Candace Parker is fading but not gone yet

Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images
Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images /

Candace Parker and her enormous talent shaped a generation of women’s basketball. As she reaches the end of her career, she’s watching it bloom around her.

Candace Parker, 33 years old, has made peace with the gap between her accomplishments and the public appreciation of them.

She sounded less angered than resigned, discussing a recent article in The Athletic in which a plurality of fellow WNBA players named her as the league’s Most Overrated Player, as she warmed up her body in the tunnel leading to the Mohegan Sun Arena floor, where her Sparks played in Game 2 of the WNBA semifinals Thursday night.

“You know, obviously, I think that’s ridiculous,” Parker said, pulling and stretching, doing the many small things necessary to get a body ready that’s been through 311 WNBA regular-season games, another 46 in the playoffs, and countless overseas contests for more than a decade. “Honestly. Maybe we look at some of the top players now, across the game. When you’re injured, you aren’t able to play. So if, the measuring stick is your last game? Then I think there are a lot of overrated people.”

As Parker spoke, her last game had been of the vintage CP variety. Her Sparks lost Game 1 to the Sun, but not on account of Parker: 24 points on 14 shots, 10 rebounds, six blocked shots, three assists, two steals.

Any honest accounting of the WNBA’s style of play must include a reckoning with what Parker’s skill set heralded, encouraged in those who followed, along with the understanding that no one has yet matched her.

Parker, as a rookie, won both Rookie of the Year and MVP honors. Overrated? Of course not. She led the league in Win Shares as a rookie, in rebounds per game, second in blocks, with an assist percentage of 21.5. It was a broad-based dominance that set the tone for all that followed. She’s led the WNBA in block per game, in rebounds per game, in assists per game — all in different seasons.

Even this has often worked against her. The Sparks have struggled to build a team to maximize her the way Seattle did for Breanna Stewart, the way Washington did for Elena Delle Donne, two players who have won the last two league MVPs and quickly, vocally credit Parker for lighting the path they’ve followed as big, multi-purpose guard/forward/center all-in-ones.

Instead, rosters built around the idea that Parker could simply fill in the blanks followed, and not until 2016 did Los Angeles reach the Finals and win. Parker has been surrounded by talent, without question. But in the same way Delle Donne and Stewart learned from Parker what to do, the Storm and Mystics learned from the Sparks what not to do.

And so, between those roster limitations and the bitter breakup between USA Basketball and an indisputably great player in Parker, fans haven’t had the customary chance to appreciate her the way a player of her skill and accomplishment typically is.

As Parker has said herself, though, there’s far more basketball behind her than ahead of her. She’s not announced any retirement plans, but all the data supports her point, as surely as her numbers remind us all of what the Candace Parker experience has meant to the game. She’s taken on an expanded role at Turner Sports, where her ability to explain the game on television flows as naturally as when she brings her younger teammates together into huddles on the floor during a playoff game, a coach at all times now even as she still plays.

“Her IQ is off the charts,” her current head coach, Derek Fisher, said prior to Game 2. “I’ve played with teammates that have had an amazing IQ and it’s a gift that just comes from experience and feel; a lot of different things, she has it.”

But Candace Parker, at 33, has struggled for the first time to will her body to do what she knows it must. A hamstring injury, then an ankle injury cost her 12 games. She played in just 22 games this season, and her production suffered early in her return from each, though by the final nine games of the year her overall production more closely resembled her typical work product. In a second-round win against Seattle, that continued, a double-double with six assists. Game 1 against Connecticut was the Parker we’ve seen so often.

Game 2, well, wasn’t. The tone of the night was set in the layup line before the game even started, Parker darting left, right and then going up with her first attempt, which missed. An audible “Ugh” came from Parker as she turned and jogged to the back of the line. Every detail matters. That’s what drives the greats.

And early on, a reminder of what transcendent things Parker can do on the court — driving baseline, she received an entry pass from Chelsea Gray in the paint and in one motion, recognizing the double-team coming at her, whirled a no-look pass to Nneka Ogwumike for a 3-pointer as the shot clock reached zero.

The tragedy of superstars growing older isn’t that they lose the ability to dominate completely. It’s that the amount of time their bodies allow them to do so grows shorter, more infrequent. And that is what happened to Parker on Thursday night, finishing with just three points, taking just three shots. She came out midway through the fourth quarter, after taking the ball out of the net following a Bria Holmes 3, dribbling once, forcefully pushing the ball down to the ground, the Sun crowd roaring and her teammates gathering for a Fisher timeout. Parker grimaced, looking up at the scoreboard, seeing time was short.

None of this makes her overrated. In fact, the entirety of the Sun team reinforces her impact. Jonquel Jones’ hybrid inside-outside game stands on the shoulders of what Candace Parker built. Alyssa Thomas’ own coach, Curt Miller, compared her playmaking out of the power forward position to that of Parker after Game 1. Each is an imperfect comp on its own: Candace Parker, incredibly, has been the sum total of both during her career. The Sun as a team, with everyone capable of initiating the offense, finishing at the rim and shooting from beyond the arc, are like the basketball answer to the question, “What if we made the whole team out of Candace Parker’s skills?”

“I think our generation has changed the game,” Parker said. “In the way we’re playing, and we’re in that process. There’s so many ways that we look at the game now. We almost sometimes, I think, look past the growth of it. So I think just being a part of that has been fun.”

Parker won’t say it — in fact, pushed back on it when I pointed out that by even calling it “our generation” is to ignore that Parker herself is a root cause of it all — but the basketball world is in danger of looking past not the growth of the game but of Parker herself. It’s happened too often in her career. It has to stop.

To rule out Parker in 2019 would be a mistake, not with two more games at home in this series, and with wins in those, a potential winner-take-all Game 5 that will merely require Parker to stretch and strain to find that muscle memory which lives within her for a single, 40-minute race to the WNBA finals.

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But however the end comes for Candace Parker, after next year or whenever she decides to go be great at something else — and to be clear, she hasn’t set a date, and Fisher said the Sparks haven’t even begun a conversation about what the post-Parker world looks like — the final part of Candace Parker’s career should be appropriately laudatory.

“I do think that Candace and just people in general, we should celebrate them and give them their flowers while they’re here and not after they’re gone,” Fisher said. “So whatever that looks like, I’m definitely all for doing things for Candace to make sure she knows how good she’s been to the game of basketball.”