Last week, the Los Angeles Sparks announced they will be retaining Derek Fisher as head coach and elevating him to general manager.
Like many decisions and developments of the Sparks’ Fisher era, going all-in on Fisher raises eyebrows.
On the coaching front, Fisher is not undeserving of having his contract renewed, but it is not clear that he is deserving either. The questions that surrounded Fisher’s initial hiring have only metastasized and multiplied during his two years at the helm.
While he coaxed stretches of championship-caliber play out of the Sparks in the 2019 and 2020 regular seasons, he also has overseen two too-early playoff exits — a disastrous one in 2019 and a disappointing one in 2020.
Thus, the decision to empower Fisher as general manager raises even more questions considering his resume is much slimmer than the other WNBA head coaches who also hold management positions. For the franchise, the consequences couldn’t be any higher, as the Sparks are entering an absolutely monumental offseason.
In comparison with his peers
Fisher joins James Wade of the Chicago Sky, Bill Laimbeer of the Las Vegas Aces, Cheryl Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx and Mike Thibault of the Washington Mystics as the fifth WNBA head coach who also holds the general manager or president of basketball operations role with their organizations.
Among this group of five, Fisher sticks out in lacking the qualifications possessed by his colleagues.
Bill Laimbeer is the only head coach with the president of basketball operations title, a position he has earned due to his extensive success in the WNBA. During his first head coaching tenure in the league, Laimbeer turned the Detroit Shock into an elite organization. After taking the Shock from the bottom of the standings all the way to the title in 2003, he helped bring two more championship trophies to Detroit in 2006 and 2008.
When he returned to the WNBA in 2012 after a hiatus, Laimbeer was named head coach and general manager of the New York Liberty and he steered the Liberty to three playoff appearances in five seasons before heading to Las Vegas to take over the franchise formerly known as the San Antonio Stars, which relocated to Las Vegas and rebranded as the Aces.
Like Laimbeer, Mike Thibault proved himself worthy of basketball management power. Although a championship eluded him, Thibault enjoyed an incredibly successful 10-year stint with the Connecticut Sun, highlighted by two trips to the Finals and two turns in the conference finals. To lure Thibault from Uncasville to DC, it made sense for the Mystics to offer him the general managership.
At first glance, Fisher’s circumstance is most similar to that of James Wade, who was hired as a first-time WNBA head coach and general manager by Chicago in 2019.
Yet, in contrast to Fisher, whose only prior coaching experience was his uninspiring season and a half with the NBA’s New York Knicks, Wade had significant coaching experience within women’s basketball.
From 2012 to 2016, Wade was an assistant coach for the San Antonio Stars, beginning as a player development coach before becoming a full assistant coach. In 2017, he became the first lieutenant for Cheryl Reeve in Minnesota, a position he held for two seasons. During this same time period, Wade also burnished his women’s basketball resume outside the WNBA, working as an assistant coach for BLMA in France from 2013 to 2016 before serving as an assistant for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia from 2017 to 2018.
Cheryl Reeve’s experience, however, presents the most interesting comparison to Fisher’s.
Both Reeve and Fisher were not new hires who received the dual head coach-general manager titles. Instead, they were elevated to general manager after first serving as head coach. But it was eight seasons — and four championships! — before Reeve was named general manager. For Fisher, it took just two uneven seasons and zero championships to become so empowered.
This contrast not only is a product of the gender biases that still characterize hiring practices in women’s basketball, but also the almost-automatic head coaching legitimacy afforded former NBA players in the WNBA.
The Sparks’ organization, in particular, has long evinced an eagerness to embrace the supposed basketball authority of former NBA players. Fisher is preceded by four former NBA players in coaching the Sparks: Orlando Woolridge (1998-99), Michael Cooper (2000-04, 2007-09), Henry Bibby (2005) and Joe Bryant (2005, 2011).
As Cooper demonstrated in LA and Laimbeer has shown at his various stops, former NBA players can be excellent WNBA coaches. But there is no evidence that former NBA players possess some magic touch that should grant them the benefit of the doubt that they disproportionately have received. With his initial hiring and early promotion to general manager, Fisher seems to have been advantaged by former NBA players’ special dispensation within the league.
If Fisher successfully navigates his first offseason as general manager, he will prove that he deserved the position, despite lingering questions about his qualifications.
However, he faces an incredibly difficult, delicate task.