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The Los Angeles Sparks Went All-In This Offseason. How Will The New Pieces Fit Together?

Electric combo guard Chennedy Carter, newly added to the Los Angeles Sparks in a busy offseason for Derek Fisher’s crew, smiled widely when asked about what it would mean to play alongside a dominant big like Liz Cambage, something Carter’s never really done at any level.

“Man, you’re telling me something I’ve thought about since I came to the WNBA,” Carter said in a Zoom press conference last week. “Playing with a five-player that’s dominant in the post, to where you definitely have to double-team them or pick and choose, I think that’ll free my game up, it’ll free their game up. It really is going to be unstoppable.”

Los Angeles capped its busy offseason Friday with the official addition of Cambage at a salary of $170,000, which allowed the Sparks to keep 12 players on the roster. The individual effects of the many moves are obvious: The Sparks have added players who do everything the roster struggled with last season, and at an elite level. But there’s that second-order potential of the Sparks, too: Think of it like an explosive combination of chemicals, with the opportunity to see players like Cambage, Carter, Katie Lou Samuelson and Jordin Canada working together, creating an offense worthy of the defense Los Angeles played last season.

The Sparks allowed just 0.864 points per possession overall last season, per Synergy Sports, good for second in the league, behind the Connecticut Sun. They shut opponents down in the halfcourt, where they were also second to the Sun, and in transition, where their 0.961 points per possession easily led the league.

And yet, while the Sun finished 26-6, the Sparks missed the playoffs entirely at 12-20. And the fault for that lies at the other end of the court. The Sparks scored just 0.847 points per possession, good for 11th in the WNBA last season, ahead of only the 6-26 Indiana Fever. And there were few bright spots, with spot-up shooting, scoring in the post and transition scoring all areas in which the Sparks struggled.

When it comes to spot-up shooting, Katie Lou Samuelson has improved from the three-point line in each of her first three seasons in the WNBA, reaching 35.1 percent during 2021. No returning regular on the Sparks other than Nneka Ogwumike outperformed that rate last season, and on a team where Samuelson should get regular minutes and a better chance to establish rhythm, the knock-down shooter of her UConn college days should show up in Los Angeles.

But notably, Samuelson has continued to diversify her game, and while her spacing will matter, so too will her ability to maximize her 6-foot-3 frame in mismatches to finish around the rim. Samuelson’s field-goal percentage within 3 feet of the hoop last season was a robust 71.4 percent, and 17.7 percent of her attempts came at the rim. That combination allowed Samuelson to thrive in transition, either pulling up or exploiting a mismatch to the tune of 1.359 points per transition possession, good for fifth in the WNBA among the 65 players with at least 30 such possessions. And she used that post-up skill regardless of the offensive situation, finishing fifth in that metric among 55 players with at least 10 such possessions as well. 

Critically, this is not someone likely to give back those offensive gains at the other end. For one thing, defenses under Sparks assistant coach Latricia Trammell are pretty consistent: Only three of the top-10 players in minutes per game from L.A.’s top-three 2020 defense were around for 2021’s top-four defense. They lost 2020’s Defensive Player of the Year, Candace Parker, to free agency, and their defensive rating actually improved in 2021

But Samuelson, too, keeps on improving at that end — her 0.8 defensive win shares in 2021  were a career high.

“Defensively, because of how long I am, I kind of bring versatility in terms of being able to help in other ways that people can’t sometimes as guards,” Samuelson said in a media Zoom. “I’m able to switch more and recover to different people … so I feel like my help-team defense is really good.”

The same is true of Cambage, though the critical breakthrough for the Los Angeles roster with Cambage is, again, at the offensive end. This should be fairly obvious — Cambage does, after all, hold the single-game record for points scored in a WNBA game, with 53 — but just her posting up alone represents an elite skill, even compared with the league’s other top bigs.

Eight WNBA bigs recorded at least 100 post-up possessions in 2021: Cambage, Sylvia Fowles, Jonquel Jones, Brittney Griner, Brionna Jones, Tina Charles, Teaira McCowan and A’ja Wilson. There are multiple MVPs in that bunch, but only Fowles outproduced Cambage on a per-possession basis posting up last year, with Cambage scoring 1.099 points per possession on post-ups.

Just how big a leap is this for the Sparks? Their leader in points per possessions on post-ups, Nneka Ogwumike, registered 0.787 points per possession last year on such plays.

Ogwumike is freed now to spend more time away from the basket, a place where she’s often thrived — witness her MVP season of 2016, which included a 61.5 percent shooting clip from three. And that Sparks team, which won it all, had no shortage of spacing from both its perimeter shooting skills and ability to finish at the basket.

The latter, incidentally, is where Carter comes in. Carter likes to compare herself to Allen Iverson, and that’s a reasonable take: Iverson was impossible to keep out of the paint and was an elite finisher once he got there, even as a guard. What’s incredible, though, is that in her career so far, Carter is outdoing Iverson.

She’s shooting 72 percent at the rim so far in her career — accuracy more common from a big, or at least a big wing like Samuelson — and Carter took 37.1 percent of her attempts at the rim last season. For comparison, Iverson had only one season with that high a percentage of attempts at the rim, and topped 70 percent accuracy from close range only one season in his career. So far, Carter is out-Iverson-ing Iverson.

“I think people don’t really realize how quick I am and just how much I work on my first step and being able to attack defenders going left to right,” Carter explained.

While Erica Wheeler had a fine season for Los Angeles before heading to Atlanta in the swap for Carter, she took just 24.2 percent of her shots at the rim and made 55.9 percent of them. These are good numbers for a point guard, to be clear. Carter is just at another level getting to the rim and finishing. And when Carter is on the bench, Canada will keep Los Angeles playing at an elevated pace, like the one Carter will excel at.

It’s not as if either Carter or Cambage are strangers to elite defenses — Carter played for defense-first Texas A&M coach Gary Blair, while Cambage’s Las Vegas Aces teams finished first in defensive rating in 2019 and second in 2021. But what kind of offense will we be looking at to pair with that defense? Carter had a comparison for this, too. “It’s like Shaq and Kobe,” she said. “It’s a combination to where you have to really pick and choose and really be on your P’s and Q’s.”

If Carter is right, opposing defenses will have their hands full.

Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of The Next, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.