Why the Sparks are optimistic about their future despite missing playoffs

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LOS ANGELES, CA. - JUNE 30: Derek Fisher, Head Coach of the Sparks, watches as point guard Erica Wheeler runs the play he drew up against the Las Vegas Aces at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Wednesday, June 30, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
Sparks coach Derek Fisher watches as point guard Erica Wheeler, who was signed as a free agent before last season, runs a play. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Derek Fisher constructed the Sparks' roster with a vision of versatility and athleticism at the wings. The coach and general manager wanted multiple ballhandlers to create a dynamic offense that could play with pace, attack the rim and stretch the floor with shooters.

He had that roster, he believed, but injuries kept it confined to paper.

Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver, the Sparks’ three most experienced players, missed 52 of 96 games as the Sparks (12-20) missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Rookie Jasmine Walker, who the Sparks traded up to pick at No. 7 overall, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the second game of the season.

When Fisher saw his stars reduced to coaching roles on the sideline and his promising rookie wearing a knee brace, he sometimes thought there was no way his plan could have gone this bad. But more than a week after the Sparks were eliminated from postseason contention on the last shot of the season, Fisher found the silver linings of a disappointing and at times painful season.

“When we look back on it, we're going to see that it forced us to grow maybe more than it would have had we been healthy,” Fisher said Wednesday. “No matter who it is, no matter who we sign, draft, trade for, bring in, there's a standard that you just automatically know when you play for the Los Angeles Sparks. If you're not interested in getting there, don't come. That's what we're trying to build and I think this year, despite not being in postseason play, we were able to establish a lot of those standards and expectations for how things need to be done here.”

The Sparks missed the playoffs for just the fifth time in their 25-year history. Yet as players stepped up for individual exit interviews during the week since losing the regular-season finale to the Dallas Wings on Sept. 19, each expressed hope that the franchise will return to its championship standards on the back of long-time veterans and young players eager to carry on the tradition.

“Creating legacy and dynasty is, I believe, what the long-game is,” Nneka Ogwumike said. “We're not looking for one-off seasons, but we are looking for the real ones that understand the importance of the culture of legacy and championship mentality.”

Ogwumike is still at the center of the Sparks’ post-Candace Parker rebuild. In his first year as general manager and head coach, Fisher signed several key free agents to two-year deals this past offseason, leaving center Amanda Zahui B., Chiney Ogwumike and guards Erica Wheeler and Brittney Sykes signed through the 2022 season. The multitude of two-year deals for key pieces was by design, Fisher said.

Year one was to show players what the new era of Sparks basketball could be. Year 2, in 2022, will be about starting to realize the vision.

“That carry over from Year 1 to Year 2 with a core group that will have been through the mud together a little bit, had some shared and common experience as a team, that's what the real foundation of success is built on in sports,” Fisher said. “The years that you don't get it done together, those become the seeds and the soil to the years that you do.”

The Sparks will welcome forward Gabby Williams next year, who was acquired in a trade before the season but was on the league’s suspended list in 2021 while competing in the Olympics for France. The former Connecticut star helped France to a bronze medal in Tokyo and averaged 7.7 points with 3.1 rebounds for the Chicago Sky in 2020.

Forward Nia Coffey, who had career-highs in points (8.3), rebounds (3.8), blocks (1.2) and three-point shooting percentage (41.7%) while emerging as a key player on the Sparks’ piecemeal roster, is the Sparks’ only unrestricted free agent. The team maintains exclusive negotiating rights to reserved players Te’a Cooper, Maria Vadeeva and Lauren Cox.

With any remaining roster spots, Fisher will look for free agents to improve three-point shooting, where the Sparks ranked ninth in the league at 33.5%, and rebounding. The Sparks were the WNBA's worst-rebounding team with a frontcourt that got so thin without the Ogwumike sisters and Vadeeva, who stayed in Russia, that they signed Cox, a 6-foot-4 forward, in the middle of the season and put her in a game without any practice.

Despite their lack of frontcourt depth, the Sparks still produced the third-rated defense. Fisher thinks better rebounding could vault the team to first in defensive rating.

Defense kept the Sparks in the playoff hunt, even when their offense was among the most inefficient in franchise history. With key pieces returning next year, the Sparks are confident they can get their re-build back on track.

“Seeing how we missed Kristi, Chiney and Nneka a big chunk of the season," Zahui B. said, "it's going to be scary hours next season."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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