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Sparks' GM Penny Toler forsees a long off-season assembling next year's roster

October 20, 2009 | 10:21 am

While the Sparks sat at a conference table during the team's exit interviews three weeks ago in El Segundo, players dutifully noted the strong possibility that it may have been the last time they would see some of their teammates. After reflecting on what unanimously had been considered a disappointing 2009 season, Sparks guard Betty Lennox was asked to look ahead to 2010. But she couldn't.

Fabforum Said Lennox: "I see nothing but fog."

That's because this off-season carries a lot of uncertainty.

The Sparks are currently involved with a coaching search after Michael Cooper left to coach the USC women's basketball program. They also are coping with Lisa Leslie's retirement following a 13-year career in the WNBA that included three league and All-Star MVPS, two league championships and finishing as the league's all-time leader in scoring (6,263 points) and rebounding (3,307).

The Sparks also may have to address other departures.

Despite signing a three-year deal in March, Sparks forward Tina Thompson says she will spend this off-season contemplating whether she has the energy and stamina to play in what would be her 14th season. Sparks guard Kristi Harrower, a free agent, says she also will be weighing her options from October through February while playing and serving as player and general manager for Bendigo Bank Spirit, a professional team in her native country in Australia.

Although Sparks General Manager Penny Toler said Harrower was the team's lone free agent, she said that doesn't mean she wouldn't look to trade other players.

"When you don't win [the championship], all bets are off," Toler said. "You see what becomes available. What you think is a need may not be a need depending on what other players are available."

With the league announcing today that the Detroit Shock will relocate to Tulsa, Okla., Toler forsees possible player movement within the organization. That gives her one more reason to move ahead in what she imagines to be a busy off-season.

1. Lisa Leslie's retirement

Leslie's absence in 11 games this season because of a sprained right knee only provided a glimpse of what the Sparks will miss in 2010.

"You don’t replace a Lisa Leslie and move forward," Toler said. "You start a new era."

But it remains unclear whether that would include grooming still-developing players such as Vanessa Hayden and Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton in the front court, pursuing guards to fill the back court, giving an increased workload to Thompson (if she's back) and DeLisha Milton-Jones or finding new post players altogether.

Leslie didn't exactly provide a ringing endorsement for Hayden and Wisdom-Hylton when she was asked at the team's exit interviews what their next steps should be in taking over the post position.

"The biggest thing for us is, people always knew we were one of the top shot-blocking teams in the league," Leslie said. "Now it’s kind of like when you look at the NBA when New York got rid of [Patrick] Ewing. They were just like, 'Oh my God, the middle became [wide open],' and people were attacking them. That’s the first thing you want to do is reestablish that paint to say we have a paint presence offensively and defensively. I'm sure Penny, with Vanessa and Lindsay, will find other players to do that. That will be important."

Regardless of what positions Toler pursues, forward Candace Parker said Leslie's absence should spur every player to want to contribute more.

"A lot of other people are going to have to step up, and there are going to be more roles that will be important for us," said Parker. Parker has been deemed Leslie's successor as the league's ambassador and focal point of the Sparks' organization. "Lisa meant a lot to our team, and she was this leader on the team. As a teammate, I learned pretty much everything from her that I could take and apply next year."

2. Thompson's and Harrower's future

Before discussing their uncertainty about whether they would return to the Sparks next season, both Thompson and Harrower admitted the 2009 campaign was still fresh on their mind.

"This season was huge and the expectations were very high," said Thompson, who averaged 13.2 points, her lowest mark since the 2004 season with the Houston Comets. "It’s still shocking."

"This is probably one of the toughest WNBA seasons I’ve played in," added Harrower, who started at point guard but averaged only 3.1 points in 16.8 minutes per game. She also had to cope with her grandmother's death this season.

Nonetheless, they both said their health and energy levels ultimately will dictate whether they want to continue playing professional basketball.

For Thompson, this off-season will be especially valuable because it will give her time to recover from a sprained right thumb she played through most of the season. Even if she returns, Thompson has acknowledged she's nearing the end of her basketball career. Case in point: She opted out of an Olympic run for 2012, citing her age (34) and stamina.

Toler said there was no timetable on when she would need to hear from Thompson and Harrower. "To hedge my bets," Toler said she'd look for Thompson's replacement --  so the Sparks can fully anticipate  Thompson's undetermined retirement date.

"I don’t sit back and wait until somebody tells me, 'I'm not coming back,' " Toler said. "I don't sit back and hold a position open. I try to replace it. And if [Tina's] back, then more the merrier. That won't affect me one way or the other, but obviously we would love to have her back."

And what about Harrower?

"I don't know," Toler said. "We'll see how everything pans out. It's early in the game."

3. Youth movement

It was the reason why Leslie was glad the Sparks didn't face the Phoenix Mercury in the first round. It was the reason why Mercury Coach Corey Gaines thought his team could withstand the Sparks' runs in a Game 1 Western Conference finals victory. It was the reason Cooper provided to explain what led to the Sparks' early elimination.

"Age is starting to be an important factor to our team now," Cooper said of the Sparks, whose average age was 29.18. "One thing we need is that injection of youth."

The Sparks have a chance to do that after acquiring Phoenix's 2010 first-round pick last year in a trade for Temeka Johnson.

The Sparks showed throughout the season that their age and an undeveloped bench (sans Noelle Quinn) contributed to their struggle in competing against quicker teams, such as Phoenix. But Toler doesn't exactly embrace this "whole youth movement."

"We didn't win and neither did 11 other teams," Toler said. "And all those other teams are younger. There's many teams that can't keep up with Phoenix -- young or not. That's why they're the 2009 champions."

A new chapter

A pre-season survey among general managers predicted the Sparks would win the 2009 championship for good reason.

They boasted five Olympians, including Leslie, Thompson, Parker, Milton-Jones and Harrower. Although Thompson, Harrower and Lennox were newcomers, they are all accomplished veterans.

Sure, the Sparks faced several challenges with Leslie's injury, Parker's maternity leave and playing nine of their first 13 games on the road. But the only unanticipated circumstance was Leslie's injury.

"We made it harder for ourselves just with everything," said Parker, who recently dislocated her left shoulder with USA Basketball. "We went to a three-game series with Seattle. We waited until the last minute to pull it together and make the playoffs. Losing at home versus Phoenix really hurt us. That’s just sort of the body and makeup of our team, doing things when we had to. I don’t know why but that’s definitely a change we need to make in the offseason."

That's why there will still be uncertainty whenever the Sparks' roster will be fully assembled next year. As the 2009 season proved, talent alone may look good on paper, but chemistry is what determines success.

"With the WNBA season, the team had four months to try stuff out and get to know each other," Sparks co-owner Kathy Goodman said. "With that, there was a less sense of urgency. That had an affect on the team from the beginning."

-- Mark Medina

Photo: Sparks GM Penny Toler during her playing days with the team. Credit: Steve C. Wilson, AP.