Los Angeles: building championship teams takes time

Alana Beard’s shot bounced off the rim, the final buzzer sounded, and the 10,000 standing people at Staples Center deflated in an instant. The Sparks season was over, and fans are in mourning.

But the hand-wringing and dire predictions for this team began long before yesterday’s Western Conference finals loss. Since the draft lottery almost two weeks ago, both fans and media members have said that if the Sparks didn’t win this year, they never would – that this was their last chance.

Their reasoning is that Phoenix stands to draft 6-foot-8 center Brittney Griner with their top pick, and then Chicago and Tulsa will take Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins with second and third. Minnesota’s incredible depth isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, because the team is young, and the Sun is growing by leaps and bounds under coaching wizard Mike Thibault. Bottom line: the league will only get stronger from here, thus the “last chance for LA” theory.

What a short-sighted, narrow-minded viewpoint.

First, let’s start with the myth that the Sparks had a championship team this year: they did not.

LA had an excellent team, and one that was much-improved from last year. They had a healthy Candace Parker, who balled out of her mind; Kristi Toliver, who was the league’s most improved player; Alana Beard, who demonstrated why she was once one of the WNBA’s top picks; and rookie of the year Nneka Ogwumike. Last year they didn’t make the playoffs, and this year they lost two games at home and played for the Western Conference title. Much of this dramatic improvement can be attributed to coach of the year Carol Ross, who came to the franchise in January.

But the Sparks lacked depth, and two players battled injuries all season long. When crunch time came in games such as yesterday’s, that light bench showed.

The fact that LA fans made the quantum leap from basement to “we’re winning a championship this year” isn’t surprising. Sports aficionados here are spoiled, and have unrealistic expectations of titles every year, on both the women’s and men’s sides. It’s not wrong to strive for a championship, but to expect it and view it as an entitlement is an LA thing. I’ve never seen anything like it before.

The second faulty line of reasoning is thinking that next year’s “big three” rookies will immediately take over the league. Griner will have an impact, to be sure, but she will still have a lot to learn, as her game is far from perfect. Delle Donne and Diggins will help the Sky and Shock, but both of those teams need much more than one fine rookie to elevate to the next level.

Minnesota will continue to be a force, but as they’ve shown this year, they are vulnerable; it takes work to repeat a championship over and over. And what if, God forbid, someone gets injured? Same with the Sun – they are on track, but there are always unknown factors that can come up.

Building championship teams takes time. It doesn’t happen in one season, or even two. It takes a good coach like Ross, recruiting effective player personnel, and developing team chemistry over seasons. Sparks fans need to be patient, and drop the “sky is falling” mentality. The team has all the potential in the world to win a championship with a leader like Parker, who showed how much she really cares over this entire season – and especially in these playoffs.

Hopefully, Sparks management has finally found a group of core players that they plan to keep around for a number of years, as it’s always been my feeling that their constant personnel changes have adversely effected team chemistry over the years. Then, as Seimone Augustus said last night about Parker, the Sparks have got to keep working and stay focused.

When a team has got “it,” they know it, and so do the fans. The most recent best example of that is the 2010 Seattle Storm. When they came to LA that June to play in the league’s outdoor game, I knew from watching them play together and talking to them in the locker room that they would win the title. They did. They were in complete and total sync.

The Sparks have plenty of chances to win a title sometime in the near future. They need to SLIGHTLY tweak their roster (instead of scrapping it as they usually do), and work on defense, among other things. LA fans need to realize that great things don’t happen overnight, and they need to stop whining and expecting an immediate championship. There is plenty to be optimistic about: just look at how far the Sparks have come this year under Ross. The sky is the limit.

Patience. This society is in short supply these days, but LA fans need to get some.