2014 Season Wrap Up
With arms interlocked on their way to the STAPLES Center press conference room, Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike look less deflated than proud following the Sparks 93-68 Game 2 defeat at the hands of the Phoenix Mercury in the Western Conference Semifinals. The All-Star duo knows expectations for the Sparks were high coming into the season, but also well aware of the obstacles the group was able to overcome.
"I think this season was interesting," Ogwumike started. "Because in my career, I hadn't been through a season like this before. It was ups and downs organizationally. There were things that I hadn't experienced."
Just two short months before tipping off training camp, the Sparks went through a major overhaul in the form of an ownership change, as an investment group led by Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Mark R. Walter purchased the team, quelling any discussion of disbandment or relocation after an offseason of questions.
"We didn't know where we were going to be in January," Parker explained. "We didn't know if we were going to have a team, if we were going to be in LA, if we were going to be playing for different organizations."
Within the first month of the regular season, though, the Sparks seemed primed for a big season. Newcomer Armintie Herrington brought a fresh defensive presence, recording at least one steal in each of the team's first 14 games, including multiple steals in 11 of those games. Included in that stretch, she tallied a franchise individual-record seven steals at Washington (June 1) versus the Mystics that counted towards a Sparks team record of 22 steals overall in the contest.
Less than a week later at Chicago, Los Angeles put on an offensive display unlike few accomplished before in Sparks history. A franchise-best 61 first-half points was just the beginning on a night that saw two other team records fall. The 43 field goals made in the 102-88 win stand as the most in team history, and 31 one of those came by way of an assist, another franchise mark.
Despite a 10-12 record at the break, the Sparks were well-represented at Boost Mobile WNBA All-Star 2014, as Parker and Ogwumike combined for 16 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists.
Ogwumike, in particular, had a breakout 2014, increasing her scoring average over one full point from 14.6 to 15.8 from last season. The forward poured in 20 or more points in at least four consecutive games twice (6/22-7/3 and 7/23-7/28) and scored a career-high 35 points versus Tulsa on August 5. Ogwumike was named Western Conference Player of the Week for games played June 24 through June 29.
"Even though [the result's] not what we expected," Ogwumike said. "It's not what we knew we were capable of, I think a lot of us grew from this season despite what happened. I know I did, with the help of my teammates, especially CP (Parker) and AB (Alana Beard), I've definitely matured. I'm not 24 (years old) anymore."
That maturation process was aided in part by Penny Toler, whose already burdensome title of Executive Vice President and general manager grew to include head coach on July 20, as the Sparks lifer took over for Carol Ross coming out of the All-Star break with an eye on inspiring a "renewed energy."
Toler was immediately impressed with the focus and drive of her hand-built team. The Sparks recovered from losses on back-to-back days in her first two game days on the job by winning six of its final 10 games. Los Angeles bettered its defensive scoring average by nearly two points (78.2 to 76.6) and saw the offensive explosion from Ogwumike, as she led the team in scoring (17.9 points per game) over the final 12 games after averaging 14.6 in the first 22.
The renewed energy was especially on display down the home stretch for Los Angeles, beginning with an improbable comeback against the Connecticut Sun at STAPLES Center. Los Angeles trailed 68-62 with 29.8 seconds remaining and 69-65 with 15.3 left before Parker's determination on the offensive glass, Ogwumike's defensive acumen and Kristi Toliver's clutch shooting sealed the unlikely victory.
Five days later, Toliver again played hero with a timely three-pointer in overtime of a hard-fought battle against the defending Eastern Conference champion Atlanta Dream at STAPLES Center. The three with 37.3 seconds left gave the Sparks the lead for good at 76-74, as Los Angeles ultimately won by an 80-77 score.
Toliver, who was named Western Conference Player of the Week for games played August 11 through August 17, saved her biggest performance for the least likely location--Minnesota's Target Center--where the Sparks entered the game carrying a lengthy losing streak in the building, last winning a game in Minnesota four years to the day of its August 12, 2014 clash against the defending WNBA champions. Following missed opportunities to clinch a playoff spot, Toliver recorded a career game against the Lynx, as she poured in a career-high-tying 29 points (5-of-9 from three) to help secure LA's WNBA-record 14th playoff berth.
While making the postseason was important to a team up against so many challenges and obstacles throughout the season, the team could not ignore the disappointment felt in its quest to win it all.
"As far as the season is concerned, you know we went through our adversity," Toler said. "And we made the playoffs, but the bottom line is we're in LA. If you don't win the championship, it's always a disappointing season."
"We'll be going back to the drawing board and we'll come back better for it."
Sitting at the press conference table alongside Ogwumike, Parker reflected on the disappointment of the players, much of which stems from the tightly-knit locker room and the inability to capitalize.
"The crazy thing about this is our locker room stayed together," Parker said. "This was one of the closest teams that I've probably been a part of."
After 18 seasons with the Sparks, even Toler learned something new from the season. Looking at the team from a seat on the bench, as head coach, she noted how the group in the locker room and its effort on the court made her a better general manager.
"They came as a team, leave as a team, and I want them to come back as a team," Toler declared. "Because we got unfinished business next year."