Editor's note: Before the 2007 season tips off Saturday, ESPN's Nancy Lieberman and ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel and Graham Hays each tackle one question facing all 13 WNBA teams. Here, the experts take a closer look at the Los Angeles Sparks.
The Sparks went 25-9 in the regular season before losing in the Western Conference Finals. Coach Michael Cooper returns for his second stint in Los Angeles after leading the Sparks to two WNBA titles and three consecutive Western Conference crowns earlier this decade.
Lisa Leslie led the team in scoring (20.0 ppg), rebounding (9.5), blocks (1.7) and steals (1.5). Temeka Johnson averaged a team-high 5.0 apg.
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Best of times: While perhaps not matching Lisa Leslie as the league's most valuable player, Taj McWilliams-Franklin proves to be the league's most valuable offseason acquisition. Coming over from Connecticut, McWilliams-Franklin continues doing what she did for the Sun for years, namely hitting the boards as well as any player not named Cheryl Ford and providing a calm, unwavering hand in the clutch on offense. With the post solidified in Leslie's absence, Chamique Holdsclaw proves she still has the ability to be a team's unquestioned go-to option every night, making a run at MVP. With Temeka Johnson running the show and keeping McWilliams-Franklin and Holdsclaw happy and busy, young players like Christi Thomas, Jessica Moore, Lisa Willis and Doneeka Hodges-Lewis benefit from Michael Cooper's tutelage and begin to take some of the pressure off the veterans.
Worst of times: Cooper needs some time to find the right pieces for his rotation, with so many new faces in the mix compared to the last time he coached the Sparks. McWilliams-Franklin, 36, begins to finally show some wear and tear and suffers from not having Margo Dydek around in the high post to draw opposing centers out of the lane. Used to playing more defensive and rebounding roles alongside Leslie, Thomas and Moore struggle to provide points in the paint to relieve the pressure on McWilliams-Franklin. Mwadi Mabika doesn't match last season's playoff production (15.4 ppg), supplying the same erratic single-digit scoring she provided in the regular season, leaving the Sparks with no proven scorers to complement Holdsclaw and McWilliams-Franklin. With Phoenix, San Antonio and possibly even Minnesota ready to push for the playoffs, Los Angeles finds itself scrambling to stay in the race for the fourth seed. -- ESPN.com's Graham Hays
You just can't say a team got better when it'll be missing one of the most dominant players in the history of the game this season as Lisa Leslie is pregnant and out for all of 2007. But in one of the most brilliant offseason moves, Sparks general manager Penny Toler traded for Taj McWilliams-Franklin, a five-time All-Star in Connecticut. McWilliams-Franklin is consistent at both ends of the floor but also a great leader and nurturer for her teammates. L.A. also bolstered its frontcourt with the recent free-agent signing of LaToya Thomas, the No. 1 draft pick in 2003. And of course, having coach Michael Cooper back on the sideline is another plus. -- ESPN's Nancy Lieberman
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