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Brian Agler, Sparks keep pushing toward playoffs

Put yourself in Brian Agler's shoes for a moment.

Last winter, he pulled the trigger on the highest-profile coaching move of the offseason, going from Seattle -- where he won two championships -- to Los Angeles, a franchise boasting one of the best players in the world in Candace Parker, a veteran backcourt in Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard and one of the league's best young talents in Nneka Ogwumike.

He has taken over a franchise that pulled itself back from the brink of extinction the previous season, when the Sparks in late 2013 handed the franchise back to the WNBA. The team is now being run by a group led by Lakers legend Magic Johnson, who knows as much about what it takes to succeed in pro basketball as anyone, and the stars seem aligned for the Sparks to pose an immediate challenge to Western Conference powers Minnesota and Phoenix after years of underachieving and failing to reach the WNBA Finals.

But what looks good on paper began to fray and tear almost immediately.

The Sparks went 16-18 in 2014 and were swept out of the first round of the playoffs by eventual champion Phoenix. This past April, Parker announced she would take off at least part of the WNBA season to rest her weary body from the year-round play.

Toliver, meanwhile, missed the first month of the season while participating for the Slovakia national team in the Eurobasket Tournament, a qualifier for the 2016 Olympic Games. And then a spate of injuries opened the season: Ogwumike was out with an ankle injury; Beard had a case of plantar fasciitis that kept her out of the lineup two games into the season through the All-Star break.

The Sparks started the season 3-14 and in last place in the West and still are one of the league's lowest-scoring teams, averaging 72.8 points per game, which ranks 10th. But now, even at 7-16, Los Angeles is in fourth place in the West, a half-game ahead of San Antonio.

"It's been tough," Agler said earlier this week. "But we have a chance to get into the playoffs and we are playing better."

Agler admitted that starting the season without Parker was a significant blow.

"She's as good as anybody in the world," Agler said. "You are going to miss that if she's not playing."

Her return has brought scoring, rebounding and an undeniable presence.

"When a player first comes back after a long break, they say, 'Play me 20 to 25 minutes and we will see how it goes.' But she got in that first game and didn't want to come out," Agler said. "From a conditioning perspective, she's not at her peak, but she's stayed fit, worked on her skills and she's still Candace Parker."

Beard, whom Agler called a "mature, veteran player," is his best defensive stopper on the perimeter. Beard sustained a quadriceps injury over the weekend and could now be missing more time. Beard averaged 11.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.3 steals in the three games since she had returned to the lineup, an undeniable boost.

But the Sparks are getting used to having to make do without.

Agler said he had no illusions about how difficult it would be for his team to get off to a good start. And he refused to dwell on the struggles.

"We stayed really positive," Agler said. "We just focused on ourselves and getting better. We didn't live on the roller coaster, where you feel great when you win and terrible when you lose. You have to keep things in perspective.

"We never felt sorry for ourselves. We never talked about who wasn't here. We focused on the people who were here and we felt like we could win games. People might have looked at our record and thought we were light years away, but we weren't."

The Sparks were playing competitive during that opening stretch, but could not close out games when they needed to.

"I know how good this league is," Agler said. "But we battled and we knew we could have a chance to be pretty good before it's over with."

Indeed, the time to start proving whether that's true has arrived with 11 games to go in the regular season. After winning four of five after the All-Star break upon the return of Parker and Beard, Los Angeles has lost two in a row. And the Sparks are clinging to the final playoff spot in the Western Conference as San Antonio and Seattle continue to struggle.

Los Angeles looks, on paper, to have the team with the best chance of getting in. And keep in mind Chicago made a run to the WNBA Finals out of the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference last season.

Agler believes the race for the WNBA title is "wide open." The Lynx will likely get Seimone Augustus back before season's end, bolstering their status as favorites. Phoenix is playing good, team-oriented basketball most nights. And the Eastern Conference is a competitive mix of teams.

"We are a much-improved team from where we were a month ago," Agler said. "But we have a long ways to go. ... We understand that it doesn't happen just by walking out on to the floor. We have to keep pushing."