They lost their coach. They lost their star center. Finally, they lost their playoff chances.
Needing a win to stay alive in the postseason race, the Sparks got overpowered by the Connecticut Sun for the second time in three days, losing 93-69 at Crypto.com Arena on Thursday. The blowout sealed the Sparks’ second straight season without a playoff berth, a streak of futility reached only one other time in franchise history.
The organization’s steadiest pillar Nneka Ogwumike had 10 points and nine rebounds but committed a team-high four turnovers. As a final blow, the All-Star forward appeared to turn her ankle in the fourth quarter of the blowout and walked off gingerly as the Sparks trailed by 22 with 5:14 remaining. Brittney Sykes had 18 points as the Sparks (13-22) lost for the eighth time in the last nine games with seven of those losses coming after the abrupt departure of center Liz Cambage.
“We’ve dealt with so much adversity on and off the court,” Sykes said. “That’s not an excuse, but it’s a reality. So we have to just continue to give ourselves grace. … We did what we were supposed to do and sometimes the pieces just don’t hit. But I’m proud of our team. We fought hard so yeah.”
Sparks rookie Olivia Nelson-Ododa blocked Alyssa Thomas’ first attempt of the second half and shot the eight-year WNBA veteran a fiery look as if to signal that the Sparks wouldn’t go down easily. But the Sun (24-11) proved why they have been a championship favorite for the past four years behind the effortless scoring of Thomas (18 points, nine rebounds), reigning most valuable player Jonquel Jones (17 points) and DeWanna Bonner (13 points, seven assists).
Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Dallas Wings will now just be a formality before the Sparks embark on a crucial offseason to remake a franchise in disarray.
Katie Lou Samuelson and Chennedy Carter are the only Sparks players under protected contracts next season, meaning the next general manager has cap space to rework the roster. The team is without its 2023 first-round draft pick, which belongs to Washington. There are six unrestricted free agents, all of them proven veterans: Ogwumike, her sister Chiney, who sat out with lingering concussion symptoms Thursday; Sykes; Kristi Toliver; Lexie Brown and Jordin Canada.
Canada, who signed a one-year deal as a free agent last year, told The Los Angeles Times she hopes to be back for an encore, even though the Sparks have yet to name a coach or general manager. Will other free agents want to join her with the struggling franchise?
“Absolutely,” Canada said. “One, who doesn’t love being in L.A.? And two, just the history behind the Sparks organization and the championships and everything that has happened with this organization. I think regardless of what has happened this year, next year I still think that it’ll be a place where people want to come.”
Carter retuned after a four-game absence, which interim head coach Fred Williams described only as a “coach’s decision.” She scored eight points off the bench and declined to discuss the specifics about her absence.
Williams said his “heart” made the decision to put Carter back on the floor but wouldn’t disclose details on the conversation he had with the guard who missed most of last season with the Atlanta Dream because of a team-issued suspension.
“It’s more than basketball, it’s the mental,” Williams said. “And sometimes that gets personal. Sometimes people don’t understand that. I protect the players on that. … I was happy to see her play tonight and be happy playing basketball.”
Williams, a 40-year coaching veteran, said he’s emerged as a “godfather” figure in the WNBA. The Sparks turned to him to lead the team through tumultuous times when Derek Fisher was fired, even though Williams was scheduled to leave the team in July because he accepted a job as the associate head coach with the Auburn women’s basketball program.
Instead, he stayed to lead the Sparks and said Thursday it’s not guaranteed we will leave despite his college obligations. Williams said he and the Sparks are “still talking about a few things.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.