Defending champion Sparks open against Seattle

The Los Angeles Sparks will raise the franchise’s third WNBA championship banner and begin their quest for another title when they play their season opener against the Seattle Storm on Saturday at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

The Sparks defeated the Minnesota Lynx in five games in the 2016 WNBA Finals. They now have a chance to become the first team to win back-to-back WNBA titles since they claimed consecutive championships in 2001 and 2002. But coach Brian Agler said this year’s team will have to forge its own path.

“Seasons are never the same,” Agler told ESPN. “When you win a championship, you think back on the things you were fortunate that went your way. Whether it’s health, hitting big shots or how the schedule played out. Even with a lot of the same people, your team changes. Other teams change. So I don’t think about it as ‘repeating.’ You just try to focus on winning this season.”

The Sparks bring back reigning WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike, who averaged 19.7 points and 9.1 rebounds last season. They also welcome back Finals MVP Candace Parker, who averaged 15.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.9 assists. Other key returners include Alana Beard, Chelsea Gray, Jantel Lavender and Essence Carson.

The Sparks will have to overcome the loss of Kristi Toliver, who went to Washington as a free agent. Toliver, one of the league’s best 3-point shooters, averaged 13.2 points and 3.7 assists last season.

Seattle may or may not be at full strength after a number of key players missed last week’s exhibition games due to injuries. Sue Bird returned to practice Tuesday after recovering from offseason knee surgery. Breanna Stewart (knee), the 2016 WNBA Rookie of the Year, and Noelle Quinn (bruised thigh) also missed training camp.

The team has not confirmed that Bird, Stewart and Quinn will be available for Saturday’s season opener, but Storm coach Jenny Boucek said she is delighted to have them back in practice.

“It’s good to have everybody out there,” Boucek told the Seattle Times. “We’ve had some key pieces out — players that we’re building around and a lot of things are structured for them and to play through them, so it makes a big difference when they’re out there.”

Bird addressed her uncertain status earlier this week.

“More than anyone, I would love to be out there for opening weekend,” Bird told the Times. “At the same time, I know it’s a 34-game season, so I’m just trying to make the right choices and make the right decisions for myself and my body and also for the team.”