This, too, is for Pat.
Four years after dedicating her first WNBA championship to former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, Sparks forward Candace Parker was reminded of her college coach again when she learned Wednesday that she would be named WNBA defensive player of the year.
“Her phrase still runs in my head,” Parker said before the award was officially announced Thursday. “‘Offense sells tickets, defense wins games, rebounding wins championships.’”
Parker turned rebounding into a new trophy for her overflowing display case, as the 34-year-old led the league in rebounding, averaging 9.7 per game, including a WNBA-high 8.0 defensive rebounds per game. Parker also ranked eighth in blocks (1.23 per game) and helped anchor a Sparks defense that ranked third in defensive rating and held opponents to 31.3 points per game in the paint, the second fewest in the league.
After winning Associated Press defensive player of the year by one vote, Parker beat out Seattle Storm forward Alysha Clark by five votes for the league’s official award. Out of the league’s 47-person panel of sportswriters and broadcasters, 16 first-place votes went to Parker, while Clark received 11 and Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas finished third with 10 votes.
However, Clark and Thomas helped their respective teams to the WNBA semifinals, which continue Thursday. Parker, now visiting her older brothers in Florida after the Sparks (15-7) got bounced in their first playoff game, said she would have preferred to lead her team on a longer postseason run.
Parker’s dedication to competing for a championship drove her to do extra workouts during the long, pandemic-affected offseason, hoping to bounce back from an injury-plagued season in which she averaged career lows in points, rebounds and blocks. The six Peloton rides a week turned into her third rebounding title and first since 2009.
“I do believe people had written me off after last year,” Parker said. “... I just wanted to prove that I had a little bit more left in the tank.”
Parker thrives on doing the things people think she can’t. While she’s celebrated as a groundbreaking offensive talent, Parker, who averaged 14.7 points a game to lead the Sparks this year, gets more excitement out of taking a charge than hitting a big basket because she thinks referees are surprised when she steps in to absorb the contact. When she played in Russia under current Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello and her husband Olaf Lange, the coaches told Parker, already a two-time WNBA MVP, that if she decided to, she could be the defensive player of the year.
In her 13th year, Parker made that choice.
Immediately when the team arrived in Florida for the season, Sparks head coach Derek Fisher noticed Parker’s “conscious decision to be an elite-level rebounder.”
Choosing defense often comes later in a player’s career, Fisher acknowledged, as the desire to win coveted MVP, All-Star and All-Pro honors that are often attached to impressive offensive stats is replaced with wanting to do anything necessary to win a championship. That usually means defense.
To make the decision this season was simple for Parker. Not only was she singularly focused on basketball while in the WNBA bubble, where she could study film for hours and dissect opponent tendencies, but she was also surrounded by other talented defensive players. She could rely on Brittney Sykes, an athletic 5-foot-9 guard who Parker thinks could win defensive player of the year honors multiple times in her career, on the perimeter. Guards Riquna Williams and Te’a Cooper could press full court. Assistant coach Latricia Trammell, the team’s de facto defensive coordinator, oversaw it all.
Sparks players have won the defensive player of the year award three of the past four years, with Alana Beard winning it in 2017 and 2018. Parker witnessed first-hand the energy it took to earn the honor by watching Beard. She is proud to show that same effort to those watching her now.
“I know my coach is smirking in heaven,” Parker said. “I know she's smirking, saying, 'Could've done this all along,'”