Los Angeles Sparks prepare ‘to compete for a championship’ after midseason coaching change

Derek Fisher may be out as coach of the Los Angeles Sparks, a midseason change few seemed to expect even amid the team’s meager start to the 2022 WNBA season. But the goal in Los Angeles remains the same even now as assistant Fred Williams assumes the role as the interim head coach: To return to the playoffs and contend for a championship.

“We want to compete for a championship and whoever is in that seat, then so be it,” guard Brittney Sykes said Wednesday in the team’s first availability since Fisher’s firing on Tuesday. “We just know that the team is together, the team all wants the same thing and so does our coaching staff, so does the front office.”

The Sparks, who are 5-7 and eighth in the WNBA standings heading into Wednesday’s slate of games, just missed out on the postseason last year, the first time since 2011 that they didn’t make the playoffs.

Fisher went 54-46 in his three seasons and change with the Sparks, where he also served as general manager beginning in Dec. 2020. Los Angeles is looking to build upon its storied tradition of success, having won three WNBA titles in 2001, 2002 and 2016 while last advancing to the Finals in 2017. Expectations for 2022 were high both internally and externally following a strong offseason in which the Sparks brought in Liz Cambage, Chennedy Carter, Jordin Canada and Katie Lou Samuelson.

“I could see [expectations] changing if we had a whole brand new coach, but we have somebody here who’s been with the program,” Sykes said. “Of course he’s his own man, his own head coach, so whatever he sees fit for us, so be it, But I think the goal is always going to be to win a championship.”

Sykes said she found out about the coaching change Tuesday, a second consecutive off day for the Sparks, and that Wednesday’s practice was the first time the team had been around each other since learning the news.

Nneka Ogwumike, the 2016 WNBA MVP, noted that the organization has been in a transitional period with last month’s appointment of Vanessa Shay as team president, and that “the process in which the information comes could always be a little bit sharper, but we have a team of people that are doing as much as they can, as best as they can.”

When asked if the decision to get rid of Fisher was made independently of the players, she responded, “I was not a part of that.”

Williams, who joined Fisher’s staff when he arrived in 2019, boasts over 30 years of coaching experience in women’s basketball between the collegiate and pro ranks. He said he intends to keep many things the same in terms of how the Sparks operate, but that the team will play a bit more up-tempo and aggressively on the defensive end, warning it will take three or four games for his new approach to be incorporated.

“Fish gives a little bit more of the NBA professional perspective, which I think was new for all of us and we learned a lot through that,” Ogwumike said. “And then Fred, who’s kind of been an OG, he’s been in this longer than any of us have been here. So having kind of that sage-ness, the wisdom to it all but in a no-nonsense type of way is what he offers.”

Williams has also been credited for getting the most out of Cambage during their time in Dallas. The four-time All-Star has had an uneven season so far, averaging the sixth-most minutes on the team and playing just 13 minutes in Los Angeles’ last game, a loss to the Mercury.

“Liz would be the first to tell you that I’m going to get on her if she’s doing something that she’s not supposed to be doing,” Williams said. “We have a good relationship. We talk things over that are away from basketball too, but on the court it’s all business. I think she’s at a level right now just really staying focused and getting after it.”

Williams was expected to leave for an associate head coaching role at Auburn in July, but he said Wednesday that looks like “more towards the end of the season if it’s still there, which I know it is still there, the opportunity.”

“[Auburn coach Johnnie Harris] said pretty much, ‘Hey, you’ve got to take care of the young ladies here and pull them through this and we can wait and see what happens and determines at the end of the season what needs to be done,'” Williams said .

Since being drafted by the Sparks in 2012, Ogwumike has seen multiple head coaching changes, starting with when Carol Ross was fired mid-season in 2014 (then-general manager Penny Toler briefly took over at the helm) and then after Brian Agler resigned following the 2018 campaign.

“I’ve experienced this three times now,” Ogwumike said. “I’d like to experience it less.”

Nonetheless, Ogwumike, who is a free agent this offseason and cannot be cored, expressed her commitment to Los Angeles, where she’s played her entire career and is the sole player who has been with the team continuously since before the 2019 season.

“I’ve always had faith in LA,” Ogwumike said. “I don’t see myself wearing any other jersey, at least that’s how I feel right now, that’s how I’ve always felt, and I’m here to contribute to that stability. I love this team. I love the city. I love this organization. And I worked out in practice today with people that feel the same.”

When asked if she’d be okay with Williams taking over the job long-term, she replied, “I mean, why not, he’s here.”

“I feel like he has a lot of experience,” Ogwumike said. ” I’m not trying to make any type of public decision but everyone knows Fred, not just on this team, not just in this organization, around the league around the college game. He knows what he’s doing. He what he’s talking about So I’m glad that if there were changes made that, the ball is in his court.”