For a 10-year veteran of the WNBA, Candace Parker is still crushing the hopes of opponents. She can bang inside the paint, fire from outside, drive to the hoop and impose her will offensively. But the Los Angeles Sparks haven’t required the two-time MVP to take on the leading scorer’s role in recent years, thanks to the team’s addition of the 2016 MVP Nneka Ogwumike.
Instead, Parker is able to use her wily read of the game to feed her teammates in myriad ways, to the point where she is looking like the best passer in the league.
Ahead of L.A.’s game against New York Liberty, commentators Angel Gray and Mary Murphy compared the superstar duo of Parker and Ogwumike to the Twin Towers of Tim Duncan and David Robinson’s San Antonio Spurs in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In reality, that pairing tended to set up either side of the basket for the best entry pass and clear out while the other big man went to work. Parker and Ogwumike often play on the same side of the court in a more contemporary offense, handling the ball and feeding it in to one another. It looks more like the Anthony Davis-Demarcus Cousins sets of last year’s New Orleans Pelicans, where Parker – the better ball handler and passer of the pair – will occasionally play pick and roll with Ogwumike. She can dump it off to the cutting center, or muscle her way into the paint to score and even kick it out to Essence Carson, Odyssey Sims or Alana Beard for an open jumpshot. While the team doesn’t take many shots from behind the arc (just 14.7 per game), the post activity of Ogwumike and the drives of Parker are leading to open shots, because the Sparks sit third in the NBA three-point percentage.
Parker’s offensive load peaked in 2010 when she scored over 20 points per game, which was also the lowest assist rate of her career at 2.2. Since Ogwumike arrived in 2012, Parker’s points per game have steadily decreased, but her assist totals have risen, spiking in 2015 to 6.3 and averaging well over 4 per game since then, with at least one of those per game coming from easy looks up the court.
But the dribbling duties don’t just fall to Parker and the guards. Ogwumike often gathers the rebound and pushes ahead herself. The style is infectious, and the Sparks rank third in the WNBA’s assists per game at 19.4, becoming a white ball-sharing team.
It is not dissimilar to one of the best basketball teams of all time. The Golden State Warriors featuring Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala combined for a +\- of 7.6 during 14.4 minutes per game in the playoffs. Compare this with other five-man squads in the 13, 14 and 15-minute region and there is limited competition. The nearest was the Utah Jazz’s team of Derrick Favors, Joe Ingles, Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, who played 13.5 minutes per game together, before Rubio went down, and finished with plus-6.3.
This essentially means that the Warriors could throw out the Hamptons Five at any point for two seven-minute stretches and put themselves up by 15 points, which is what tended to happen when Head Coach Steve Kerr put the game out of reach at the end of third quarters.
The reason the Warriors are able to play that line-up is, in part, thanks to their individual ability to rebound and push the ball. It means that every person who isn’t in a rebounding position can get down the court quickly and make the defense start working earlier. By the time the ball is crossing half court, an action might have already been triggered. And if that’s not successful, another offensive set can go through the motions that can lead to easy baskets on cross-matched defenders constantly playing catch-up.
Los Angeles Sparks have this in common with the Warriors. Parker and Ogwumike don’t boast gaudy rebounding numbers at 6.4 and 7.4, but they are still good for 18th and 11th in the league, respectively. As a team the Sparks are dead last in rebounding so far this season, but L.A. turns those points into quick possessions that have produced a league-leading field goal percentage of 47.7%. Whoever gets the board, everybody else on L.A. turns and runs down the floor.
It is this pass-first offense that has helped push L.A. towards the top of the league (11-5 at time of writing), and is making them a favourite to get back to the WNBA Finals early in this season, especially as the Sparks rivals in the past two championship rounds, the Minnesota Lynx, have struggled out of the gate.
That doesn’t mean it will be an easy ride. The Phoenix Mercury is rising with Diana Taurasi playing like a woman possessed and Brittney Griner being her usual terrifying presence inside. But the L.A. Sparks have savvy veterans of their own, who, thanks to some great passing, are all getting involved.
Featured photos – via Susan Lesch / Double Clutch illustration