Derek Fisher just needed a hug.
As soon as the Sparks' season ended, the head coach, after spending almost three months in Bradenton, Fla., for the WNBA’s quarantined season, returned home as soon as possible and raced into the arms of his fiancée and children.
They were the “longest hugs ever,” he recalled Friday with a grin.
The hugs, combined with Fisher’s signature spaghetti dinner that he cooked at the request of his kids, helped him decompress from a season that tested players and coaches both mentally and physically. But it will soon be time to get back to work for Fisher as the Sparks hope to overcome another early playoff exit.
The Sparks (15-8) finished third in the league for the second consecutive season, but were again eliminated from the playoffs by the Connecticut Sun, who swept the Sparks in the 2019 WNBA semifinals then bounced the Sparks in a single-elimination second-round game this season.
“We accomplished really good things,” Fisher said during a virtual news conference, “but of course, at the professional level, if you don't win or win it all, quote-unquote, you have things to get better at.”
After their championship hopes were thwarted, the Sparks need to tackle a roster teetering on several major free-agency decisions. Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Chelsea Gray, Riquna Williams and Seimone Augustus are unrestricted free agents.
Parker, who was voted defensive player of the year this season, expressed interest after the final playoff game in returning to the Sparks, where she has spent her entire WNBA career. Augustus had said previously she intended to retire after 2020, although, when she signed with the Sparks during the offseason, the four-time champion with the Minnesota Lynx remained open to prolonging her Hall of Fame career beyond just one more year.
Much of the roster’s composition will be out of Fisher’s hands, he acknowledged, with so many key players eligible for free agency. The negotiating period begins in January.
For the Sparks, who won the offseason last year by adding Kristi Toliver and Augustus while trading for Brittney Sykes, who earned WNBA All-Defensive second-team honors this year, building another championship contender takes more than just collecting big names.
“I don't think we necessarily have to make these wholesale, large roster changes just to have a chance to compete and win,” Fisher said, “because a lot of the things that really I think are keys to winning are not necessarily just talent-related or roster-construction related. A lot of it is the mental capabilities and willingness, the self-discipline that regardless of who the player is, is she willing and capable of having the discipline level, the commitment level, the attention to detail that it takes to win at the highest levels?”
During the WNBA’s quarantined season, the Sparks led the league in three-point shooting and ranked third in defensive rating, led by Parker.
But the season that started with title aspirations ended with a three-game losing streak. Injuries piled up, despite the training staff’s best efforts to minimize risk during the condensed season. Ogwumike was a late scratch from the playoff game with a migraine, exemplifying the struggles of a season that required players to balance playing responsibilities and the league’s commitment to social justice. Ogwumike attributed a back injury that cost her three games to stress stemming from her dual responsibilities to the Sparks and to the league as the players’ association president.
The unique circumstances for the 2020 season made it difficult for Fisher to evaluate the trajectory of his tenure with the team after two seasons. Practice time was so limited in the bubble with games almost every other day. It was tough to instill new habits.
Some players have already traveled overseas to play, including Williams and Sykes, who are in Turkey. Fisher wanted to give his players the necessary opportunity to recover from life in the bubble, where basketball consumed all parts of life.
But there were also positives to life in Bradenton as the coach who preached the importance of establishing strong relationships entering the season saw those bonds develop.
“I think, that’s what, for our team allowed us in a very, very, very difficult and challenging situation, to have still the good feeling about coming to work every day,” Fisher said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.