The 15 wins the Los Angeles Sparks amounted in the first half equaled their entire total for 2011. It was supposed to a rebound year for L.A. - the Sparks did not make the playoffs last year - and it looks like those predictions were right on point.
It's difficult to point to just one thing that is the main reason for success for this team, but it's impossible to ignore the play of Candace Parker, WNBA.com's preseason favorite to win the MVP and the current leader in the Race to the MVP presented by Boost Mobile. Parker has been every bit the player she was in her MVP season of 2008, the last full season she played in the WNBA, and her play so far in the first half and in the Olympics has been nothing short of stellar.
The 6-foot-4 forward is near the top of the league in all relevant categories. She is fourth in points (19.0), third in rebounds (10.2) and first in blocks (2.6). With her playing at this level, an WNBA title is not out of the realm of possibility for Los Angeles.
As expected, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 WNBA Draft, Nneka Ogwumike, has made an immediate impact. A double-double threat every night, Ogwumike finished the first half with the best game of her career - 22 points, 20 rebounds, including 12 offensive, on July 12 versus Indiana. Ogwumike, who leads all rookies in scoring and rebounding, has assumed an even bigger role than expected because F/C Nicky Anosike had surgery before the season started (but is expected to return in the second half), and the Stanford product has shown that she has the ability to be a star for the Sparks for years to come.
Another bright spot in the backcourt, aside from point guard Kristi Toliver, is Alana Beard. Beard had not played in the WNBA since 2009 due to injuries, but the four-time All-Star is averaging 9.4 points and 3.5 assists in 31.9 minutes per game. The Sparks are potent inside and outside, and Beard is a big reason why.
Toliver averaged 20 points and 4.6 assists in L.A.'s first five games to secure the starting nod for good. The Maryland product is averaging a career-high 31 minutes per game and is setting career bests in every major statistical category.
It's been a season of up and downs for Toliver, however, who currently sits at No. 8 in WNBA.com's Race to the MVP, presented by Boost Mobile. Toliver has had games where she seemingly couldn't miss - like on July 6 when she made all six of her attempts from 3-point range - and moments of futility, like identical 2-for-10 outings from behind the arc on June 16 and July 8.
When Toliver is on, the Sparks are very hard to beat. Not only does she give the team a bonafide perimeter threat thus opening up the lanes for Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike in the middle, but the threat of the long ball allows her to get in the paint and dish to her teammates with ease. Toliver is averaging five assists per game in the first half, fourth in the league.
While much attention will be paid to Parker and Ogwumike, Toliver has the ability to make the Sparks a legitimate title contender.
– Anthony Oliva, WNBA.com