Sparks' inside combo should be among league's best
Updated: May 17, 2008, 2:01 PM ETBy Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com
Lisa Leslie has been paired up with a former Tennessee superstar before. It worked out OK. But not quite well enough.
Now, the Los Angeles Sparks get another shot at seeing where a half-orange dynamic duo can take them. No. 1 draft pick Candace Parker is a highly prized sidekick to a future Hall of Famer. And if Parker's pro career goes as projected, she will be in the same category as Leslie someday, when "all-time best" players are listed. "I think it's going to be really great for Candace and I to play together," Leslie said. "She's a phenomenal player already, and I look forward to sharing with her the knowledge I have of the game and also learning what she knows already." Leslie has three Olympic gold medals and two WNBA titles, but Parker has something Leslie didn't get: an NCAA championship. Two, of course, as Parker just ended her Tennessee career with back-to-back titles. Leslie missed the 2006 World Championship because of family issues and so she didn't get to play alongside Parker for Team USA in that event, and in 2007, Leslie sat out the WNBA season due to maternity leave. She has worked hard daily in the last several months to get back into the form that has put her on the short list of the best to ever play women's basketball. Leslie's self-critiques are pretty withering, so you have a feeling that things are going well when she says, "I can see glimpses of things I can do, and I'm going to get better. Things I look for are my rebounding, and I have to be more consistent going to the basket." Now the 6-foot-5 Leslie combines with the 6-foot-4 Parker, who will drive defenses to distraction at the pro level just as she did in college. Further, personality wise as competitors, Leslie and Parker are similar in that they expect to succeed because they have so much confidence in themselves. In fact, that's pretty much an unshakeable quality in both. If these two are healthy (or at least reasonably so) for this season, the Sparks will have as good an inside combo as anyone could imagine. It wasn't quite the same feeling when Tennessee legend Chamique Holdsclaw and Leslie played together in Los Angeles for two seasons. Not because of any lack of talent or problem working in tandem. It was more that Holdsclaw didn't seem to have the same fire to win a WNBA title that Parker will bring to the team. Holdsclaw had produced consistently in the league during her time at Washington, and she also did that in her two full seasons in L.A. But her acknowledged struggle with depression and her apparent lack of fulfillment playing in the league, kept her from being someone who leads a team to titles. She seemed more on an island than on a team. In 2005, the Sparks went 17-17 -- with 29 of those games in the utterly absurd but mercifully short "Henry Bibby Era." He was replaced as head coach by Joe Bryant for the last five games. Bryant then guided the Sparks to a first-place finish in the Western Conference in 2006, when they went 25-9. Both seasons, L.A. made the playoffs. But it failed to reach the title game in both years, losing in the first round to Sacramento in 2005 and in the conference finals to the Monarchs in 2006. With Leslie out last season, Holdsclaw started as the Sparks' primary threat. But then she announced her retirement from the WNBA in June after just five games. With that, the Leslie-Holdsclaw, one-two punch was over for L.A., and the Sparks didn't have a trip to the finals, let alone a title, to show for it. But there was a remarkable silver lining. After the Sparks, current coach Michael Cooper and the L.A. fans had to endure a 10-24 season, the team was put in a position to win the lottery and be able to draft Parker. Cooper would point out, though, that the Sparks aren't leaving their success solely up to Leslie and Parker, no matter how capable they are. Eight Sparks players have returned from 2007 in an attempt to make the 2008 squad (final roster cuts will be made Friday). One of those players includes the top scorer from last season's team, second-year player Sidney Spencer, who was Parker's former teammate at Tennessee. DeLisha Milton-Jones, who was a key part of the Sparks' 2001 and 2002 WNBA title teams, is in L.A. again after a trade that sent Taj McWilliams-Franklin to Washington. Marie Ferdinand-Harris, who played previously for Utah/San Antonio, is in L.A. now hoping to regain her form as one of the more explosive offensive guards in the league. And there is another lightning-quick former LSU guard in L.A., too, in Temeka Johnson. In fact, no matter how the final roster shapes up, this a team with a heavy influence from the best programs of the SEC. None better than Tennessee, which as of Tuesday still had four players on the Sparks' roster. That tint of orange is going to serve L.A. well. And it's worth noting that the Sparks are not the only team that's going to benefit from Leslie and Parker playing together. So will Team USA for the Beijing Olympics. (The squad hasn't been finalized yet. But as long as they're healthy, it's certain those two will be on it.) "We're already going to have our chemistry built," Leslie said of her and Parker going into Olympic preparation later this summer with their USA teammates. "And that will be a great advantage for us."
Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty ImagesLisa Leslie looks forward to trading knowledge with rookie Candace Parker as the two combine to make one of the league's top inside duos.
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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WNBA.com• Complete season preview
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• Play: Pick One Challenge
Key Dates• May 16: Rosters cut-down date
• May 17: Regular season opens
• July 28-Aug. 27: Olympic break
• Sept. 14: Regular season ends
• Sept. 18: WNBA playoffs open
• Oct. 1: WNBA finals begin
• Oct. 9: Last possible playoff date