Benching Candace Parker doesn’t tell the full story of the Sparks’ season

Candace Parker sits on the bench for the Sparks. Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

The Sparks’ dumpster fire ending doesn’t describe the whole season. But WTF was that?

Candace Parker sat with a towel over her face at the under-six minute mark of the third quarter. She was fuming. Her Los Angeles Sparks trailed by 14 points to the Connecticut Sun on the brink of semifinals elimination. The two-time MVP, one-time champion, and heartbeat of one of the league’s best teams for more than a decade was in an unfamiliar position — she got benched.

“Why would you do that... Why would you do that right now,” Parker muttered moments after she was removed from the game for the final time. After scoring just four points on six shots, first-year WNBA head coach Derek Fisher decided her night was done. Parker logged just 11 minutes and 14 seconds of action with her team’s season on the line.

“I’m physically, mentally... everything’s fine,” Parker said after the game. “There’s nothing wrong with me.” When asked if she was surprised she didn’t play more, Parker responded, “That [question]’s for Fish.”

The Sparks lost badly, 78-56, to conclude a three-game sweep to the No. 2 seed Sun on Sunday night. L.A. was outscored by 48 points in Games 2 and 3 combined, completely embarrassed by an opponent with a fraction of the star power. “Tell them a bunch of role players did that,” Sun guard Courtney Williams said after a 26-point Game 2 win.

So all the attention turned to Fisher and his decision to not only bench Parker, but to sit his three best talents for the entire fourth quarter. Despite a not-insurmountable 19-point deficit entering the final frame, he didn’t play Parker, 2016 MVP Nneka Ogwumike or All-Star Chelsea Gray a single minute. His post-game explanation left a lot to be desired.

“I was just trying to do as much as I could in the moment to help the team,” Fisher said after the game. “It wasn’t an injury or anything specific as to why I wasn’t going to play Candace. I was just trying to find energy, find spark, find physicality and things we were continuing to search for throughout the course of the game...

“It wasn’t any way to single her out. It was about doing something different that I thought could help us win.”

But nothing changed. The Sun, led by point guard Jasmine Thomas’ 29 points, continued to dismantle L.A. until the final ticks, and celebrated a Finals berth on the road.

The Sparks crashed and burned in a season finale catastrophe that plastered its two biggest fears on full display. Parker, who at 33 is entering the final stretch of her career, struggled for the final two games, combining for just seven points. Then Fisher’s lack of experience caused him to panic and make unnecessarily drastic decisions.

One series doesn’t define a whole season. And 2019 was more perplexing than a dumpster fire:

  • The team made a questionable decision in signing Fisher, a failed NBA coach who had no prior WNBA experience, yet finished 22-12 with the third-best record in the league.
  • The Sparks made a no-brainer decision to trade a mere late first-round pick for All-Star Chiney Ogwumike, but she was only great in spurts, and took minutes from promising young bigs Maria Vadeeva and Kalani Brown.
  • L.A. missed Parker for 12 games due to injury, two-time Defensive Player of the Year Alana Beard for 18 games to injury, Riquana Williams for 10 games due to suspension, Maria Vadeeva for 19 games due to overseas obligations, and at one point only had seven active players. Yet they made the semifinals.
  • When Parker returned from injury, she was great enough to be Player of the Week twice! But then looked a shell of herself in the days following, never finding her grip as a consistent star.
  • Yet even most bizarrely, the Sparks were playing their best basketball at the end of the season. In August, they were the third-best team by net rating and went 8-4.

We’re left to digest more questions than answers in the long eight-month layover between seasons. But there’s no forgetting how ugly 2019 ended.