When the Los Angeles Sparks announced the firing of head coach and general manager Derek Fisher Tuesday, there were a few surprising things about the move.
The ousting of Fisher didn’t exactly raise eyebrows, considering the downturn the Sparks franchise has taken over the past few years (the drop in average attendance from a league-leading 11,307 fans per game in 2019 to 4,524 in 2022, per Across the Timeline, is one sad indicator of that trend). However, the midseason timing of the move is surprising for a team that hopes to qualify for the postseason, and the elevation of Fred Williams to interim head coach instead of Latricia Trammell raised some eyebrows.
Williams’ debut with the media in his new role Wednesday lent some clarity as to why the Sparks made this particular move now.
The Auburn job
Williams had previously accepted a role as associate head coach with the Auburn Tigers for the 2022-23 season, and was scheduled to leave Los Angeles some time around the All-Star Break. By elevating Williams to interim head coach, the Sparks secured his services through the end of the season, retaining both him and Trammell in the process.
“With Auburn, it was supposed to transpire in July,” Williams said after practice Wednesday. “Looks like it’s more towards the end of the season if it’s still there, which I know it is still there, the opportunity. I know that coach Johnnie Harris there is a very close friend and she understands the situation. She said pretty much, hey, you got to take care of the young ladies here and pull them through this and, we can wait and see what happens and determine at the end of the season what needs to be done.”
Trammell is widely regarded as the source of L.A.’s defensive success over the past three seasons (though that has not yet carried to 2022) and has interviewed for multiple head coaching jobs in recent years, including being a finalist for the New York Liberty position this past offseason. One would hope that she is considered as a candidate for the head coaching job in 2023, provided the Sparks bounce back on defense over the final two-thirds of the season. The team is currently last in the league in defensive rating.
The arrival of Liz Cambage
L.A.’s star acquisition of the 2022 offseason, Liz Cambage, has been open about her admiration for Williams, who coached the center in 2018, her lone season in Dallas. Cambage previously told me that Williams checked in on her during her WNBA hiatus from 2014 to 2017 via email, and the two bonded over their shared love of music. In her opening press conference after signing with the Sparks, Cambage said, “I made a pinky promise to Coach Fred that we would meet again in L.A. Pinky promises are strong!”
Although Cambage expressed confidence in Fisher preseason, specifically referencing his time with Shaquille O’Neal as an inspiration for her, and the Sparks have run their offense through Cambage throughout the first 12 games, there appear to have been recent fissures.
Fisher has spoken about the difficulty of crafting a successful defense around a traditional center who “isn’t always going to be up as high in pick-and-roll defense and as aggressive at the point of attack as we’ve been accustomed to playing.” In the team’s most recent loss to then 2-8 Phoenix, Cambage didn’t get on the floor in the final 7:40, something Fisher admitted may have been a mistake postgame.
The Sparks will need the best version of Cambage to be at their best for the rest of the season, and Williams is the man best-suited for that job. She averaged career-highs in points, rebounds, offensive rating, and net rating in 2018 with the Wings, when she also set the single-game WNBA scoring record. Nneka Ogwumike noted that the relationship between Cambage and Williams will be key for the team moving forward.
“I mentioned that to coach Fred yesterday, I said, you know with the squad that we have, especially with having one of the most if not the most prominent center in the game, you’ve already coached her, you have a relationship with her. so that’s, that’s a lot of ground that we’ve covered,” Ogwumike said Wednesday. “I think that’ll really enhance our chemistry because we can’t have her out there without the ball running through her, you know, that’s just natural. So having that chemistry between her and him will help establish our goals when we’re out there.”
Williams’ WNBA experience
Fisher came into his role with the Sparks as a relative coaching neophyte and was entirely new to the WNBA. Although he worked hard to figure out the league — and brought in people like Williams who had more institutional knowledge — there was a learning curve especially in his early years.
There exists no such feeling-out period with Williams, who was coaching at USC in 1983 and joined the WNBA with the Utah Starzz in 1998. He’s been coaching women at the professional level ever since. Ogwumike called him an OG mentioned the “sage-ness” that Williams brings to the role. He’s been an interim coach before, back in 2012 with the Atlanta Dream, and he’s even been the head coach fired midseason, so none of this situation really fazes him.
“It’s a plus, yes, for him to have been around the game and around the women’s game for what, 38-plus years,” Brittney Sykes said. “I wanna say probably 40-plus years, coach Fred has been around women’s basketball and basketball period. So of course there’s that level of comfort knowing that okay, we have somebody who knows the game in and out who’s been around.”
Williams ended his first practice with a transition drill that Sykes referred to as “death”, so her use of the word “comfort” following that session is noteworthy.
Defense ➡️ Offense here at Fred Williams’ first Sparks practice. pic.twitter.com/WE0bNK5MQT— Mirjam Swanson (@MirjamSwanson) June 8, 2022
Nneka Ogwumike’s upcoming free agency
Fair or not, the defining moment of Fisher’s Los Angeles tenure will be the 2021 offseason, when Ogwumike, Candace Parker, and Chelsea Gray were all free agents, and Parker and Gray left for Chicago and Las Vegas, respectively. Ogwumike signed a two-year contract after the Sparks cored her, but she did take meetings with other teams in free agency.
The pain of losing those two players and then watching Parker — who had been in Los Angeles for 13 seasons — win a title with another team means that the primary goal for this franchise has to be retaining Ogwumike for the duration of her career. A former MVP and member of the W25, Ogwumike is an all-time great who should forever be a Spark.
Perhaps there was some worry that Ogwumike would once again test the waters in unrestricted free agency (when she cannot be cored). The friction between Parker and Fisher was well-documented, but losing another All-Star in Gray — who had arguably her best season under Fisher — could cast doubt on Fisher’s ability to retain stars.
Ogwumike told the media that the players were not part of the decision to fire Fisher, and Sykes said they found out about his departure when the move was complete, and Williams had accepted the interim tag. A midseason firing would usually suggest that players were consulted in the process, but the Sparks leader indicated otherwise.
Even if Ogwumike wasn’t involve in Fisher’s ouster, she appears to wholeheartedly support his replacement. When asked about the prospect of Williams becoming the permanent head coach, she said, “I mean why not, he’s here! I feel like he has a lot of experience. I’m not trying to make any type of public decis
ion, 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 knows what he’s talking about. So I’m glad that if there were changes made that, you know, the ball is in his court.”
Ogwumike also offered her strongest statement to date about her upcoming free agency, expressing her desire to remain in Los Angeles long-term. She wasn’t specifically questioned about being a free agent, rather what she hopes to see in terms of a new coach and future stability for the Sparks.
“We have a coach who has decades of experience and I’m totally okay with that,” Ogwumike said. “But you know, in terms of what we see next, I’ve always had faith in LA, 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 that feel the same, so I’m looking forward to that.”
Despite the midseason upheaval, the Sparks maintain their preseason goals of making the postseason and creating the foundation for championship contenders for years to come. At the moment, Fred Williams provides the stability and know-how to get that job done.