Sparks’ Sputtering Season

After 16 games the Los Angeles Sparks are 6-10; this leaves some fans wondering (and yes, this post is in response to a fan request!): what happened to the play-off team from last year? The fans aren’t the only ones wondering. As Candace Parker was caught observing before the Seattle win “Last year we weren’t able to face the problems because we were winning,” she said. “We had these same problems last year, but they didn’t catch up to us until the playoffs. I think now, you have to correct the problems and look at that because you’re losing.”

We just got back from the annual conference where sports economists gather to exchange ideas and present research on a variety of topics. During these sessions the subject of “production spillovers” came up. Some argue the presence of a player on the court can positively impact the performance of other members on the team. This idea is reflected in metrics like Adjusted Plus-Minus (APM).  Such an approach suggests that team interactions are key to wins and losses.  And therefore wins and losses are really just about the composition of a team.

But, what we are going to show in the table below is evidence against these team-focused stories. In fact, the Sparks story as we see it is a familiar one where the downward trend in performance is due to just three players. And — oddly enough — two of these three players have made the highlight reels for their individual performances so far this year

Sparks Sputtering?

Sparks Sputtering?


Consider the table:

Sparks Player Minutes WP40 Projected Wins Produced Projected WP40 13-14 Wins Produced 13-14 Difference in WP across 34 Games
Parker 533 0.373 4.97 0.239 3.19 -6.05
Ogwumike 387 0.288 2.79 0.174 1.68 -3.76
Beard 413 0.006 0.06 0.01 0.1 0.13
Lavendar 415 0.049 0.51 0.064 0.67 0.55
Toliver 240 0.159 0.95 0.111 0.67 -0.97
Harding 457 0.084 0.96 -0.016 -0.19 -3.91
Gruda 229 -0.166 -0.95 -0.178 -1.02 -0.24
Herrignton 437 0.162 1.77 0.152 1.66 -0.37
Abdi 106 -0.144 -0.38 -0.215 -0.57 -0.64
Morris 31 -0.433 -0.34 -0.428 -0.33 0.02
Prahalis 21 0.136 0.07 0.017 0.01 -0.21
Greene 19 -0.139 -0.07 -0.136 -0.06 0.02
Wiggins  11 0.058 0.02  -0.285 -0.08  -0.33 
 Total Projected Wins10.36 Total Wins5.76 Total Difference Over Remainder Season-15.73

For each player we compute the WP40 and WP figures “projected” using last year’s player performance measures.  This  gives us an idea of how many wins the Sparks should have this far in the season. That number would be 10.    Next, we compare that projected figure with the current WP of 6 (rounding up a bit).  If this gap persists over the remaining games Sparks fans, players, and Coach Carol Ross won’t be very happy.

So, let’s sum up what we know about the Sparks’ sputtering performance this year.  Previously it was noted that just three players explain much of what we are seeing.  And as one can see, Parker, Ogwumike, and Harding together are responsible for the downward spiral from last year’s season.  (We know, we know…”but what about the scoring totals, the rebounding, the highlight clips?”).

Once again, this story illustrates the gap between individual player performance measures that drive game recaps (and color commentary) and those performance variables that produce wins.  Relative to last year, these three players are underperforming.  And, as Parker discussed above, the Sparks do not have the luxury of wins to cover up their problematic play.  While it is true that Toliver’s return from overseas may be giving the team a boost (and Herrington is performing consistently) these two factors — if current player performance continues — will not be enough to turn the team around.

And let me close with one last observation: It is a little ironic that on the 4th of July when everyone gathers around to watch fireworks light up the sky the Sparks are not going into the remainder of the season with a bang, but a whimper.

– Jill Harris