Matching History: A Closer Look at the Sparks’ Incredible Run

With a thrilling comeback win over the Connecticut Sun on Friday, the Los Angeles Sparks improved to 20-1 on the season, matching the 1998 Houston Comets for the most wins with just a single loss in WNBA history.

That Comets team not only went on to win their second of four straight WNBA titles, they also set the single-season record for highest winning percentage in league history at .900 (27-3) that still stands today.

For any team to be in the conversation with that Houston squad in terms of sheer dominance over the competition is remarkable. But that is exactly what the Sparks have been this season.

EXPLOSIVE OFFENSE

Los Angeles Sparks’ Season Mixtape

Let’s start by taking a closer look at the Sparks’ top-ranked offense, which produces a league-best 109.5 points per 100 possessions. If we look at per game numbers, the Sparks rank second (85.7 ppg), less than a point behind Phoenix (86.4), which plays at a faster pace and therefore has more possessions each game.

The Sparks feature two of the top 10 scorers in the league – Nneka Ogwumike (T-6th at 19.1 ppg) and Candace Parker (9th at 16.7 ppg). While those two stars account for 41.8 percent of the Sparks’ points, they also get contributions from fellow starters Kristi Toliver (14.6 ppg), Essence Carson (8.9) and Alana Beard (7.9) as well as key reserve Jantel Lavender (9.3) to provide balance to their attack.

The Sparks have players that can score from all over the court — Ogwumike down low, Toliver and Carson from the perimeter, Lavender and Beard in mid-range and the paint, Parker from everywhere — and they are all willing passers that look to expose defenses and find high quality shots either for themselves or a teammate.

The result is a team that leads the league in assists (21.6), field goal percentage (50.0%) and three-point percentage (39.2%). From an individual standpoint, Ogwumike leads the league in field goal percentage at a ridiculous 71.2% (more on that later), Toliver ranks third in 3-pointers made (2.7 per game) and three-point percentage (46.1%), just ahead of Carson’s 45.9% from beyond the arc.

Meanwhile, Parker has notched back-to-back games with nine assists to climb to third in the league at 5.0 assists per game — the most by a non-guard. Parker is the only player in the WNBA to rank in the top 10 in scoring (9th), rebounding (9th) and assists (3rd).

LOCKDOWN DEFENSE

The Sparks’ Stifling Defense

What puts the Sparks in contention to have one of the best seasons ever is that they don’t just excel on one end of the floor; they dominate on both. Just like they have the league’s top-ranked offense, they also tout the top-ranked defense, allowing just 73.5 points per game and 93.7 points per 100 possessions.

While L.A.’s overall opponent field goal percentage (42.5%) ranks third in the league behind New York and Minnesota, no team defends the three-point line better (opponents make a league-low 4.4 3-pointers per game on a league-low 29.1% shooting) or allows fewer free throws (the Sparks lead the league in fewest attempts and makes by their opponents).

The Sparks are lucky enough that their opponents also shoot a league-low 75.7% from the free throw line against them, so not only are they not getting to the line against the Sparks, they’re not taking advantage of the charity stripe when the Sparks do commit shooting fouls.

MIDSEASON MVP NNEKA OGWUMIKE

Nneka Ogwumike’s Top Plays Of The Season

Ogwumike took the lead in the WNBA Race to the MVP rankings behind her continued stellar — and super efficient — play this season. We already mentioned that she leads the league in field goal percentage at 71.2%. That number is definitely helped by her four games this season in which she’s made at least 10 shots while missing two or fewer.

June 11: 32 points, 12/12 FG @ Dallas
June 14: 27 points, 12/14 FG vs. Chicago
June 30: 38 points, 13/14 FG vs. Atlanta
July 13: 20 points, 10/11 FG @ Chicago

She is well on her way to shattering the WNBA record for field goal percentage in a single season. The record is currently held by Tamika Raymond, who shot 66.8% for the Minnesota Lynx back in 2003. It should be noted that Raymond averaged 5.1 shot attempts per game during that season, which is less than half of Ogwumike’s 10.6 this season. The combination of volume and efficiency is something we’ve never seen before in the WNBA.

All time WNBA ranks:

FG% Player Team Year FGA
71.2% Nneka Ogwumike LAS 2016 10.6
66.8% Tamika Raymond MIN 2003 5.1
66.4% Candice Dupree PHX 2010 10.2

 

In fact, it hasn’t been done in the NBA either. Wilt Chamberlain holds the record for the highest field goal percentage for a single season at 72.7%, which he shot in the final season of his career. But this was not the same Wilt that was averaging 50 points and taking a ton of shots. When he set the record in 1973 he averaged 7.1 shot attempts per game; Nneka has that number beat by 3.5 shot attempts and the WNBA game is eight minutes shorter than the NBA game.

Wilt’s record-setting season is followed by a pair of super-efficient seasons from Clippers center DeAndre Jordan from the past two NBA seasons. Jordan shot over 70 percent in each season, but on four fewer shot attempts than Nneka is currently averaging.

All time NBA ranks:

FG% Player Team Year FGA
72.7% Wilt Chamberlain LAL 1973 7.1
71.0% DeAndre Jordan LAC 2015 6.5
70.3% DeAndre Jordan LAC 2016 6.6

 

And taking nothing away from Jordan, but he scores most of his buckets on alley-oops, put-backs and dunks. Ogwumike has showed off an impressive offensive repertoire this season playing completely below the rim.

CANDACE DOING IT ALL

WNBA Top 20@20: Candace Parker

Then there is Parker, who can affect the game in so many ways due to her unique versatility. It’s a credit to Ogwumike and the rest of the Sparks’ squad that Parker only leads the team in one category: assists.

Sparks Team Stats Leaders

Category Player Stat WNBA Rank
Points Ogwumike 19.1 7th
Rebounds Ogwumike 8.5 5th
Assists Parker 5.0 3rd
Steals Beard 2.1 2nd
Blocks Ogwumike 1.45 7th
FG% Ogwumike 71.2% 1st
3P% Toliver 46.1% 3rd
FT% Toliver 89.8% 7th

 

The key to Parker’s success is not dominating one phase of the game, but making strong contributions in all phases of the game. How rare is it to do what she is doing? There are no other WNBA players that match her numbers from this season — 16.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.2 blocks.

If we look at the NBA, there were only three players last season that averaged 16 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists: Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. And if you add the block and steal per game, that eliminates LeBron and Westbrook and leaves only Durant.

Player MIN PTS REB AST
Kevin Durant 35.8 28.2 8.2 5.0
LeBron James 35.6 25.3 7.4 6.8
Russell  Westbrook 34.4 23.5 7.8 10.4
Candace Parker 31.1 16.7 7.5 5.0

 

Don’t forget that the WNBA game is only 40 minutes long compared to 48 for the NBA. Parker put up comparable numbers while averaging more than three fewer minutes per game.

When we look at per 40-minute stats and up the minimum thresholds to averaging at least 20 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists, that drops Durant out of the NBA picture and adds Maya Moore to the WNBA list.

Player PTS REB AST
LeBron James 28.4 8.3 7.6
Russell  Westbrook 27.3 9.1 12.1
Candace Parker 21.4 9.6 6.4
Maya Moore 27.6 7.2 6.0

 

CATCHING THE COMETS

Back in 1998, the Comets dropped game No. 22 to fall to 20-2 and would lose just one more time during the regular season to finish the year 27-3 (the WNBA played fewer than 34 games in its first six seasons before changing to the 34-game schedule in 2003).

If the Sparks hope to beat the Comets’ mark for the best record (by winning percentage) in league history, they would need to finish 31-3 (.912), losing just one more game over their final 12 this season.

Of course, if we’ve learned anything from this year’s Golden State Warriors, breaking the regular season record doesn’t hold the same weight without winning the championship. The Sparks ended Houston’s dynasty back in 2001 as they won the first of back-to-back WNBA titles, but the Sparks have not been back to the Finals in the 13 seasons since.

When it comes to chasing the Comets, the real record every team wants is their four WNBA championships. There are three franchises — Minnesota, Phoenix and Dallas (then in Detroit) — that are one title shy of matching Houston’s mark. Before they can get to four, the Sparks must first get to three titles and join the Lynx, Mercury and Wings (Shock) on the precipice of the ultimate achievement.