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Four on outside looking in

With their postseason hopes completely on the line Tuesday, in a "This is it!" game, the pilot light for 2011 was extinguished for the Los Angeles Sparks.

San Antonio grabbed the WNBA's last playoff spot with an 82-65 victory at Staples Center. Silver Stars guard Becky Hammon had one of those games that further convinces me it would be a mistake to ever leave her off the short list of "people I'd want to play for me if my life were at stake." Say what you will -- and you can say plenty -- about L.A.'s seemingly erroneous defensive "strategy" against San Antonio, but Hammon was still magnificent: 37 points and five assists.

She and the Silver Stars now have the postseason to anticipate. But the Sparks officially have joined Tulsa, Washington and Chicago on the sidelines. Now we can rank the four teams not going to the playoffs as to which was the most disappointing.

The Sparks win this dubious honor, in my estimation. Here's how I'd rank them on the disappointment scale, least to most:

4. Chicago: After six seasons in the WNBA, the Sky have yet to make the playoffs. Yes, that is a big concern. But this was coach Pokey Chatman's first season in the league, and it's not as if the Sky's performance this summer was awful.

Chicago is 14-17 with three games left, all on the road, including Saturday at Los Angeles. (That game should produce a real mausoleum-type atmosphere.) Consider that in those 17 defeats, the Sky lost by an average of 8.2 points. In the Sky's five losses in August, that average was 6.2.

Admittedly, close means nothing in the standings; if you lose 17 games by an average of one point each, it's still 17 losses. But it does mean something in regard to evaluating a team. Let's see what Chatman can do next season to turn some of those "almost" wins into real victories.

Center Sylvia Fowles has had an MVP-type season -- she's averaging 19.8 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks -- and guard Epiphanny Prince has shown growth in her second year in the WNBA.

But it hurt the Sky that veteran Shameka Christon played in just 10 games in 2010, and then was injured again this year. The Sky waived her before the season started. A healthy Christon could have been an important addition to the Sky. As it was, they didn't have a consistent third scoring threat behind Fowles and Prince.

3. Tulsa: Nobody expected the Shock to make the playoffs. But some hoped that the franchise could at least better the six victories it got in its inaugural season in Oklahoma. That won't happen; the Shock must win all three of their remaining games to total six.

The Shock brass should have realized after last season that the Nolan Richardson experiment was a mistake and started completely fresh for 2011. That's not to say that Tulsa would have had a significantly different win total this season. But the Shock could have used this entire summer to improve and build for the future, rather than spinning their wheels until Richardson left in early July.

Whether interim coach Teresa Edwards gets the callback, the entire Shock operation will require a lot of work for 2012.

2. Washington: You usually need to have an expectation of success for something to disappoint you. Which is why I might say -- only somewhat tongue in cheek -- that the Mystics actually weren't disappointing at all this season. Because their fans were fully anticipating this disaster.

The Mystics won the regular-season title in the East last season, and then got rid of their general manager and coach. Of course, Mystics president/managing partner Sheila Johnson will insist that's not exactly what happened. She'll say the organization couldn't come to an agreement with GM Angela Taylor and then got strung along by coach Julie Plank until she opted to leave, too.

In an infamous teleconference last November -- in which she told reporters she would "idiot-proof" her explanation of what happened -- Johnson offered some quotes that should stand the test of time as the gold standard for "ludicrous" in the WNBA.

Among them was this about her decision to hire Trudi Lacey as coach/GM: "With anybody, I don't care who you bring in, even if we had Michael Jordan as the coach, everything's a crapshoot."

If that isn't a ringing endorsement for a new hire, I don't know what is.

Admittedly, the Mystics had players such as Katie Smith and Lindsey Harding, who very much wanted out of D.C. and essentially forced trades. Alana Beard missed another season with her ankle problems, and Monique Currie was out almost all summer with an ACL injury. But the Mystics' issues can't be attributed to just bad luck. And the lion's share of the blame for this season's woes is not on the players.

Johnson willfully signed on for mediocrity at best with the moves made after the successful 2010 season … but it didn't even turn out for the "best." The Mystics have been worse than mediocre; they are 6-26 going into the last two contests. They gave their fans this, uh, parting gift in their final home game of 2011: an embarrassing, painful-to-watch 79-48 loss to Connecticut on Sunday.

"Thanks, everybody! See ya next year!"

By now, those who've somehow stuck with the Mystics (and their 12 coaches) since the franchise's three-victory inaugural season in 1998 must believe they are candidates for fan sainthood … or they're seriously questioning their sanity. Or both.

1. Los Angeles: The Sparks lost their centerpiece player/superstar Candace Parker in late June, and she didn't come back until mid-August. She missed 15 games, and even her return wasn't enough for Los Angeles to gain a spot in the postseason. It took a late-season push to reach last year's playoffs, so it's time for some serious self-evaluation for this franchise.

It was recently announced that Lisa Leslie has joined the Sparks' ownership group, along with Kathy Goodman, Carla Christofferson and Paula Madison. It was just two years ago that L.A. made it to Game 3 of the Western Conference finals before falling to Phoenix. Then Leslie retired, and the Sparks have been drifting since.

They were 13-21 last season but still made the playoffs, even though Parker missed most of the summer due to injury. But there wasn't a feeling the team really could have competed for a league title. The Sparks came into this season with the belief that they could … then Parker's absence undid the team.

Should it have? Should the Sparks have been able to tread enough water to remain in the thick of the playoff hunt, such as Seattle did while awaiting Lauren Jackson's return from injury?

Coach Jennifer Gillom was let go in early July when the Sparks were 4-6 and had lost five games in a row. She was replaced by Joe Bryant, who is in his second go-round with the organization. L.A. is 9-13 under Bryant.

Will he be back for 2012? Is general manger Penny Toler getting the job done? Are we seeing the end of the WNBA careers of some of the Sparks' veterans? Tina Thompson is 36; DeLisha Milton-Jones and Ticha Penicheiro both will turn 37 this month. Milton-Jones told me recently she intends to play next season; Thompson and Penicheiro will leave that question open, as they did after last season.

One might say that the Sparks can't continue next season with three roster spots going to players on the downhill run to age 40 … but who would replace them? Post players Thompson and Milton-Jones shot a combined 15-of-30 and had 34 points Tuesday.

And if Penicheiro doesn't return, will the Sparks really have an answer for a consistent, productive, reliable decision-maker at point guard?

Will Leslie -- L.A.'s star player in the organization's two championship seasons -- have a significant influence on decision-making for the franchise's future? If so, does the skill she had on-court translate to helping chart out the Sparks' future?

Next year will be the 10-year anniversary of the Sparks' winning their second WNBA title in a row. Los Angeles went to the WNBA finals again in 2003, losing to Detroit, and hasn't made it that far since.

Parker is a great talent who has produced, averaging 17.2 points and 9.5 rebounds in the 85 regular-season games she has played in a Sparks uniform. But L.A. has had 136 regular-season games in the time she has been in the league.

Can the Sparks build a team around Parker and be able to withstand her loss if it happens again next year?

Parker had 12 points, four rebounds and four assists Tuesday as the Sparks saw their last hope for the postseason die. Parker is the type of player the league needs (and wants, frankly) in the playoffs, but she won't be there.

If that's to change for 2012, Parker obviously must stay healthy -- something no athlete has total control of -- and she'll have to be a leader for the team. That means not showing a lot frustration when things aren't going her way or the Sparks' way.

So there are several issues that need to be satisfactorily addressed by the Sparks before next summer. Otherwise, 2012 will be another disappointment for L.A.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.