Los Angeles Sparks: 2006 Preview
A team centered around the prodigious talents of Lisa Leslie and Chamique Holdsclaw could never be characterized as rebuilding, so let's just say the Sparks were busy substantially "revising" their roster in response to their worst season since 1998.
Following a 17-17 finish and a first-round sweep by Sacramento, Los Angeles overhauled its starting backcourt, trading Nikki Teasley to Washington and allowing Tamecka Dixon to depart for Houston as a free agent. Only Leslie and Mwadi Mabika now remain from the 2002 championship team.
Temeka Johnson, 23, inherits the point guard duties. Acquired from Washington with Murriel Page in exchange for Teasley, the 5-3 Johnson averaged 9.3 points, 5.2 assists and 1.3 steals a game last season to earn WNBA Rookie of the Year honors. She is nine inches shorter than Teasley, which might cause some matchup problems.
At shooting guard, the Sparks hope that Dixon's successor is first-round pick Lisa Willis. A 5-11 guard from nearby UCLA, Willis averaged 17.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists as a senior. She left the Bruins as the Pac-10's all-time leader in steals (372), averaging more than three per game throughout her career. A career 36.0 percent three-point shooter, she figures to help upgrade the Sparks long distance shooting; they shot only 32 percent (11th in WNBA) from three-point range a year ago.
Doneeka Hodges - the Sparks' top three-point shooter last season - could challenge after a breakout season (5.6 points, 2.4 assists) a year ago. She also figures log minutes as the backup point guard.
The frontcourt will also have a new starter. Forward Tamika Whitmore, who started all 34 games and was the team's third-leading scorer (9.6 ppg) behind Holdsclaw and Leslie, signed as a free agent with Indiana.
The most experienced option for Head Coach Joe Bryant is Mabika, but only if she is back in 2004 form. Last year, she was limited to 17 games because of a knee injury that resulted in the worst scoring average (5.8 ppg), rebounding average (1.6) and shooting percentage (.320) of her career.
If Mabika is game, she starts at the three and allows Holdsclaw to play at her preferred position - power forward. If not - and Bryant's playoff rotation is any indication - Raffaella Masciadri may have the inside track at a starting job. Masciadri averaged 23.5 minutes, and 12.0 points per game against Sacramento. Christi Thomas is a little more experienced, three inches taller and a better rebounder, so she figures to be in the mix as well, which would put Holdsclaw at the 'three.'
In either event, Holdsclaw, 28, joins Leslie to form one of the league's top tandems. Holdsclaw (17.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg) showed no ill effects from the depression that put an early end to her 2004 season. She posted the best shooting percentage (.480) of her career in her first season with the Sparks.
Leslie, meanwhile, remains one of the game's top players despite posting career lows in points (15.2) and rebounds (7.3) at age 33. She is the league's all-time scoring leader (4,732) and a mortal lock for the WNBA's all-decade team. She has a capable backup in Page, a starter for seven seasons in Washington.
Bryant should have a more successful coaching run than predecessor Henry Bibby. The team responded to his arrival late last season with a 4-1 spurt to qualify for the playoffs and salvage an otherwise disappointing season.
These Sparks won't dominate the way they used to, not with such inexperience in the backcourt and a relative lack of depth. But if Willis can hit the ground running, if Mabika is her old self and if up-and-comers Thomas, Hodges and Masciadri can handle additional responsibilities, the formidable duo of Leslie and Holdsclaw should have enough help to deliver a winner.