Sparks

Sparks Dismiss Playoff Skeptics As Season Approaches

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Does a woman have free will? At first, it seems like a wide-open layup question: of course! But some philosophers, including the great Arthur Schopenhauer, argue no. Schopenhauer pointed to dreams and our inability to will what we want to shockingly argue against what seems like common sense.

Thankfully, WNBA fans know better: our idols do have a choice to further their passions and dismiss the legion of haters. But if we have free will, how can fans know if the Sparks will make the playoffs?

WNBA Lead can’t guarantee its predictions. However, by examining LA’s 11 competitors (and keeping in mind they need only surpass four to qualify), fans can choose to fantasize about returning to where the Sparks belong: the postseason.

 

Atlanta Dream

Atlanta struggled in 2021, winning only eight games and finishing in 11th place. Then, LA poached Chennedy Carter from the Dream, denying Atlanta what could have been their best player if not for immense friction between Carter and management. (Carter wasn’t comfortable discussing specifics of her frustrations; she chose to refocus on her new life’s path.)

Again, there’s no crystal ball to dismiss a team altogether. Without embarrassingly going into details, though, Atlanta’s had a rough path since almost making the 2018 Finals. Although Aari McDonald offers promise and Cheyenne Parker offers solid veteran leadership, there’s a distinct lack Dream star power.

The famous quip on the NBA is that it’s a make-or-miss league. After three Dream misses in a row, it’s reasonable to project the retooled Sparks ahead of Atlanta.

Verdict: Securely behind Los Angeles

 

Chicago Sky

How often have we heard the rebuttal, “it’s a regular-season award”? That’s why, sometimes, the most outstanding players don’t get the hardware.

Basketball, regardless of level, is primarily postseason-oriented. The Sky finished 16-16 last season but still dazzled fans with their first championship.

Chicago is difficult to handicap because, on paper, it boasts tremendous talent. With Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley returning, and Candace Parker back as leader-by-example, it’s tempting to project Chicago in the top four.

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Remember Bill Parcells’ edict, though: you are who your record says you are. The regular season matters, and it’s challenging to flip a switch and regain momentum. Chicago won’t be satisfied with .500; this season, they seek a victory lap around a league bamboozled by the Sky’s sudden success.

LA’s roster matches Chicago’s might. But the post-Parker Sparks are still learning how to win, and the Sky has already learned.

Verdict: Roughly equal or perhaps slightly ahead of Los Angeles

 

Connecticut Sun

Sparks fans gladly remember the lucky break in 2016, when the officials missed a shot clock violation in the Finals, to Nneka Ogwumike‘s benefit. The league changed the review rule, but too late for Minnesota.

If the Lynx held bitterness, imagine how the Sun must feel. Connecticut set a WNBA record with 14 consecutive wins to finish last season.

Their “reward?” A week off from competition before playing the Sky.

Sure, there aren’t byes anymore, but that’s small solace for an immensely talented roster. Jonquel Jones won the MVP last season, but she’s no one-woman team. Curt Miller juggles an army of shooters that work as a symphony of swishes, with nary a respite for bombarded enemies.

Los Angeles has star power that Connecticut can’t quite match. Behind MVP Ogwumike and the massively talented Liz Cambage, the Sparks laugh at anyone who falsely boasts of more talent. Experience matters, though, and the Sun nears victory’s elusive horizon.

Considering their postseason heartbreak, Connecticut is an uncertain selection to win the championship. The playoffs, though, are a reasonable expectation.

Verdict: Safely in the top eight

 

Dallas Wings

Fans who viewed the 2022 NCAA tournaments can sympathize with tough-luck teams. How often will opponents frustrate Louisville until the Cardinals finally succeed in the Final Four? Is it too late for NC State after a bummer regional placement?

The Wings sympathize.

After an awful stop in Tulsa, Dallas successfully rebranded. Arike Ogunbowale can ball, and the developing Wings boast six players with one or two years’ experience, even before the draft. Still, although 14-18 proved good enough for the 2021 playoffs, Chicago dismissed Dallas quickly in single elimination.

In the excellent play Seussical, hero JoJo proudly sings, “anything’s possible.” But some things are more likely than others. The Sparks boast senior leadership the Wings don’t, and although Dallas could well make the playoffs, it isn’t likely that they surpass an LA roster that’s been building for longer.

Verdict: Most probably behind Los Angeles

 

Indiana Fever

Speaking of tough-luck teams, the decline of Indiana saddens Indianapolis supporters and WNBA fans everywhere.

Tamika Catchings‘ heroics in the 2015 Finals wasn’t enough for a second title. In her final game in 2016, she refused to leave the court early, staying in the game until the last horn.

Catchings moved to a front-office role, but her magic didn’t carry over. Indiana whiffed on numerous draft choices and still hasn’t made the playoffs since Catchings’ proud retirement.

John Wooden once quipped, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have the time to do it over?” The Fever has done the regular season over five times and still hasn’t neared the postseason. If Indiana secures a franchise leader in the draft, they may, at too-long last, have the time to play basketball right.

With little proven talent, Indiana again doesn’t project as a playoff team. The Sparks missed the playoff last year, but they’re still numerous degrees ahead of the Fever.

Verdict: Safely behind Los Angeles

 

Las Vegas

The Sparks pulled the most significant offseason coup by snatching Cambage from a tremendously talented Aces franchise. But behind A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum, and Jackie Young, Vegas still has three #1 overall picks on the roster.

Nothing’s more heartbreaking in sports (remember, a microcosm of life) than almost winning, only to lose at the last second. Vegas hosted Connecticut in game five of the 2021 semifinals, only to have Diana Taurasi and Phoenix astonishingly defeat the hosts. Is it cliché to argue that the heartbreak will better their chances this season?

Clichés, sometimes, are just too-obvious truths. Vegas tires of being not-quite-enough and making the playoffs are but a small dribble downcourt to greater glory.

Verdict: Safely in the top eight

 

Minnesota Lynx

After the Lynx slipped following Maya Moore‘s departure, coach Cheryl Reeve argued, “all good things come to an end.”

WNBA Lead prefers Joni Mitchell’s observation: nothing lasts for long. And what a shame, too, for the Lynx’s inspiring dominance to regress to mediocracy.

Still, Minnesota is always a challenging foe.

Sylvia Fowles returns for a final season, and she and inexcusably underrated Angel McCoughtry mentors promising Napheesa Collier and Crystal Dangerfield. Minnesota remains stuck in a frustrating limbo: good enough to contend, yet possibly not talented enough to win the title, an expectation for the four-time WNBA champions.

LA, behind shrewd offseason moves, built past their former nemesis. Nothing lasts for long, but the Sparks are just beginning their second push for glory in the Ogwumike era (with Chiney doubling the family’s LA excellence).

Verdict: Safely in the top eight, but probably behind Los Angeles

 

New York Liberty

Speaking of wide-open layup arguments, selecting Sabrina Ionescu may have been the most straightforward #1 selection ever. Although Ionescu missed most of the bubble, she returned vengefully last season and could have led her team to long-overdue success with one more drawn foul against Phoenix (see 9:35).

New York didn’t want merely good luck (with the Sparks and Mystics losing on the last day) to provide a base for success. After Phoenix confoundingly let coach Sandy Brondello go, a reorganized Liberty management swooped in for a hire. And with WNBA champion Stefanie Dolson freely choosing New York, Ionescu has a mentor to help navigate an always competitive sport.

Too often, college stars escape notice after joining the W. But Ionescu’s torch shines especially brightly, and New York lifts its lamp along with a new, curious Brooklyn fanbase.

Verdict: Likely in the top eight, but most probably behind Los Angeles

 

Phoenix Mercury

A team with Diana Taurasi will compete for a championship.

Moving on to Seattle….

OK, just kidding. But not too much more needs to be said about Phoenix. The Mercury don’t always have the best regular season, but they’ve made a successful business model with modest regular-season success before sickening opponents in the playoffs. And with the great Skylar Diggins-Smith alongside Taurasi, Phoenix promises to contend again.

Sadly, Phoenix lost a vital player. Although not always meeting high expectations, Brittney Griner provided spunk that Cambage similarly promises for Los Angeles. But Russia arrested Griner, and the sizable star has more significant issues than winning a championship.

Without Griner, Phoenix won’t measure to the same temperature. But Taurasi laughs at the miser, Father Time, and runs her talents back once more.

Verdict: Safely in the top eight if Taurasi spites Father Time, but exact placement uncertain

 

Seattle Storm

Again, a quick checkmark. Sue Bird returns, and Breanna Stewart seeks validation after a foot injury (and do understand, those really hurt!) It’s not a two-woman show, with Jewell Loyd sneakily earning more experience and blossoming into a fine player.

During the pandemic lockdown, ESPN provided a happiness snippet with The Last Dance, celebrating Michael Jordan‘s last season. With 2022 the final campaign for Bird and departure rumors surrounding Stewart, this could be the last cloud in the Storm’s torrent.

A championship? Not assured. But in all likelihood, Seattle will at least make a playoff push.

Verdict: Safely in the top eight, likely ahead of Los Angeles

 

Washington Mystics

Fans need only three letters to measure the Mystics: EDD. If Elena Delle Donne performs as an MVP, Washington will make the playoffs.

If she doesn’t, they likely won’t.

True, Washington has the top pick, but Delle Donne offers the most potential this season, regardless of the Mystics’ selection. Delle Donne insisted in February that she’ll be ready, although Washington lost talented point guard Emma Meesseman to free agency. Still, Delle Donne has comfort with playing with an intelligently adjusted roster.

Delle Donne freely chose to work to return to game shape. If her words prove true, Washington will contend again.

Verdict: Safely in the top eight with healthy Delle Done, exact positioning uncertain

 

Final Report Card:

Out of playoffs: Atlanta, Indiana

On the bubble: Dallas, New York, Phoenix (depending on Taurasi excellence), Washington (depending on Delle Donne Health)

Should be in: Chicago, Connecticut, Las Vegas, Minnesota, Seattle

Los Angeles: Probably ahead of Atlanta and Indiana, meaning…

The Sparks need to be ahead of two of the other nine teams to make the playoffs. So how is this situation even a debate? And there’s no need to wish ill on Taurasi and Delle Donne. Derek Fisher has his roster set with four massive additions, and too many other teams are dribbling timidly, with the Sparks demanding a five-second whistle.

It’s no dream. It’s no epiphany. If the Sparks, contrary to Schopenhauer’s mistake, choose to play to their potential, tipping off in the first season of a wonderfully crafted playoff structure will be but the first goal to their genuine aspiration:

A fourth WNBA championship.

About Jeffrey Newholm

"Jammin Jeff" Newholm had been a basketball fanatic since his high school days, and remained a casual fan as a student in Whitewater. Wishing to check in as an active participant, he also completed a writing certificate program at UWM. He loves seeing Bucks games more than any other activity in hometown Milwaukee and especially screaming really really loudly to get someone to miss a free throw. Twitter: @JeffreyNewholm

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