Roll out the red carpet. The Los Angeles Sparks adopted the motto “time to show” this year, with the intention of getting back to the franchise’s winning tradition and reestablishing relevance. In their effort to return to the top of the league, the Sparks signed a swath of A-list players during the offseason, beginning what could be a new era of Sparks basketball.
Last year, the Sparks had their worst season since 2007. They recorded the lowest offensive rating in the league scoring just 72.8 points per game and missed out on the WNBA Playoffs for the first time since 2011. Now, the Sparks have turned over much of the squad, have a new president, a new but familiar head coach, and most importantly, new hope.
During the offseason, former general manager and head coach Derek Fisher reshuffled the squad, signing Liz Cambage from the Las Vegas Aces, Jordin Canada from the Seattle Storm, Katie Lou Samuelson from the Storm, and Chennedy Carter from the Atlanta Dream. Just two Sparks remain from the squad that won the WNBA title six seasons ago in 2016: veteran leaders Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver.
“It’s a bit of a redemptive season for us. I’ve been here, as far as a player, I’ve been here the longest so I’ve seen a lot of changes that the Sparks have experienced. We’ve experienced a lot of growing pains in a way that I see this organization really setting the tone,” Nneka Ogwumike said at the Sparks’ 2022 media day ahead of the season.
“In my 11 years here, I have never seen this type of energy from the players, from the coaches to the sports medical staff, to media, to branding, to marketing, to ticket sales, everyone in the office, it feels like we are a team.”
“That’s something that’s going to really impact not just what you see on the court. But [also] what you see in the Sparks organization. I’m very proud to still be here and be a part of it. And I look forward to seeing what our time has to show for it.” she concluded.
Representing the LA Sparks, an original and historic WNBA franchise carries weight. The Sparks were known for success after the title-winning teams of the 2001 and 2002 seasons. But that changed for some time until their next title in 2016. Which LA has been unable to replicate since.
The Sparks are still on their quest to reach the heights of the Lisa Leslie-era dominance. As the current squad was assembled, enthusiasm regarding a potential title run was high. “Every person in this room has a chip on their shoulder,” Chiney Ogwumike said during 2022 media day. A third of the way into the season, their focus remains despite mixed results.
When the Sparks announced new President Vanessa Shay, she spoke about the necessity of winning. At the time, the Sparks were 3-5.
“Derek (Fisher) knows, our ownership knows, Ws are important for any team at the level that we play at,” she said.
After securing a 5-7 record a third of the way into the season, Derek Fisher and the team mutually parted ways. Derek’s departure doesn’t come as a complete shock. And fortunately for Sparks players, assistant coach Fred Williams is taking over as the interim head coach for the remainder of the season. So the fresh team will have to adjust, but won’t be put into a scramble of a major shift in personnel on staff.
“We have a coach who has decades of experience, and I’m totally OK with that,” Nneka Ogwumike said during a media availability one day after the news broke. “Everyone knows Fred — not just on this team, not just in this organization, around the league, around the college game. He knows what he’s doing. He knows what he’s talking about.”
“We want to compete for a championship and whoever is in that seat, then so be it,” Brittney Sykes stated. “We just know that the team is together, the team all wants the same thing. And so does our coaching staff. So does the front office.”
It was always going to be a tough task to get a squad full of stars to quickly acclimate to one another and play as a unit.
“It’s not easy to just throw players together and win every night at the professional level or any level. We also have to be realistic that some of the time it will take time to find the rhythm and the timing and how we create success with this version of our team,” Derek said ahead of the season. “We expect a lot from ourselves. But what that ends up looking like, we have to be open to being so present in each moment that we’re not holding ourselves to some arbitrary expectation thing.”
Fred and the Sparks still need to unlock a consistent playing style and cadence to their game. Though there have been sparks of hope that should provide opportunities to build from.
The expectations for immediate success were not high. But the Sparks’ results were initially impressive.
In the season opener — a visit to Sparks legend Candace Parker and the defending champion Chicago Sky‘s arena — the Sparks looked competitive. The game came down to the wire. Thanks to some turnover luck at the end of regulation, the game went to overtime where the Sparks pulled away to win 98-91.
Two days later in Indiana, the Sparks beat the Fever by 10. But then came a skid. The Sparks lost in Atlanta by 2 points against the Dream; got blown out by 17 against the Sun in Connecticut; lost their home opener by 3 to the Lynx and then lost by just 3 in Seattle against the Storm. They finished their second road trip of the season with a devastating 104-76 destruction at the hands of Becky Hammon’s Las Vegas Aces. In the defeat, the Aces scored 18 three-pointers, tying the WNBA’s record.
“There’s something I’m not doing to make sure we’re prepared to play and can sustain the energy and effort for longer, and that’s on me,” Derek said after the loss to the Aces. ”So we gotta figure it out somehow and it starts with me. So we’ll keep working at it until we do.”
The Sparks snapped their five-game losing streak with a five-point win over the Mercury at home. But took another step back with a 101-96 loss in Indiana against a Fever team they comfortably dispatched just 19 days before.
To close out May, the Sparks won two straight against the Lynx and Wings. But in both games the Sparks led by 17 and 16 points before allowing their opponents to catch up and take the games down to the wire. They beat both teams by just two points, and got bailed out by Dallas’ Arike Ogunbowale failing to score two free throws, including a pump-fake that resulted in the second shot being invalidated.
Just before Derek and the team mutually parted ways, the Sparks handed the Mercury their first win after seven consecutive losses. In that game, Liz Cambage, who had struggled with foul trouble in some games with the Sparks, committed no fouls but played just 13 minutes of action. Derek was questioned about it after the game.
“We just felt like we were struggling to contain some of the things that they were doing offensively, just in terms of the activity level,” he said.
The team is now third in the league in offensive rating. Somewhat surprisingly for a team that’s been defined by defense – they forced a league-high 18.2 turnovers per game last year – they’ve fallen to last place defensively.
The turbulent start to the 2022 season has concerning aspects. But the season has a ways to go, and the Sparks have time and the personnel to get things right before it’s too late.
“We’re gonna figure it out,” Jordin Canada said after the loss in Vegas. “A lot of teams in past, recent years start off slow like this and then they wind up making a run in the playoffs or toward the end of the season.”
“We understand that this is still early… Everybody understands this is a team that’s never played together.” she concluded.
The Sparks already had star power before 2022. But every incoming player in the off-season was big-time. When it was only just gossip, the possibility of signing Liz Cambage drew heavy attention on social media and message boards. If there was a market that could hold the fanfare and flair that the Australian center brought, Los Angeles was the place.
When she signed, the Sparks held an introductory press conference outside of the newly rebranded Crypto.com Arena in LA. None of the other signings got such a press conference.
“I think Liz on the court will make the game easier for her teammates to play and easier for me to coach,” Derek said. “Off the court, she gives us a different interest level. People are more curious about what our team is going to look like. Is it going to be great or is it going to implode because what people have heard or assume about her or they don’t really know. That increases the intrigue level and we need it. We need more people peeking behind the curtain and seeing what the Sparks are about. That’s good for the business, that’s good for the Sparks and that’s good for the W.”
The things “people have heard” put Liz under a microscope. She’s outspoken — both in good and bad ways.
She’s spoken out about the pay inequity in the WNBA and poor accommodations players have been given, famously tweeting “where a head coach can get paid 4X the highest paid players super max contract. lmao and y’all think imma spend another season upgrading my seat on a flight to get to games out of my own pocket.”
That tweet even got a response out of Aces’ owner Mark Davis, who sided with Liz. Unrelatedly, Liz still made the move to the Sparks from the Aces.
When Liz makes the news, it’s not always in a positive light. She has been accused of using a racist slur directed toward Nigerian players during an Olympics practice. Liz denies the accusations.
The big personality from Liz, who’s not afraid of confrontation, is a player you hate to play against, but want to play with.
Liz signed her one-year, $170,000 contract (the second-highest base salary on the team behind Nneka Ogwumike) with the Sparks on Feb. 18, after the Sparks had made some of their other big moves of the off-season.
On Feb. 3, the Sparks traded with the Storm to get Katie Lou Samuelson for Gabby Williams. Two days later, Chennedy Carter was traded to the Sparks in an exchange for Erica Wheeler and some picks.
Chennedy’s acquisition, if not just for her potential in the WNBA, makes sense from a nickname’s sake. She goes by “Hollywood.”
“She’s a kid and she brings that energy. It’s great to have that kind of energy, especially when you have certain returners who were holding really big minutes last year especially through the challenges that we experienced,” Nneka Ogwumike said of Chennedy during media day.
Nneka Ogwumike is a leader on the team, and with young talent coming in, she has already prepared herself to take players under her wing, especially Chennedy.
“I resonate with Chenn because we’re both from Texas and we have a mutual understanding. She just needs a chance, she needs an opportunity, and she needs some organization that can nurture and help her. And she’s accepted that,” Nneka Ogwumike said.
“She’s communicated with me that she needs help and there’s no better place for that than LA because her nickname is Hollywood. That’s just kind of the lightness that she brings. She’s such a talent. For her to be seeking advice from not just me but from vets like JC (Jordin Canada) and learning from her environment and learning through the experience she’s had through the WNBA, I’m just really excited to play with her and to hopefully help make her better.” Nneka shared.
Soon after Chennedy’s trade, the Sparks got Jordin Canada from the Storm. Jordin is simultaneously a player with veteran-like experience from her time with the successful Seattle franchise, and a young player with opportunity to grow.
“Surprisingly enough, there’s no one on the team still who can quote me on this, but I was asking if we could ever get Jordin a few years ago,” Nneka Ogwumike said.
“We actually have some mutual friends and she comes from an organization that really values women’s basketball in her alma mater. So we have a lot of experience with their organization and them supporting the Sparks. But now we’re teammates.”
Jordin has been a key in the Sparks back court, and with Brittany Sykes locking it down defensively while providing offensive support, along with Lexie Brown’s resurgence, Chennedy initially saw limited minutes of action to kick off the season.
Prior to the season, Chennedy spoke about her patience.
“Sometimes you have to wait for great things to come your way. They don’t come easy, they don’t come quick. Sometimes your story may be a little bit harder than people’s. It’s all about putting in the work, and I’ve been working since I was 6 years old. I’m 23 now, I’m still working,” she said. “I believe my time is coming and … I’mma bring it to the LA Sparks and try to win a championship with everything I have in me.”
Brittany Sykes wants the defensive player of the year title, and said so before the season: “As long as I’m in this league, that will always be my goal: point, blank, period. … I’m gonna make sure, especially for a guard and for my team, that I’m the best defensive player this year, next year, in years to come.”
After Liz signed, the Sparks added another shooter in Lexie Brown with a trade with the Chicago Sky. Her arrival came after the Sparks released Te’a Cooper in a surprising move. Te’a is not rostered in the league at the time of this article.
Lexie started her Sparks career off with a bang. On June 1, Lexie was third in the league in 3-point percentage, shooting 50 percent. She used a strong off-season in Athletes Unlimited to leverage her WNBA stature, and now has a chance to go far on a stacked Sparks squad.
“We have a lot of talented components here and it allows us to have this space and that continuity and flow and just being able to play basketball,” Jordin said during media day. “I think we can create for others. We have a lot of playmakers on this team this year. I think overall as a team we have the perfect package. It’s all about putting it together, getting the team chemistry and pushing each other and getting better. I think overall we have all the pieces that we need to be a great team.”
Now Fred Williams will be tasked with figuring out how to put those pieces into groupings that work. And he has his work cut out for him. While Nneka is 6th in player efficiency rating across the league, so far, Chiney Ogwumike is the only Spark with a positive net rating when on-court at 4.1, with most of the gains coming on the defensive end.
Jordin Canada is about as local as it gets for Los Angeles. Growing up in LA, playing her youth ball, high school ball and collegiate ball all in her home city, Jordin was of course, a Sparks fan.
When the 2022 season kicked off, Jordin received some praise on Twitter from Magic Johnson, prompting the response: “Yo this is crazy!” Having played for the Windward School in LA and collegiately at UCLA, Jordin’s homecoming was always in her plans.
“It’s a dream come true,” Jordin said during media day. “I knew coming into the league at some point I wanted to play for LA. I just didn’t know when that would happen. Everything happens for a reason. I’m super blessed and honored to have the opportunity to play for my hometown, stay at home, have my friends and family come play.”
Jordin had time to grow into the WNBA game while at Seattle, learning from the best of the best in Sue Bird. Jordin has become a confident, tempo-setting guard. And it’s showing immediately as she’s a key component to getting the Sparks offense to, well, spark.
“She’s fast. She’s not easy to guard,” Nneka said of Jordin during the team’s preseason media day.
Jordin isn’t the only Spark making a return home to Southern California.
The Sparks kicked off their big offseason moves when they traded for Katie Lou Samuelson on Feb. 3, making it four moves in four seasons for the former UConn standout.
Katie, whose sister Karlie has previously played for the Sparks, is from Huntington Beach in Orange County, just south of LA. She played her high school ball for Orange County powerhouse Mater Dei, before making the move out to Connecticut for college.
“Just hearing that LA wanted me, that’s such a special thing. I’m from here, my whole family lives here, so hearing that opportunity, it was really exciting to get to know that there’s even a chance that this is happening. Growing up, I watched them, and even recently in my college years, Karlie was on the Sparks a few times … so I was able to go watch her play a lot in in Crytpo.com Arena, and I was able to just really experience the culture and the excitement of playing there. It was always a dream that I would be able to play there one day, going to all those games. But you never know what will happen, and now it’s full circle back here.”
The 6-foot-3 wing has already showed out for the Sparks after joining the team late following a stint in Europe.
When she signed, she said she discussed with Derek about sticking around long term after her constant moves in the WNBA.
“That’s one of the first things that he communicated to me. That hopefully this is a good fresh start and a stable home for me that we can figure out,” Katie said. “It’s great getting this opportunity and having someone that believes in you and wants you to succeed, so I’m excited.”
Katie has already signed a contract extension for another year with the Sparks, keeping her in LA through at least the 2023 season.
“I’m very excited to be here in LA with such a great organization,” Katie said in the team’s press release about the contract extension.
“This is my home and I’ve grown up watching the Sparks my whole life. I’m happy I can be a part of the team for multiple seasons to continue building and growing on and off the court.”
Now under new president Vanessa Shay, the Sparks are also moving into a rebranding phase. A lot of that rebranding success will come from marketing, which Vanessa said she plans to emphasize as she takes the reins. The former San Diego Wave chief revenue officer in the NWSL is in LA to turn around the business side of the Sparks.
Prior to Vanessa’s arrival, the Sparks were already working hard in the marketing world. The Sparks signed a multi-year, seven-figure deal with UCLA Health, while Nneka Ogwumike modeled for Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue.
“There is so much about me that makes me me, and I’m hoping it’s exuded in this issue especially for women who are trying to find their own individual confidence,” Nneka said. “It’s all so amazing to see and understand we are living in history. I love the differences we celebrate and moving them forward.”
During her introductory press conference, Vanessa stated that Los Angeles had “forgotten” about the Sparks. A team which was averaging under 5,000 fans in attendance at home games in the early stages of the 2022 season. In 2019, the Sparks averaged over 11,000 fans —the most in the league.
“I do believe in recent years, due to the pandemic and due to a lot of other circumstances out of the control of the WNBA or the Sparks, we have kind of lost who we are. “I don’t believe the Sparks are top of mind for every traditional sports fan in Los Angeles and we need to change that,” Vanessa told the LA Times. “We need to make sure that fans of the Rams, fans of the Dodgers, fans of the L.A. Kings are also supportive and are fans of the women’s professional sports team that has been here for 25 years.”
The Sparks don’t want to be a franchise known just for past successes, and they can’t. They have to be a contender.
“I feel like if you’re a losing team in L.A., you get no love,” Liz said before the season. “We’ve got to turn the winning up and really do our thing out here.”
Short-term deals with most of their key players’ contracts expiring in 2023 could spell disaster for the Sparks, if they fall short of expectations. For now at least, the team has depth and talent that has the capability of winning it all. They just need to find the right rhythm together. With Fred stepping in, the question is: can he get those players to click?
“Any combination that plays out there could play a different style of basketball. I think it’s great. It brings out the best in us,” Chiney Ogwumike said during Sparks media day before the season.
“I think it’s just really great to know we can share the load as a front court. You go out there, you give your all. And we’ve got another group that can go in there and give you the same. And then we can mix and match it. We can play fast and we can play slow. We can spread the floor or we can bang you in the paint. It’s just been really cool to have a really talented front court.”
The offense will have to be consistent. The defense will have to step up to levels of previous seasons. The team will have to stay confident.
Kristi Toliver has returned from her coaching stint with the Dallas Mavericks. Her veteran presence can only be a good thing at a time like now.
It remains to be seen: can the “time-to-show” team pull off a Hollywood ending?