The Sparks come out of the All-Star hiatus on a six-game losing streak, and halfway through the season, the question remains: Will they make the playoffs or the 2024 draft lottery? Layshia Clarendon might be able to help with that.
The Sparks (7-13) will get a boost if Clarendon, who shot 40% from the three-point line and averaged 7.8 points with 3.7 assists in 26.7 minutes before partially tearing his right plantar fascia in June The Minnesota Lynx (9-12) in Minneapolis returns to play against LA on Thursday.
A seasoned veteran with 11 seasons under her belt – like All-Star Nneka Ogwumike, who equaled her 2016 MVP stats for the year averaging 19.8 points and 9.6 rebounds in 32 minutes – Clarendon also brings intangibles to the court .
“I’m realistic in that regard and just want to influence the game in any way I can,” Clarendon said Wednesday of balancing the patience to find that chemistry back on the pitch and the urge to make an impact right away.
“And trust that I will bring the intangibles that I needed to bring that have nothing to do with getting a shot or missing. Talking or how hard I play, being in the right place at the right time, those intellectual things that I bring to the team.”
Experience and a natural flair for the pitch will help head coach Curt Miller as the Sparks’ playbook diversifies again. Injuries reduced training time on the pitch and overuse of healthy players simplified the team’s play in the first half, which in turn impacted results.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” Miller said Tuesday.
Clarendon, who has missed 14 games, is the only injured player guaranteed to return on Thursday. According to general manager Karen Bryant, Lexie Brown has been training and could compete this week. Chiney Ogwumike will be out for four to six weeks with a foot injury and Nia Clouden is yet to return with a knee injury.
In the absence of injured players, rookie Zia Cooke played an important role in the first half of the season, becoming one of just two Sparks to play in every game and averaging 4.7 points in 14.3 minutes. Clarendon showed her a subtle, expert guarding trick on the pitch on Wednesday.
“I was guarding Zia,” Clarendon said, “and I sort of pushed her into something. She said, ‘Oh, whoa.’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a veteran maneuver.’ Like it was something I did defensively that was really subtle. She kind of laughed at that.
“And I winked at her. I thought, “I’ll have to teach you that.” She said, “Yeah, seriously.”
“The way the experience you’ve gained in this league gives you knowledge, there are some things that you only get through experience,” Clarendon said. “So try to get that down to the younger folks in a little way.”
With Clarendon and possibly Brown returning, the Sparks’ early-season challenge of putting together a consistent starting lineup could become a strength. They’ve had 12 different starting line-ups, which means they’re able to put together line-ups this half that other teams in the league have only seen in the single digits.
“I’m looking forward to the chess game,” Miller said.
A new combination is Azurá Stevens in her natural position as a power forward with Brown and Clarendon, both strong marksmen. Stevens has thrived in this new position, notching a season-high 22 points against the Aces recently.
The Sparks have missed the playoffs just six times in their 27-year history — but that includes the previous two seasons.
“[The players] I want to make the playoffs,” Miller said. “I wasn’t a coach brought to the tank.”
“It’s not in our DNA,” said executive director Karen Bryant.
The team must first face a demanding upcoming away game schedule against the Lynx, where Clarendon played in 2021, the Dallas Wings (11-9) and Indiana Fever (6-15).
“If we make it and make the playoffs, we’re going to be a tough opponent,” Miller said. “If we have to keep turning around, if we don’t succeed and we end up winning the lottery, then we hope that the balls will literally bounce in our direction.”
Bryant added, “If we can put ourselves in a playoff chasing position with the first half of the season that we’ve had, gosh what an incredible accomplishment that’s going to be and I think we’d be really proud of it.”