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Derek Fisher can succeed in L.A., but only if the Sparks players still trust him

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Derek Fisher’s hiring raised questions. His inaugural playoff coaching performance raised questions. His continued employment also raises questions. What’s the deal with Fisher and the Los Angeles Sparks?

Los Angeles Sparks v Indiana Fever
A baffling postseason coaching performance by Derek Fisher sparked more than a few questions in Los Angeles.
Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

Until recently, Candace Parker had gone dark.

Like many WNBA players, Parker maintains a robust social media presence, providing fans with frequent, fun-loving peeks into her life through her Instagram feed. After the ignominious conclusion to the Sparks’ 2019 postseason, though, the former Finals MVP shared nothing for nearly a month.

So, yes, something seemed fishy. Parker’s social media silence came on the heels of the Sparks’ Game 3 semifinals loss to the Connecticut Sun and general manager Penny Toler being relieved of her duties.

Of the loss, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported that Parker and Nneka Ogwumike had proposed alternative offensive sets to coach Derek Fisher before Game 3, an effort to help the Sparks’ offense, especially point guard Chelsea Gray, break down the determined Sun defense. Fisher “snapped,” according to Shelburne, reacting to Parker’s suggestion by sniping, “Is that why we f---ing lost?” Then, Fisher played Parker a total of 11 minutes in Game 3, with multiple players understanding his decision as “premeditated” — a response not only to Parker’s proposed adjustments but to then-general manager Penny Toler’s rant following the Sparks’ Game 2 loss, which resulted in her firing.

Asked about her unexpected lack of Game 3 action, Parker only commented: “You’ve got to ask Fish that.”

Thus far, only Toler has taken the fall for the disastrous end to L.A.’s season, with her profane locker-room rant serving as an identifiable, fireable offense. But based on his puzzling actions, as well as Parker’s seemingly simmering discontent, should Fisher follow Toler out the door? Or, would such a decision represent an overreaction to a single episode that should not supersede an overall successful season?

As with the Toler situation, it’s difficult to pen a satisfying ending to this Hollywood drama.

Fisher’s winning season is reason to keep him as Sparks head coach

Derek Fisher was hired to reinvigorate a championship squad organized around a core of Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray. By the start of the season, both Chiney Ogwumike (via a trade from the Connecticut Sun) and Kalani Brown (via the seventh pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft) also we wearing purple and gold, giving the former Laker guard and Triangle Offense disciple a squad with a bevy of talented bigs. As the season unfolded, the tactical challenges presented by this collection of players soon became more complicated because of injuries to Parker, Alana Beard and Alexis Jones, in addition the eventual 10-game suspension of Riquna Williams.

For a few games, the Sparks barely were suiting up enough healthy players.

Fisher responded by empowering the likes of Sydney Wiese and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, role players whose place in the league perhaps reminded Fisher of his own professional basketball experience. Under Fisher’s tutelage, Wiese established herself as a solid rotation player, proving herself a willing shooter and steady enough ballhandler in about 20 minutes per game. Ruffin-Pratt showed herself to be more than a defensive specialist, turning in the most efficient offensive season of her career.

Fisher impressed with his ability to successfully navigate ongoing personnel uncertainties, situating his squad, when finally fully healthy, for a playoff run. Needless to say, this playoff run did not go as planned. Yet, Fisher showed enough coaching chops to earn another chance. In particular, for an L.A. squad that is expected to remain star-heavy (and, thus, expensive), a coach who can maximize (much less expensive) role players is valuable. It is conceivable that Fisher could help 2019 second-round draftee Marina Mabrey develop into a solid contributor on both ends of the floor.

Because of these successes, and the fact that Fisher led the Sparks to the top home record in the Western Conference and to the No. 3 seed in the playoffs, it makes sense that, as a source within the Sparks organization shared with Swish Appeal, the majority of the team supports Fisher.

All the more, Fisher has admitted to his shortcomings. Before the playoffs, Fisher spoke to Shelburne about his approach to coaching. “The first step I tried to take was to equalize myself and be very honest with the players about my life.” Fisher said. “How I’m learning and I’m a work in progress just like every person.”

Fisher appears aware of his need to improve, indicating he will absorb and apply multiple lessons from his poor playoff coaching performance. And recent comments from former Sparks’ coach Brian Agler further suggest that Fisher should be given the benefit of the doubt. Speaking to The Athletic’s Dorothy Gentry, Agler did not absolve Fisher for his Game 3 decisions but he did emphasize the difficulty of coaching in L.A., stating:

There’s a natural pressure just being in the city of L.A., and there was an inner organizational pressure of how things should be done. And that doesn’t always coincide with what it takes to win.

On his time with the Sparks, Agler also related:

I coached there for four years. I saw a lot, heard a lot, experienced a lot. In the end, my thoughts on leaving there … at times, it was very unprofessional. It was great ownership within the organization. I loved coaching the team, working for the ownership.

Without directly saying as much, Agler seems to hint that Toler’s departure should make things easier for Fisher during his second season.

Fisher’s future success in L.A. depends on whether the players still trust him

Fisher was hired because he was Toler’s guy. Despite an announced intention to undertake a “comprehensive” search, Toler soon insisted:

I can tell you it was a very short list. A short list of one. Matter of fact, people were asking me, ‘Penny, what’s the backup?’ I don’t have a backup. In this case, I’m going to close Plan A.

But more important than his relationship to Toler is his relationship with his players. While Fisher retains the support of the majority of his team, according to a team source, whether this support extends to the Sparks’ most important players remains in question. As recounted above, it seems Fisher was overly sensitive to Parker’s tactical suggestions, that he reacted as if his authority had been threatened, and in an immature manner.

Did he aim to “put Parker in her place” through the benching, reminding his superstar that he was the one in charge?

One player told Shelburne, “There was no justification for his coaching.” Another teammate said, “It shouldn’t have been a big deal. You argue and you’re done with it. You’re not supposed to get hurt over making adjustments. But he seemed upset by it.”

It is most important that professional women’s basketball teams hire coaches with a proven record in the women’s game, as well as an evident respect for the women who make up the game. Fisher said all the right things, from the day he was hired until the Sparks’ messy postseason ending, but his behavior and decisions suggest growing pains.

As reported by Shelburne:

While Sparks players were publicly supportive of Fisher during the season and many felt he could grow into a successful head coach in the league, there was a growing sense behind the scenes that he still had a lot to learn about the women’s game. Sparks players often asked him to bring in men for them to practice against, which is common in the sport, sources said, but not a practice Fisher showed a comfort level with. There were also frequent player requests to install new offensive plays and looks -- Fisher tended to preach better effort and execution instead of new strategies and plays -- and several players said they didn’t feel Fisher took that feedback well, often seeming “defensive,” as one player put it, when he was challenged.

The Sparks’ less tenured, less prominent players have demonstrated no dissatisfaction with their coach, quietly preparing for their overseas seasons or other offseason ventures.

Yet, Parker’s extended silence speaks volumes. Although it was only one incident and only one game, the fateful practice and futile Game 3 raise legitimate questions about Fisher’s fitness as a women’s basketball coach.