Derek Fisher’s coaching debut with the Los Angeles Sparks did not go quite as planned. Neither did Chiney Ogwumike’s playing debut.
Los Angeles showed glimpses of the WNBA title contenders they intend to be, but mostly fell flat in an 83-70 season-opening loss to the Las Vegas Aces, who were without superstar Liz Cambage but received 21 points and 11 rebounds from All-Star A’ja Wilson.
The offense that Fisher has been tasked with remodeling was sorely missing Candace Parker, who is sidelined because of a hamstring injury that will sidellne her for a few weeks.
In her absence, the Sparks spent most of the game searching for an offensive system. Ogwumike, a two-time All-Star whom the Sparks acquired before training camp, shot just one of 10 from the field and finished with two points and six rebounds. Budding star Chelsea Gray managed just eight points on three-of-nine shooting and four assists. As a team, the Sparks shot 36.4% from the field and turned the ball over 14 times.
Afterward, the message was clear: Transformations don’t happen overnight.
“This is going to be one of the best things that could happen to us,” Fisher said. “Because it reminds us, and reinforces with us right away, how far we have to go to reach our maximum potential.”
Potential they certainly have. Nowhere was that more evident than in second-year center Maria Vadeeva, who had a career-high 24 points on a bevy of offensive moves.
As soon as she left the game, the wheels fell off the Sparks’ engine. Los Angeles mustered 23 first-quarter points before starting the second quarter with a full bench unit. The Sparks scored just eight points in the second frame.
Fisher was undeterred by the bench’s results and opted to play the bulk of his roster. Ten players saw at least 15 minutes of court time, and no one played as many as 25.
“Several of our players are still getting to a point where, for 25, 28, 30, 32 minutes out of 40, they can play at a level that is required to win,” Fisher explained. “It was just important in my opinion — maybe it was wrong — but just to really try and stay fresh.”
While the effort was there, the execution was not. That’s to be expected for a team with not only a new coach, but five new players.
“We’re playing like a team that hasn’t played together,” All-Star forward and former MVP Nneka Ogwumike said. “We’re still trying to find our chemistry.”
As the chemistry builds, so too will the efficacy of the offensive schemes.
“Everyone here is new to his system,” Nneka Ogwumike said of Fisher’s free-flowing offense. “And his system is great. We just have to kind of break those habits that we had before.”
A trip to Vegas didn’t yield the winning hand that Los Angeles sought. Yet a loss can be a lesson and it won’t define their season.
Or, as Fisher eloquently summed it up: “It’s May, and I have a responsibility to make sure that our team can be at its best at the right time.”