Four takeaways after the Sparks drop five in a row

When will the Ogwumike sisters, Nneka and Chiney, return from the knee injuries that has forced them to miss 70% of games this season?How will their return improve the Sparks' offense?

Los Angeles Sparks opened the month of July with consecutive losses over the 4th of July weekend to the WNBA's two best teams. Their 66-58 loss to the Las Vegas Aces and their 84-74 loss to the Seattle Storm this past weekend and their lost to the Storm on Wednesday night has pushed the losing streak to five in a row and nine out of their last 11 games. They are in 11th place in the 12 team WNBA league with a record of 6-12.

Here is four takeaways from their five game losing streak.

The Sparks are defensively sound.

Los Angeles are fifth in the league in team defense with a rating of 98.9. Brittney Sykes, who relishes the opportunity to take on the opposing team's best offensive threat, sets the tone for the Sparks' defense. Sykes, a top-25 defender, leads and inspires her teammates with her swarming style of play.

Nia Coffey and Karlie Samuelson, two players who appear unassuming off the court, are fierce and tenacious competitors when they see action. Although Samuelson's game has yet to translate to filling up the box score, her plus/minus of +3.1 conveys her impact on the team. Also, Coffey's play on defense provides a palpable jolt that her teammates draw from. Coffey has been in the top-10 in blocked shots with an average of 1.5 a game. In addition, she frequently erases mistakes made by teammates with superb weak-side defense, either taking charges or blocking shots.

The short-handed Sparks exacerbated their ability to defend when Amanda Zahui B, also averaging 1.5 blocks a game, struggled with foul trouble in both games. With Zahui B on the bench, and newly acquired Lauren Cox finding her footing on the team, the Sparks were -14 in points scored in the paint. Against the Aces, Zahui B. recorded her second double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds.

If the Sparks are to turn around their season, Cox and Zahui B must ensure that the defense's interior remains formidable.

Offensive lulls cost them wins.

Los Angeles is heavily reliant upon their two best playmakers, Erica Wheeler and Sykes. Both players are slashers and rhythm shooters, and the Sparks offense heavily relies on isolation ball that requires points to come from inside the paint. In fact, Los Angeles leads the league with 46.7% of their field goals coming from unassisted shots.

As a result, the Sparks offense has an assist ratio, the percentage of a team's possessions that ends in an assist of 13.8 --dead last in the league. The ball tends to get stuck in the hands of Wheeler or Sykes, who seek to create opportunities for teammates to score with their ability to collapse defenses with dribble penetration. 

Because Wheeler and Sykes excel at driving to the rim, they frequently draw a double team, creating open opportunities for shots. However, the Sparks are tied for last in true shooting percentage (48.9); the metric measures shooting efficiency, which takes field goals, 3-point field goals, and free throws into account. 

Los Angeles does its damage on offense by creating turnovers and with their ability to score in the paint. 41% of all of Los Angeles' points come from inside the key. Regardless of how exceptional they are at getting into the heart of opposing defenses, their inability to knock down open shots creates extended scoring droughts for Los Angeles, placing additional pressure on an offense already with slim margins for error.

Rebounding is a struggle

Los Angeles has not been a great rebounding team this year. They manage to recover 43.2% of all missed shots which is last in the league. Where they struggle in particular is on the defensive glass. The Sparks manage to recover 65.6% of the opponent's missed shots, also last in the league. 

Their lack of ability to limit the opposing team's second, and at times, third opportunities to score place unsustainable pressure on an offense that frequently stalls. Zahui B leads the Sparks in rebounding (6.1 per game), but when she struggles with foul trouble, as she did last weekend, it puts Los Angeles in an unmanageable bind.

Queen in the Clutch

Wheeler plays her best in pressurized moments. She's third in the WNBA with clutch points scored (4.0). The Sparks, like Wheeler, play their best basketball in the waning moments of the game. However, after falling behind by double digits in both games over the weekend, the Sparks expended too much energy down the stretch in closing the gaps. 

Last Sunday, head coach Derek Fisher spoke on his team's struggles."You know it's hard to play from behind in a 40-minute game if you're spending a majority of the minutes having to expend the energy that it takes to come from behind it and again at this level. It makes it really difficult to stay or have what you need mentally and physically to try to finish the job, sometimes." 

The Sparks are not far from stacking wins. They've been able to compete with the league's elite. They force teams to turn the ball over at a remarkable rate. If they're able to become more efficient on offense, fireworks will light up the sky. If the Ogwumike sisters are able to return to health, they will provide Los Angeles with the sparks they need on offense. 

Follow Eric on Twitter @elambsquared and IG @elamb5quared.


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