The Los Angeles Sparks on Tuesday fired head coach Derek Fisher just 12 games into the 2022 WNBA season.
The Sparks, who have won three WNBA championships and are one of three remaining original franchises in the league, opened this summer’s campaign with hopes of returning to the playoffs after missing out last season for the first time in a decade. Instead, they are off to a 5-7 start one-third of the way through their 2022 regular-season schedule, which included nine games on the road so far.
Assistant coach Fred Williams has been named interim head coach for Los Angeles, which doesn’t play again until Saturday’s home game against the Las Vegas Aces.
Before then, we weigh in on Fisher’s coaching legacy in Los Angeles, the timing of his dismissal, how the Sparks move forward and what’s next for the franchise after the second major coaching change – the Indiana Fever dismissed Marianne Stanley in late May – in the WNBA this season.
Why did the Sparks make this move now?
That the Sparks would part ways with Fisher in 2022 was not entirely shocking. Some speculated his fourth year at the helm was do-or-die. With the recent hiring of new president Vanessa Shay to oversee business operations, the storied franchise has already started a fresh chapter in the front office; now it will extend to the basketball level.
That move happened early this season was a bit more surprising. The Sparks’ 5-7 record was underwhelming for a team that had adopted the motto “time to show” in an effort to get back to the franchise’s winning tradition and reestablish relevance in Los Angeles. But leadership had an out if they wanted to keep Fisher until the end of the season: the team had a brutal schedule with just three of its first 12 games of the season at home, and if the regular season ended ahead of Tuesday night’s games, the Sparks would have eked into the playoffs.
Maybe Indiana’s in-season head-coaching change – assistant Carlos Knox replaced Stanley on an interim basis on May 25 – helped push the Sparks in this direction. But it’s also curious that this decision came following the Sparks’ 81-74 loss to the Phoenix Mercury – who at 3-8 are having an even worse start to 2022 than LA – on Sunday, in which prized free agent acquisition Liz Cambage played just 13 minutes despite not picking up any fouls.
“When we look back at it, maybe it was a mistake on my part to not have her out there in the fourth,” Fisher said after the game. “We just felt like we were struggling to contain some of the things that they were doing offensively, just in terms of the activity level.”
Two days later, Fisher is officially out of the job. – Philippou
What will be Derek Fisher’s legacy with the Sparks?
It’s not a very good one. Fisher’s first season, 2019, was marred by the Sparks’ meltdown in the playoffs as they were swept 3-0 by the Connecticut Sun in the semifinals, in which franchise star Candace Parker was benched in the last game. It took away from Los Angeles’ 22-12 regular season, which had earned the Sparks the No. 3 seeds.
Longtime general manager Penny Toler was ousted after the season because of a locker room tirade in which she used inappropriate language. But Fisher survived, despite the fact that complaints leaked out about some things he struggled with in getting used to the WNBA.
The 2020 pandemic season seemed to be a step in the right direction for Fisher and the Sparks. His devotion to the franchise and the league was notable considering the demands of staying in the bubble in Bradenton, Florida, for so long. Parker was a WNBA Defensive Player of the Year for the first time in her illustrious career. The Sparks finished third, but lost again to Connecticut, this time in the single-elimination second round. That turned out to be Parker’s final game in a Sparks uniform; she left the team that had drafted her No. 1 in 2008 and signed as a free agent with her hometown Chicago Sky.
Last year, the Sparks missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011, while Parker helped lead the Sky to that franchise’s first WNBA title. That juxtaposition was tough for Sparks fans to handle. When the team signed Cambage and traded for Chennedy Carter, it was a big roll of the dice for Fisher. Both are very talented, but also have had their issues in the league.
Cambage has been involved in several incidents, while Carter was suspended by the Atlanta Dream for most of the 2021 season for “conduct detrimental to the team.”
Fisher got a fourth season to make things work, but that was cut short this week. Considering the Sparks had nine of their first 12 games on the road – a result of Crypto.com Arena needing to account for the possibility of the NBA playoffs for the Lakers and Clippers – maybe it wasn’t fair to judge Fisher this early in 2022.
That Fisher genuinely seemed to care about the Sparks and the league was not in doubt. But in a results-oriented business where postseason success is particularly important, he came up short. – Voepel
Who is interim coach Fred Williams, and what are his prospects to become the permanent coach?
Williams has been in women’s basketball for over 40 years, dating to his days as an assistant for the great USC teams led by superstar Cheryl Miller in the early 1980s. He is a native of Inglewood, California, and was a high school teammates in the 1970s with former NBA player Reggie Theus. Williams was also the head coach of the USC women from 1995 to 1997 and then moved to the WNBA, where he has been both a head coach and an assistant.
Williams was the head coach of the Dallas Wings in 2018 when Cambage returned to the league after a four-season absence. She and Williams got along well, and Cambage was upset when Williams was let go in August 2019 after an altercation with Dallas president / CEO Greg Bibb.
Williams is known as a players’ coach, so we’ll see how he handles the Sparks differently. But is he a long-term answer? No. Williams was hired in May to be an assistant with Auburn’s women’s college basketball team for the upcoming 2022-23 season, and was planning on leaving the Sparks this summer to join the Tigers. Instead, he will wait until the WNBA season is over.
Another Sparks assistant, Latricia Trammell, interviewed for some head coaching jobs this past offseason and could be in the running to take over.
We will see if Fisher wants another chance to coach, if he gets it, and where that might be. An 18-year NBA veteran at guard who won five league titles as a player, Fisher certainly knows a ton about basketball. But his stints as a professional head coach haven’t gone as well as he hoped. He went 40-96 in a season and half guiding the NBA’s Knicks (2014 to 2016) before being fired by New York in February 2016. He was hired by the Sparks in 2018. – Voepel
What are Los Angeles’ prospects to turn this season around? What’s the ceiling? What’s the floor?
Teams that experience early-season coaching changes do not always face high expectations, and sudden disruption always has the chance of backfiring in the short term. But especially with a familiar face in Williams taking over, it’s likely the Sparks will remain determined to return to the playoffs, at the minimum. They have the talent to do so, and maybe with an experienced coach at the helm like Williams – who knows how to get the best out of Cambage – the sudden change won’t deter them, especially with the floundering of teams like the New York Liberty, Minnesota Lynx and Mercury so far.
For the Sparks to surpass even those expectations, they need to immensely improve on the defensive end, where through Sunday they ranked last in the league in defensive rating (107.2), a marked underperformance given how LA has been a top defensive squad in recent years . The Sparks must also make up significant ground in July, when they have a seven-game homestand.
Early on amid their struggles, Sparks players seemed confident things would eventually come together, pointing to how six of their nine players averaging at least 10 minutes per game were new to the franchise. Once that chemistry developed, and players like Katie Lou Samuelson (a late arrival from overseas) and Kristi Toliver (late due to the NBA playoffs) settled in, they’d be much better off.
It’s tough to envision LA earning a ring at the end of the season as Cambage predicted in April, or for LA to carve its way into the upper echelon of teams this summer. But it’s not implausible that the Sparks could go on a run to close the regular season, finish with a favorable seeding going into the playoffs and maybe make some noise in the postseason. – Philippou
What lineup changes might we see with the Sparks? Who might see more minutes?
If you bring in Cambage and Carter, you should play them. That’s what the fans want, and the Sparks need both to be effective. Fisher seemed to want to use playing time to motivate Carter defensively, but she’s one of the most explosive offensive guards in the league. Maybe you live with her defensive ups and downs and let her do her thing on offense.
Cambage, as mentioned, has a history with Williams and that should help stabilize her contributions. – Voepel
I’m also curious to see what happens with Carter and Cambage under Williams. Though she’s gotten into foul trouble at times, Cambage’s minutes are the sixth-most on the team, which is hardly what you want from your big free-agent acquisition. Cambage has said that Williams “pulled out the best in me, pulled out something that no one else has been able to do.” With him calling the shots now, it’s likely he’ll try to run the offense even more through the four-time All-Star.
Carter has also struggled to find her footing in her early days in LA, where she’s averaging just under 10 points in 16 minutes per game. Will Williams and his staff be able to maximize her talents on offense and not make her too much of a liability defensively?
Toliver has returned to LA after helping the Dallas Mavericks reach the Western Conference finals as an assistant coach. With the Sparks waiving Amy Atwell on Tuesday, expect Toliver to be activated imminently, although it’s unclear whether or how much she’ll play this weekend. Williams might have his hands full in trying to figure out lineup combinations and minutes distribution with her, Jordin Canada, Lexie Brown, Carter and Brittney Sykes in the backcourt.
That said, Brown and Samuelson will remain crucial for this team that needs some help spacing the floor. – Philippou