA very well at full-strength.

In Fisher We Trust?

If the Sparks hope to make a second-half push, they’ll need to implement some improved offensive sets. Fans can only hope Derek Fisher did some self-reflecting over the break. If not, LA is likely headed to a top pick in his third season.

About Richmond Bailey Caldwell

Die-hard Grizzlies fan since 2009. Aspiring basketball writer and coach. University of Georgia sport management alum. Perennial first team all-defense selection.

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