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Defending champion Sparks remain 'work in progress' as All-Star break nears

Coach Brian Agler and the Sparks won eight consecutive games from June 10 through July 2. Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Alana Beard had never experienced the elation and satisfaction of winning a championship until last October, but after more than a dozen years in professional basketball, she understood the reality.

At some point, after the celebration dies down, you have to get your team together and try to do it again.

The Los Angeles Sparks, who improved to 14-5 with Monday's home victory over the Indiana Fever, host the Chicago Sky on Thursday in their final contest before Saturday's All-Star Game in Seattle (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). As the midseason break approaches, Los Angeles has a solid grip on the No. 2 spot in the standings behind the league-leading Minnesota Lynx (15-2). The Sparks have hit a couple of rough patches -- a pair of two-game losing streaks, one early in the season and another earlier this month -- but are largely playing good, steady basketball on a path toward the playoffs.

The core of last year's championship team returned with Candace Parker, 2016 MVP Nneka Ogwumike, Beard and Jantel Lavender primed again for significant roles. But there was also substantial change: Point guard Kristi Toliver left for Washington and was replaced in the starting lineup by Chelsea Gray, a starter for the first time in her career; Riquna Williams, who missed 2016 with an injury, and talented, young guard Odyssey Sims were brought in.

Sparks coach Brian Agler admits he knew more about his team last year at this point than he does this season. But that is not a bad thing.

"We are moving in the right direction," he said. "It's a puzzle. Even though we had a lot of people back, we had several new people, and it's been an ongoing process to put it all together. But I didn't expect any different."

Neither did Beard.

"If you didn't understand that we were going to be a different team this season, you were not living in reality," Beard said. "But I don't mind not knowing, I'm confident about where we are."

Ogwumike said the Sparks have been going through a "spring cleaning" during the first half of the WNBA season.

"We are working on ourselves, focusing on what we can do better as a team and what individual people can do to contribute," Ogwumike said. "There are definitely some things that are a work in progress for us, but we are building off last year in our own way. In some cases, that requires starting from scratch."

Beard, who led Duke to consecutive Final Fours in 2002 and 2003, said she came into the season with an open mind and a big smile after winning the first title of her career. And with the awareness that it guarantees nothing going forward. If the Sparks want to become the first team in the WNBA to win back-to-back titles since Los Angeles did it in 2000 and 2001, they are going to need some of the same things that got them there last time -- and quite a few different ones. It is a message Agler has been preaching since training camp and continues to emphasize.

"Coach Agler talked to us just today again about the things that we can pull from last season," Beard said. "That knowing that we know how to win a title, there's no excuse for not getting things done. If they don't get done, it's because we choose not to do it. I feel like this team is 10 times better than last year, but there is so much more room for improvement."

Ogwumike said she had no expectations at the start of the season.

"It's been hard work to re-identify ourselves," she said. "I think we are playing well, we just need to be consistent. We really need that."

"If you didn't understand that we were going to be a different team this season, you were not living in reality. But I don't mind not knowing, I'm confident about where we are."

Alana Beard on the defending champion Sparks

The Sparks are averaging 84.2 points a game, fourth in the league behind Minnesota, the Connecticut Sun and the Dallas Wings, and better than last season's 83.0 scoring average. L.A. ranks second in opponents' scoring average (77.8 PPG) behind the Lynx, a little behind last season's 75.9 points a game.

Gray has emerged as one of the league's most improved players and a very capable floor leader and scorer. Williams, who averaged more than 15.0 points a game for the Tulsa Shock in 2015, has scored in double figures in five of the past eight games. Sims, after opening the season with 20 points against Seattle, has struggled to find her role in the offense, averaging 5.5 points per game off the bench.

Beard, meanwhile, is having perhaps the best all-around season of her career, putting up her highest scoring average since 2009 at 12.6 points per game. And Parker and Ogwumike are still the most athletic, dynamic frontcourt tandem in the league. Ogwumike is tied for second in the WNBA in scoring (20.1 PPG), and Parker ranks among the top 15 scorers at 15.8 PPG.

Through the first half of the season, Minnesota might have taken back the mantle as title favorite, with MVP frontrunner Sylvia Fowles and the best start in franchise history. But Agler's arrival in 2015 -- he coached the Seattle Storm from 2008 to 2014 -- established a culture in Los Angeles, Beard said. The 2016 championship didn't define it as much as it cemented that the Sparks are doing the right thing.

"Championship teams are not about talent or players, they are about the leaders you have in your system and they are about culture," Beard said. "He built the foundation, and the rest is up to us."