The Sparks emerge from the All-Star break with a six-game losing streak and half the season left to answer: Will they participate in the playoffs or the 2024 draft lottery? Layshia Clarendon might be able to help with that.
The Sparks (7-13) will have a boost when 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 their right plantar fascia in June, returns Thursday for L.A.’s game against the Minnesota Lynx (9-12) in Minneapolis.
An experienced veteran with 11 seasons under their belt — the same as All-Star Nneka Ogwumike who is matching her 2016 MVP year statistics, averaging 19.8 points with 9.6 rebounds in 32 minutes — Clarendon also brings intangibles to the court.
“I’m realistic in that way to just impact the game the ways that I know how,” Clarendon said Wednesday about balancing having patience for finding their chemistry on the court again with the urge to make an immediate impact.
“And trust I’m bringing the intangible things that I’ve had to bring that don’t have anything to do with making or missing a shot. Talking, or how hard I play, being in the right spot at the right time, those kind of cerebral things that I bring to the team.”
Experience and a natural feel for the court will help head coach Curt Miller as the Sparks’ playbook becomes multifaceted again. The injuries decreased practice time on the court and overextended healthy players simplified the team’s playbook in the first half which, in turn, affected results.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” Miller said Tuesday.
Clarendon, who missed 14 games, is the only injured player guaranteed to return Thursday. Lexie Brown has been practicing and might compete this week, according to general manager Karen Bryant. Chiney Ogwumike will be out four to six more weeks with her foot injury and Nia Clouden, with a knee injury, does not have an estimated return yet.
In the absence of the injured players, rookie Zia Cooke filled a large role in the first half of the season as one of only two Sparks to play every game, averaging 4.7 points in 14.3 minutes. Clarendon imparted a subtle veteran guarding trick to her on the court, Wednesday.
“I was guarding Zia,” Clarendon said, “and I kind of like pushed her into something. She was like, ‘Oh, whoa.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s a veteran move.’ Like it was something I did defensively that was really subtle. She was kind of laughing about it.
“And I winked at her. I was like, ‘I have to teach you that.’ She was like, ‘Yeah, for real.’
“The way your experience from playing in this league gives you knowledge, there’s some things you only get from experience,” Clarendon said. “So you try and pass that down in little ways that you can to the younger people.”
As Clarendon, and potentially Brown, return, the Sparks’ early season challenge of creating a consistent starting lineup may become a strength. They have had 12 different starting lineups, meaning, they can put together lineups this half that other teams in the league have seen for single-digit minutes.
“I’m looking forward to the chess match,” Miller said.
One new combination is Azurá Stevens in her natural position as a power forward with Brown and Clarendon, both strong shooters. Stevens has flourished in this new position, recently logging a season-high 22 points against the Aces.
The Sparks have missed the playoffs only six times in their 27-season history — but that includes the previous two seasons.
“[The players] want to make the playoffs,” Miller said. “I wasn’t a coach brought in to tank.”
“It’s not in our DNA,” general manager Karen Bryant said.
The team first has to face a challenging upcoming road schedule against the Lynx, where Clarendon played in 2021, the Dallas Wings (11-9), and Indiana Fever (6-15).
“If we can make a run and get in the playoffs, we’ll be a tough out,” Miller said. “If we continue to have to pivot and we fall short, and we’re in the lottery, then we hope the balls bounce our way, literally.”
Added Bryant: “If we can get ourselves into a playoff hunt position with the first half of the season we’ve had, my goodness, what an incredible accomplishment that will be, and something I think we’d be really proud of.”