What’s next for the Sparks after firing Derek Fisher? For starters, Fred Williams
Brittney Sykes was excited to simply have the day off. A peaceful appointment for the Sparks guard to get hair done, however, went sideways when her phone started blowing up with texts from friends asking whether reports were true.
Indeed, Derek Fisher, her head coach of the last three seasons, was out.
The news of Fisher’s dismissal surprised Sparks players and assistants, but with two-thirds of the season left, the talented roster Fisher assembled is still chasing his vision of a title, even if there’s a new man leading the charge.
“Across the board everybody wants to compete for the championship,” Sykes said Wednesday after the Sparks’ first practice under interim head coach Fred Williams.
Williams, who came to L.A. as an assistant under Fisher in 2018, will lead the Sparks for the rest of the season while the organization searches for Fisher’s permanent replacement — or replacements — at head coach and general manager.
It won’t be an easy introduction to the leading role for Williams as the Sparks (5-7) face the WNBA-leading Las Vegas Aces (10-2) at home Saturday at 6 p.m.
Here’s what to know about the immediate and long-term future of the Sparks after the coaching change:
Who is Fred Williams?
Williams is a man of few words but a long resumé.
The 65-year-old was the women’s head coach at USC in 1995-97 before moving to the professional ranks. His WNBA head coaching stops include the Utah Starzz, Atlanta Dream and Tulsa Shock/Dallas Wings. He coached Dawn Staley as an assistant with the Charlotte Sting, led the Dream to the WNBA Finals in 2013 and joked Wednesday that his nearly 40 years of coaching experience took up two chairs on the bench.
“We have somebody who knows the game in and out, who’s been around,” Sykes said. “There’s no bad blood on his name.”
Williams’ experience with the team helped ease the transition this week. He said he reached out to each player Tuesday after the change was made public. When they gathered Wednesday at practice in Torrance, he shared his three most important rules: be on time, work hard and have fun.
“You break those rules,” Williams said with a slight smile, “you’re in trouble.”
The Sparks and Derek Fisher mutually agreed to part ways after a disappointing 5-7 start to the season, the team announced Tuesday.
What will Williams do with the team?
If the final minutes of practice Wednesday are any indication of what’s to come, Williams wants to push the pace. He ran players through a transition drill that doubled as conditioning, a frenetic up-and-down session that included half-court outlet passes to assistants waiting at midcourt, players quickly stealing the ball back and pushing the offense forward to score again.
Sykes, still catching her breath from practice, called the drill “death.”
The longest-tenured Sparks player Nneka Ogwumike, who ran the drill during Williams’ first year with the Sparks, said it’s meant to emphasize reaction, communication and listening. It seemed perfect for a team struggling to find its chemistry.
Williams assured players they’ll be a “well-oiled machine” in two weeks, Sykes said. Williams admitted the next few games could be bumpy as he tinkers with the lineup, especially at the point guard and post positions. But he said with the tempo he plans to play, “everybody will have a piece of the pie and be happy with minutes.”
Williams has a long relationship with star center Liz Cambage, who cited Williams as one of the reasons she signed with the team this season after a 2018 pinkie promise. Their history together could help unlock more consistent production from Cambage, who has averaged 15.3 points and 6.1 rebounds but notched only one double-double in the first 12 games.
Where do the Sparks stand?
One-third of the way through the regular season, the Sparks are clinging to the eighth spot in the WNBA standings. The good news is that the most difficult part is over: eight of their first 11 games were on the road. They have only one game in the next 10 days, giving Williams plenty of practice time to implement his vision.
While a coaching challenge could test the Sparks’ locker room, Ogwumike said players remain unified the same way they’ve stuck together during the early season struggles.
“When these types of changes happen, we can’t stop,” Ogwumike said. “Somebody’s got to play the games, you know? Someone’s gotta coach. That’s our job, that’s our responsibility and we have to uphold that.”
Who could be a candidate for the permanent job?
De facto defensive coordinator Latricia Trammell could be due for her first WNBA head coaching job. Teams such as the Phoenix Mercury and New York Liberty expressed interest in Trammell last season, and she previously led Oklahoma City University to back-to-back NAIA national championships and coached at Division II Western State in Colorado.
Trammell’s defense was one of the best parts of Fisher’s tenure. Her contagious passion helped turn a 34-year-old Candace Parker into the defensive player of the year in 2020, and guided guard Brittney Sykes’ transformation into one of the league’s best perimeter defenders. Sykes, who was named first-team all-defense last year, said she would like to see Trammell get a head-coaching opportunity.
“If one day LT gets a head-coach job, and I have a kid, I want my kid to get coached by LT,” Sykes said. “I wouldn’t mind seeing Coach T anywhere as a head coach. It doesn’t matter as long as they’re treating her right.”
The Sparks are outscored 23-15 in fourth quarter and fall to 5-7 on season. The Mercury convert 18 of 20 free throws, ending seven-game losing streak.
What about Williams sticking around long-term?
Williams wasn’t even supposed to be with the team through this season. Now he’s in charge.
Williams accepted a job as Auburn’s associate head coach last month with the intention that he would transition to his new role in July but Fisher personally informed Williams he wanted the assistant to take over for the rest of the season. Williams spoke with Auburn head coach Johnnie Harris, who is sympathetic to the Sparks’ situation.
“Hey, you gotta take care of the young ladies here and pull them through this,” Williams said of his conversation with Harris. “And we can wait and see what happens and determine at the end of the season what needs to be done.”