The 2023 season that was and what’s next for the Sparks

Cris Esqueda-The Sporting Tribune
Despite an injury-riddled season, the Sparks nearly made the playoffs this year.

LOS ANGELES — While the WNBA playoffs are going full speed ahead, four of 12 teams don’t get to go along for the ride. And sadly, one of the four teams is the Los Angeles Sparks, who were still in the playoff race as late as a couple of days before the season ended. The Sparks finished at 17-23. Yes, the record doesn’t look very flattering but if you look through the entire context of this season, it’s kind of miraculous they actually won 17 games.

The team had 18 different starting line-ups this year, which actually ties a record for most in a WNBA season. It’s really absurd how many games players missed due to injuries and illnesses; they topped the league by a mile with 168 (thanks to Lucas Seehafer from the Next for the data). And that doesn’t even include Katie Lou Samuelson’s maternity leave so the Sparks actually missed 208 total games. The team never had more than 10 active players on a roster all season. Just think about that.

Still, the Sparks had a promising start. Their home opener against Phoenix Mercury, which was Brittney Griner’s first WNBA game back since she was detained in Russia, was a surprise blowout. Rookie Zia Cooke immediately made her presence felt with 14 second quarter points.

“The first game of the season was probably one of my most favorite memories. It was a great competitive game and it’s the first game back with BG. And the energy inside (Crypto Dot Com Arena) was amazing. So I have to say that was probably my best memory,” recalled Sparks all-star Nneka Ogwumike during her exit interview.

An illness hit the team and they were very shorthanded in their games against Vegas, even though their first match-up was very competitive. Then Lexie Brown (more on her later) proved how improved and clutch she was as she sent the game to overtime and helped the Sparks win a rematch against the Mercury in Phoenix. After they split two games against Seattle, they defeated the Chicago Sky with a late run that put the game away. The Sparks showed promise at 4-3 at that point.

We were beginning to see first-year Sparks head coach Curt Miller’s footprints all over the team. The Sparks play disruptive, harassing defense. They get down and dirty and make it ugly. The Sparks also force a lot of turnovers and as the season went on, we would mostly see them be in the game at the end even after being down by double digits. It kind of became a signature for this year’s Sparks squad.

But this is where injuries started to rear its ugly head. Layshia Clarendon would be out for weeks after she hurt her foot against Chicago. Their very next game against Minnesota looked like a W with four minutes left but the Lynx somehow came back to win. It was around this time the Sparks started to show some offensive lulls (and also showed how much they missed Layshia).

After a win at Dallas, the Sparks had a five-game home stand. Lexie Brown, who had been showing that she could be a three-level scorer, would be out for most of the season at that time. Chiney Ogwumike was also missing games due to a foot injury. The Sparks would lose their first three home games of that stand before coming back to defeat Dallas twice to end the stint. It was during the Dallas games that hardship contract signing Destanni Henderson was giving the Sparks some much-needed help.

It was after those two wins when L.A. went on a tailspin. They would lose 8 straight games (which would include a 43-point explosion by Rhyne Howard in Atlanta) that would carry past the all-star break.

Both Lexie Brown and Layshia Clarendon would return after said all-star break but Chiney Ogwumike never returned on the court this season due to the foot injury. Lexie would only play three more games for the rest of the campaign before she was finally shut down late in the season. The Sparks finally stopped their skid after Jordin Canada’s three propelled the Sparks to victory over Aliyah Boston and the Indiana Fever at home. They would defeat Indiana a second straight time before they went on another three-game losing streak, courtesy of two games against New York and a game against the Washington Mystics. By then, they were 9-18 and not even close to the playoff picture.

But in hindsight, their next game against the Mystics seemed to turn it around. They got a big win against D.C. to stop their three-game skid. Near the end of the game, Layshia Clarendon got into a confrontation with Brittney Sykes (a former Spark herself). Both were thrown out but it showed that the Sparks were not going to take it anymore.

“No, no message at all,” laughed Layshia Clarendon when I asked if she was sending a message to opponents a few days after the Washington game. “Just that I play tough, that I’m always going to be a player that has respect for the game, has respect for my opponents. It’s never personal. It’s just things are going to get heated and I’m always gonna be a player who shows up and plays tough.”

The Sparks would go on a 6-game winning streak to put their record at 15-18. Suddenly, they were right back in the playoff race. In what was undoubtedly a highlight of the season, one of their wins in that streak included an upset victory over the defending champion Las Vegas Aces.

“Winning against Vegas… I think that was really huge for our team. Coming off the Commissioner’s Cup break, I think that was a testament to, like I said, just compete and the fight in us,” remembered Jordin Canada during her exit interview. “The 6-game winning streak. I think that was the highlight of the season and us finally starting to build that chemistry and get that flow with each other. That was really fun.”

The streak finally stopped after a game against the tough Connecticut Sun. But the big one was a loss against a team that they were fighting over the 8th and final playoff spot, the Chicago Sky. They had three shots for a potential game-winner and none of them went down. The Sparks would also stumble against the Seattle Storm where they couldn’t get any offense going.

In their final home game (which took place in USC), the Sparks were able to take care of business against the Washington Mystics. But Nneka Ogwumike would miss that game and would also miss the next two. With Karlie Samuelson also missing the final three games, the Sparks were once again shorthanded and would lose their next two games (against Connecticut and New York). Chicago took advantage and won their games to snag the final playoff spot.

But the Sparks had one final game to play and it was against the Seattle Storm. In what has been their signature all season, the Sparks came back from 19 down to defeat the Storm. The Sparks players notably smiled after the game as they finished the 2023 campaign on a good note.

“Gritty,” answered head coach Curt Miller when I asked him after the game to describe this team this season in one word. “That’s the word we used a lot this year. It wasn’t always pretty. We had to be gritty. It was a lot of different line-ups. A lot of different people, unfortunately, on that (injury report) every game but they were gritty, nonetheless. Put themselves in a position to make a run to the playoffs. Came up short but we have built momentum that we desperately wanted to do in Year One. This build is not gonna be a short build; it’s gonna take some time and we’re excited about the future.”

“I think we were resilient,” said Chiney Ogwumike after I asked her the same thing during her exit interview.

The team certainly was. I wish we could’ve seen this team if they were healthy because they could’ve done some damage in a playoff run; they looked like a team (with a full roster, of course) that nobody would want to go against. Especially since their grinding style of play is perfect for the postseason.

It’s not all sad faces for this Sparks team. In fact, far from it. If you took a look at the individual seasons these players have, a lot of them had banner years. Lexie Brown was an early candidate for Most Improved Player and when she went down, we immediately pivoted to Jordin Canada, who is a frontrunner for the award (it hasn’t been announced yet). Karlie Samuelson had a career year and ended up 4th in three-point percentage. Layshia Clarendon, after a year off, was back with a vengeance; they had a 30-point game in their second-to-last game of the season! It also says something that the Sparks were 14-10 with Layshia in the line-up… and 3-13 without them.

Once Azura Stevens started playing in her natural power forward position, she became a primary scorer at times. Rae Burrell came on late when the team was dealing with injuries again. Zia Cooke had an up-and-down season but she scored 14 in the season finale against Seattle in a cool full-circle moment (remember that she scored 14 in the season opener against Phoenix). Destanni Henderson and Evina Westbrook provided some good minutes off the bench. Nia Clouden only played five games this season due to a knee injury. And I can’t stress enough on how Dearica Hamby was able to play all 40 games of the season a mere two months after she gave birth. That is amazing.

We can’t forget the many accolades Nneka Ogwumike had this season. And throughout it all, she continued to be the rock for this team. I’m not saying she should win the Most Valuable Player award but people should, at least, be talking about what an outstanding season she had.

And we just can’t deny the camaraderie of this team. Even though it didn’t show in the win-loss record, their vibes were off the charts. They never overreacted to anything and just seemed to calm and collected the entire season.

“What I really loved is how we would prepare before the games, when we would do our little hype song, walking out to the court. And then when we get on the court, we would always pick somebody to dance in the middle… little things like that when you really get to see just how much we enjoy doing our jobs, how much we enjoy being around each other… I think that’s what stands out to me the most. It doesn’t matter what was going on, we still approach the games with a positive spirit and ready to compete,” said veteran guard Jasmine Thomas.

Now that the first season of building is over, we look forward to the draft lottery in November. Free agency starts in January and then the WNBA Draft will take place in April.

As for the offseason and the future of this team?

“As we said in the very beginning, success was going to be defined far more broadly than wins and losses and playoff berths. Nonetheless, those metrics and milestones are really really important to us and we’re squarely focused,” said Sparks general manager Karen Bryant during her exit interview. “We laid a great foundation this year, particularly culturally. A lot of talented players had a chance to get to know each other, to fit in and get to know Curt’s system, to play alongside each other and build really important chemistry. There’s a core group of players we want to keep together, we want to add a few more pieces but… we will have our sights squarely focused on the playoffs next year. As early as now. Those conversations are already underway.”

With the Sparks improving their winning percentage from last year (.361 to .425 this year), this team (as long as they stay healthy) could be very intriguing in 2024.