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Hoops Happening: Is Derek Fisher the right coach for an aging Los Angeles Sparks team?

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Yesterday, the Sparks announced Fisher will become the team’s new head coach. Fisher brings into the gig a wealth of championship experience as a player, but his coaching record leaves much to be desired and he has a recent history of off-court troubles.

Premiere Of Open Road Films’ ‘Sleepless’ - Arrivals
Derek Fisher at a film premiere in Los Angeles, Calif. on Jan. 5, 2017.
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Less than a week ago, the Los Angeles Sparks announced Brian Agler’s resignation from his position as head coach. Through a press release on Nov. 30, the Sparks stated that a “comprehensive search to identify the next Sparks head coach will start immediately.” Boy, were they not kidding. Six days later, the Los Angeles organization has announced its head coaching hire: Derek Fisher, who is best known for his sharpshooting abilities on NBA Championship-winning Los Angeles Lakers teams.

Immediately after the Sparks announced Agler’s resignation, reports circulated that Agler had actually resigned in early November but could not discuss the matter pending an announcement by the Sparks. If this is true, Agler at least had time to clean out his office ahead of Fisher’s return to the place where his basketball career was made. Prior to the Sparks’ introductory press conference for Fisher on Friday, Dec. 7, at 3 p.m. ET — at which Sparks Executive Vice President and General Manager Penny Toler, 2016 WNBA champion and two-time league MVP Candace Parker and Sparks Managing Director and Governor Eric Holoman will also speak — here are three things to consider about the Sparks-Fisher union.

Shaky head coaching record

A lackluster head coaching record isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it certainly isn’t the best, especially for an aging team seeking another championship before key players fade into retirement.

Fisher was fired as head coach of the NBA’s New York Knicks after notching a 17-65 record his first season (2014-15) and 23-31 in his second (2015-16), with 28 remaining regular-season games to be played. Presumably, LA wanted to part ways with Agler following a dismal 2018 WNBA postseason from which the Sparks were bounced in a second round, single-elimination contest by the Washington Mystics, which presumes further that the Sparks are looking to win it all in the 2019 season. If this is the case, wouldn’t a candidate with a proven head coaching history in the form of a winning record be more apt?

As it is, Alana Beard, two-time Defensive Player of the Year (2017 and 2018), is 36, while Candace Parker and Essence Carson are both 32. All three players are still playing at an elite level, so this may not seem like a big deal in a league where the likes of Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are on track to play until they’re 40. However, especially for guards, the legs just give out one day (and the Sparks need only look to Kobe Bryant’s final season with the Lakers) or serious injuries put a long-term halt, if not an end, to a player’s career (LA could consider Shaquille O’Neal’s 2011 injury-induced retirement as a point of reference).

The Sparks have not released information about other candidates who may have been considered for the position. But the sea of college and WNBA assistant coaches is wide, giving LA a chance to bring in a hire with a winning record, even if amassed in the assistant-coaching ranks. As mentioned in a Swish Appeal article yesterday, some current WNBA assistants with recent winning records include Julie Hairgrove (Phoenix Mercury), Gary Kloppenburg (Seattle Storm) and Mike Petersen (Atlanta Dream). Those three teams had deep playoff runs in 2018, with the Storm winning it all.

Upper-echelon player in the storied triangle offense

Known for his clutch, three-point shooting, Fisher won five NBA Championships with the Lakers and superstars Bryant and O’Neal. Fisher won three consecutive championship rings (from 2000 to 2002); the Lakers also won NBA Championships in 2009 and 2010. His tenure with the Lakers saw him play across the transition from a league dominated by bigs and plays in the paint to one which evolved into domination from the perimeter. In the early 2000s, his teammates included the likes of Rick Fox, Robert Horry and Brian Shaw (along with Bryant and O’Neal).

By the time Fisher retired with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2013, however, guards like Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors) were just a few years removed from history-making performances that would redefine the game. Fisher began coaching in a season when the perimeter play of some teams would surpass their post play capabilities. So, perhaps in his short-lived tenure with the Knicks he struggled to shift from being a player who thrived in Phil Jackson’s triangle offense with the Lakers to a coach capable of implementing a successful system in a changing game.

To successfully coach a WNBA team that does not have Brittney Griner or Liz Cambage, Fisher will have to embrace more of what the game has evolved into rather than cling to what it once had been.

Off-court issues

In 2017, Fisher was arrested on suspicion of DUI following a violent car accident in the wee hours of the morning, which could have left him and his female companion dead. Fisher also has been entangled in a long-term beef with former teammate Matt Barnes, after Barnes’ ex-wife, Gloria Govan, began dating Fisher. This is not to say past mistakes should bar a person from future opportunity, but some mistakes should be considered red flags. Thus, hiring a person with even a short history of off-court drama to coach a WNBA team seems to fly in the face of what the WNBA is known for — being the most controversy-averse league in the history of sports.

Yet, a big-name retired NBA player will draw headlines so, at minimum — in keeping with Hollywood ways — there will be publicity.

Reactions from players

Perhaps all that matters in a change like this is the contentment of the players, and some of the Sparks’ starters had glowing things to say about the opportunity to be coached by Fisher.

Candace Parker favors Fisher’s “championship pedigree”:

Derek is a great basketball mind who brings a ton of high-level experience to our team. I look forward to working with someone with championship pedigree and who has a track record of strong leadership. Derek has been a strong supporter of women’s basketball for quite some time, so it’s nice to officially welcome him.

Nneka Ogwumike touts possibility for Fisher to “elevate the platform” of the WNBA:

Speaking as a student of the game and even a fan, welcoming Derek Fisher to the Sparks is monumental in so many ways for us as a team and for the respect and love of the game. This is especially exciting in a time when women’s sports are on the rise and we continue our work to elevate the platform.

Chelsea Gray is eager to learn from “a great basketball mind”:

I welcome Derek with open arms. I’m excited to be joining forces with a great basketball mind that brings amazing championship experience. He’s always been known for his leadership and toughness. From point guard to point guard I’m eager to learn from him.

Tell us what you think:

Poll

Is Derek Fisher the right coach for the Sparks at this point in the franchise’s history?

This poll is closed

  • 28%
    Yes
    (64 votes)
  • 71%
    No
    (164 votes)
228 votes total Vote Now

This story was updated to include reactions from the players.