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The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, June 8, 2022
Happy Basketball Wednesday. The short version of how the firing of Derek Fisher by the Los Angeles Sparks on Tuesday is viewed around the league is less about the act itself, and far more about the timing of it.
But I cannot help but see the end of Fisher’s tenure in the ambivalent territory it has occupied essentially from the moment it happened. And at each turn, perception did him no favors.
His hiring, back in 2018 by longtime GM Penny Toler, took place without a customary candidate search process — Toler described Fisher as “a list of one” among her coaching options, which immediately set his expectations higher than they should have been, while rightly alienating so many in the women’s basketball community. (Someday we’ll get the analytics of what damage it did to the league’s bottom line that its Los Angeles franchise, from the top down, was actively hostile to media coverage for two decades, much as the Sparks have done so much better on that front over the past five years.)
Hiring someone out of the men’s basketball world isn’t a sin, or even ill-advised — a former Chicago Bulls assistant named Mike Thibault and a former Detroit Pistons forward named Bill Laimbeer suggest greatness is possible from such a background. Doing so without considering any other options was silly at best, and insulting at worst.
It also was expressly not Derek Fisher’s fault. And so it was exciting, frankly, to watch him start to absorb the culture and language of the WNBA. It was, by all I have spoken to, a process undertaken with great enthusiasm, an on-ramp that all of us in this women’s basketball space must allow for if the goal is to expand the game beyond its current reach. It went well enough in 2019, with a difficult ending in Connecticut, a bit worse in 2020, though Fisher learned from his benching of Candace Parker the year before and played her all 40 minutes. The team lost Parker and Chelsea Gray, and this past offseason, rebuilt for one final try around a Nneka Ogwumike core. They named Fisher GM in December 2021.
If ownership didn’t think Fisher’s vision could be trusted, well, then it shouldn’t have kept him in place this past winter, allowing him to trade a 2023 first-round pick for Chennedy Carter, for instance. If they did think this new roster deserved a chance to gel, how on earth do you fire him after a 5-7 start as they are doing so, playing 9 of 12 on the road?
It boggles the mind. Fisher got one shot, and his new roster got 12 games, acquitted itself decently, and then he’s out. That management, by all accounts, planned to have Fisher finish the season makes it clear this was player-driven, but by whom? Nneka Ogwumike, whose coring paved the way for Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray to leave? Liz Cambage, who took the only offer she got from a WNBA team from Fisher? Kristi Toliver‘s not even there yet! All three are free agents this offseason, too.
Then we must consider that the team chose Fred Williams, a good man with WNBA coaching experience, as the interim head coach. This is no knock on Fred, but he was already leaving, headed to Auburn for an assistant’s gig. So what Los Angeles did, in essence, was forfeit a chance to see what assistant Latricia Trammell could do in a head coaching gig on a trial basis to return the reins to Williams, who is already out the door. (A smarter team than the Sparks will hire Latricia Trammell as a head coach someday soon and count its blessings for years.)
So LA decided the smart move was to blow things up midseason, in the hopes that a lame duck coach will motivate his lame duck players ahead of what everyone understands is a brand new 2023 no matter what happens. Got it.
Fisher was, by all accounts, heartbroken about this turn of events. Again, by all accounts he was all in on the WNBA and its mission. But then, he put out this statement.
As the kids say, wyd Derek? After four years of getting accused of treating the WNBA as a way-station — despite not doing that — your outgoing statement rules out ever working in the WNBA again, then using WNBA as a hashtag? Thibault was fired by Connecticut, went on to DC and won a WNBA title. Laimbeer left the Shock midseason in 2009, went on to successful stints in New York and Las Vegas. Why rule it out? It was an unnecessary, unforced error.
I do think there are other lessons here. I think the old binary that when men come over from the NBA, they can either try their best and succeed or mail it in and fail is less true than ever. It is hard as hell to win in the WNBA, period, and that trope has never reckoned with the degree of difficulty. But it’s harder to win in the league than ever. Fisher, by all accounts, gave his all, finished 54-46, and is out of a job.
But I also think the Los Angeles Sparks, who were content to run on the whims of Penny Toler for 20 years and have seemingly drifted since, need to do the smart thing. Hire cutting-edge basketball ops folks and empower those they already have. Hire a home run of a head coach and let her deploy her system, preferably after an extensive search. Let the team in place do its work, unimpeded, for an extended period of time.
Even then: there are no guarantees. This league is hard. But finally, perception and reality would be on LA’s side.
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This week in women’s basketball
Ace Anbender looks into the importance of Emily Kiser’s return for Michigan.
Five at The IX: Sabrina Ionescu, Rebecca Allen
I had a chance to chat with them both, along with other media, at their postgame Tuesday night. More on Sabrina in the weeks to come.
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