In need of a boost after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011, the Sparks added a key sharp-shooting wing. Derek Fisher, the team’s coach and general manager, moved pieces to get a speedy championship-winning point guard. They added an international star center.
Playing in Australia during the busy free-agency period, Sparks guard Brittney Sykes often woke to news of a new teammate. Seeing the roster take shape, she wondered to herself: “Fish, what are you trying to do?”
When the all-league defender met the players on the rebuilt roster that balanced youth and experience with frontcourt depth and backcourt skill, Fisher’s vision became obvious.
“It’s one of those things that can turn into a dynasty,” Sykes said.
The Sparks, who open the season Friday on the road against the Chicago Sky, will try to execute Fisher’s ambitious plan to get the franchise back into the WNBA limelight. The league is poised for a 36-game season, its longest ever, as the Sparks return full time to Crypto.com Arena.
Here are five story lines to know for the Sparks season:
Time to show
Since falling short of a championship repeat in 2017, the Sparks have won just two playoff games. The prevailing moment of Fisher’s Sparks tenure entering his fourth season might be when he benched Candace Parker during the 2019 WNBA semifinals. The star’s strained relationship with Fisher likely contributed to her decision to leave during free agency in 2021, Fisher’s first as the general manager.
Fisher’s second offseason managing the roster went much smoother.
The Sparks shipped starting point guard Erica Wheeler to Atlanta for the potential of Chennedy Carter, who averaged 16.1 points in two seasons with the Dream. Forward Gabby Williams went to Seattle without playing a game in a Sparks uniform in exchange for forward Katie Lou Samuelson and a first-round draft pick. Fellow Southern California native Jordin Canada also came from Seattle as a free agent. Four-time All-Star Liz Cambage took a pay cut to sign as a free agent so the Sparks could carry the maximum 12 players.
The moves helped the Sparks win the offseason. Now they need to win when it counts.
“This year is to show and prove that this organization is still a championship organization contender,” said Canada, a UCLA and L.A. Windward School alumna who won two WNBA titles with the Seattle Storm.
New faces in new places
Canada is one of the new players Fisher will count on to revitalize the sagging franchise, but most eyes will be fixated on the team’s biggest player: the 6-foot-8 Cambage.
The former Las Vegas Aces star, who averaged 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds last year, was Fisher’s marquee free-agent signing. The WNBA record-holder for the most points in a single game with 53, Cambage dominates on the court and commands attention off it, but sometimes for controversial reasons.
Cambage withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics, citing her mental health amid reports that she was involved in a physical altercation during a scrimmage between Australia and Nigeria. She vocally objected to playing in Tulsa, Okla., after being drafted by the Shock and stayed out of the league for four seasons.
But the 30-year-old center seems at peace in L.A. Playing in this city has been a longtime dream, she said.
The Sparks introduce Liz Cambage, a four-time All-Star and two-time All-WNBA center on Wednesday at Crypto.com Arena.
“It’s going to be the most wild summer the WNBA has ever seen,” Cambage said with a grin. “And we’re going to have a ring at the end of it.”
Cambage’s isn’t the Sparks’ only hopeful redemption story. The Atlanta Dream suspended Carter, a 23-year-old point guard, for conduct detrimental to the team last year. The former No. 4 overall pick wants to show a more mature side, saying she hopes to be “the glue” for the team.
Not only is L.A. a fitting destination for a player whose nickname is “Hollywood,” but it gives her an ideal mentor in Nneka Ogwumike, whom Carter calls “the most mature player I’ve ever played with.”
In addition to trying to rebuild its franchise without longtime star Parker, the Sparks also had to contend with injury woes last season.
Chiney Ogwumike played in only seven games in her first on-court action since 2019, battling knee soreness stemming from knee and Achilles surgeries in 2014 and 2016, respectively. Aware of the toll a season takes on her body, Ogwumike has a personal army of support staff that includes an osteopath, a physical therapist, a track coach, a strength coach and a basketball coach. After Ogwumike averaged career lows in points (seven) and rebounds (4.1) last year, her team helped her “start from scratch.”
“The last few years was just about trying to address the issue,” Ogwumike said. Now, she wants not to “put a Band-Aid on it, but actually create a solution.”
The Sparks pieced together a younger, deeper roster this offseason through trades and free agency. A look at the new roster for the 2022 season.
Guard Kristi Toliver missed 13 games because of an eye injury and a broken finger. The 35-year-old Dallas Mavericks assistant coach averaged only 9.4 points and 2.9 assists per game last year, her lowest marks for a season since 2010, but her impact went beyond the raw numbers. The Sparks were 2-11 without her last year.
Forward Jasmine Walker, the No. 7 overall pick in 2021, is at full strength after recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the second game of her rookie season.
Nneka Ogwumike, whose left knee injury contributed to her controversial snub from the U.S. Olympic roster, averaged 14.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game last season while missing 14 games. When asked about her health entering this season, the former Stanford star grinned and said: “My left knee feels like my right knee.”
The 2016 most valuable player turns 31 in July. The knee sprain she suffered was the most significant injury of her career. Not only are the signs of an 11-year professional career beginning to show but add in the burden of leading the WNBA players association through negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement and the pandemic.
“She’s taken so many years of her career to focus on other people,” Chiney Ogwumike said of her sister. “This is the first time where she can finally start focusing on herself again.”
Fisher said he believes it is the organization’s “responsibility” to surround Nneka Ogwumike with talent to lessen her load and keep the team relevant during the next stage of her career. Ogwumike played 31.7 minutes per game last year, the most for her in a season since 2015.
Sparking some offense
The injuries hurt the Sparks most on offense, where they averaged a league-worst 72.8 points per game. It was the fewest for a Sparks team since 2009.
Nneka Ogwumike said the first step to fixing the anemic offense is staying healthy. The roster moves should help.
Adding Cambage to a frontcourt with both Ogwumike sisters gives the Sparks plenty of post options. Canada can stabilize the guard position with her speed next to Toliver while helping mentor Carter. Samuelson is a career 42.6% three-point shooter.
Any offensive improvement, combined with the Sparks’ defensive track record under Fisher, should put the team firmly in the playoff chase. Led by defensive guru Latricia Trammell, the Sparks have ranked third in defensive rating in each of Fisher’s three years as head coach.
Thuc Nhi Nguyen covers college sports and the NBA for the Los Angeles Times. She previously covered UCLA, professional soccer and preps for the Southern California News Group. Because she doesn’t use her University of Washington mathematics degree for work, it makes great decoration in her parents’ Seattle home.