Editor's note: Before the 2006 season tips off, ESPN's Nancy Lieberman and ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel and Graham Hays each tackle one question facing all 14 WNBA teams. Here, the experts take a closer look at the Los Angeles Sparks.
The Sparks went 17-17 in the regular season before getting swept by Sacramento in the first round of the playoffs. Coach Joe Bryant enters his first full season in Los Angeles season after replacing Henry Bibby for the final five regular-season games of 2005.
Chamique Holdsclaw led the team in scoring at 17.0 ppg, while Lisa Leslie (who ranked second in scoring with a career-low 15.2 ppg) was tops in rebounding (7.3), blocks (2.0) and steals (1.97). Nikki Teasley averaged a team-high 3.7 apg.
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The Sparks have a brand new backcourt. The most notable change in Los Angeles is seeing Temeka Johnson -- not Nikki Teasley -- at point guard after the Sparks and Mystics swapped the two players in a deal that also sent Murriel Page to L.A. Johnson, last summer's rookie of the year, obviously doesn't have the flair that Teasley plays with, but she's very efficient, fundamentally strong and makes the right passes at the right time. And if the key to the Sparks' success is for Lisa Leslie and Chamique Holdsclaw to find cohesion, Johnson could be a really good fit. She's not the scorer that Teasley is, but she's a pass-first guard and a fabulous leader at the point.
Losing Tamecka Dixon to free agency is a hit, but Page is a really good, exciting role player. And she might be the answer for picking up some of the slack created two years ago, when L.A. traded away DeLisha Milton-Jones.
The Sparks had a good draft. Lisa Willis of UCLA is very talented and is expected to help the Sparks contend for the West crown. Will she eventually be able to replace Dixon's numbers? That's a tall order, but in her rookie season, Willis must give L.A. solid production defensively and knock down shots on the perimeter.
Another key for L.A. is to find that third or fourth scoring option. Willis and Mwadi Mabika, who had the worst season of her career in 2005 while limited with a knee injury, need to be the answer. -- ESPN's Nancy Lieberman
Best-case: Lisa Leslie moves into the Kareem-with-Magic stage of her career, still controlling games when necessary but ceding the primary spotlight to Chamique Holdsclaw. New point guard Temeka Johnson puts her passing skills on display, keeping both stars happy with plenty of open looks. Mwadi Mabika bounces back from an injury-plagued and ineffective 2005 season, giving the Sparks a fourth All-Star-caliber player in the starting lineup and a steady scoring option on the wing. Christi Thomas and Murriel Page give Leslie plenty of support in the post, while Doneeka Hodges and rookie Lisa Willis provide energy and outside shooting in the backcourt.
Worst-case: Leslie's late-season surge in 2005 proves to be a less reliable indicator of her future potential than an early-season rut in which she looked like a shadow of herself (albeit a shadow that most teams would happily take). Mabika, Willis and others are unable to provide consistent outside shooting, allowing teams to play off Johnson and devote more defensive attention to Leslie. And with almost no coaching experience, Joe Bryant falters at the helm of a talented but unstable roster. -- ESPN.com's Graham Hays
The Sparks mean a team with a distinct personality. Some people like 'em, but a lot of people don't. Throughout the coaching changes and everything else, Lisa Leslie has been the consistent force ever since the league began. Leslie can fill the "villain" role very well for some opposing fans because she continues to be one of the sport's most outstanding players. So there's a buzz when the Sparks visit a lot of arenas where they are considered prime rivals. -- ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel
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