Few on the outside saw change coming to the Los Angeles Sparks coaching staff. The team went from back-to-back WNBA Finals appearances to a second-round knockout in 2018, but a 19-15 season was far from disastrous. That’s why it was surprising when Brian Agler, who’d never fallen short of making the playoffs in his four-year stint in L.A., suddenly resigned from a team with two former MVPs in Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, and a third All-Star in Chelsea Gray.
In a press conference after the news, Sparks GM Penny Toler said, “When somebody wants to resign, it’s not my job to talk them out of it.” She also said she didn’t know why Agler chose to leave. (On Monday, the AP’s Doug Feinberg reported that Agler secured a head coaching position with the Dallas Wings.)
Fisher has a lot to sort out. He has fewer than two years of experience coaching in the NBA, having been fired as head coach of the Knicks in 2016 with a 40-96 overall record, and has never coached in the WNBA. Compared to the league’s recent coaching hires, his resume is noticeably slim.
The Atlanta Dream’s new head coach, Nicki Collen, who was hired before the 2018 season, had been a college or professional assistant coach for 10 years before she landed her role. New Chicago Sky hire James Wade was Cheryl Reeve’s assistant coach with the champion Minnesota Lynx for two seasons, and spent three seasons as an assistant coach overseas and another as an advanced scout.
And as ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel points out, former NBA players-turned-head coaches haven’t faired well in the ‘W.’ Out of 16 former NBA players who’ve served as head coach in the league’s 22-year history, just four have lasted longer than three seasons. Reeve reinforced that notion on Twitter.
SB Nation spoke with Fisher about how he landed his new role, what his plans are for the team, and what role he’ll play as former NBA Players Association president to current WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike. He also responded to criticisms about his new role at a financial lending services company criticized by Baron Davis and Jared Dudley.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
SB Nation: When did the Sparks’ position pop up for you? Had you been seeking a head coaching job, or how did it fall into place?
Derek Fisher: It officially popped on the radar once I was made aware that Brian Agler was planning to resign. Over the years, [Sparks general manager] Penny Toler and I have maintained a really respectful and open relationship in terms of talking basketball, with me being a fan of the team. Every now and then in the Staples Center we’d have a conversation, or a couple times I’ve gone in the locker room to say hello to the team real quick. Many years ago I stopped by practice one day to talk to the team. There’s always been touch points.
But it didn’t really officially become a, ‘Hey if you want to really do this, there’s going to be an opportunity to do it.’ That’s when things really picked up and went from conceptual to something that could be a reality.
SB: Have you been around the WNBA before? What relationships had you had with Candace Parker or Nneka Ogwumike before you became head coach?
DF: Candace Parker and I have known each other off and on for a long time. Her brother, Anthony, was in the NBA at different points. ...My mom and her mom have a good relationship, and her ex-husband Shelden Williams played in the league, so there were a lot of areas where we crossed paths.
Everyone else on the team, Nneka etc., I’ve just had respect and been an admirable fan from the distance, in just appreciating who they are and how they go about their business.
SB: Your past coaching experience is in the NBA with the Knicks, but how have you been studying the women’s game since then?
DF: Since becoming more involved in these conversations prior to accepting the job, I spent a lot of time in conversation with different folks and watching every game that I could. Sparks games, Seattle Storm, who won the championship this past year. And then, also some of my own experiences and visuals from being at a lot of games over the years.
As I’ve watched it and studied it, and continued to get more familiar with different personnel on each team, I’m continuing now to try and learn the different coaches in terms of their style of play, what they like to do and things they’re looking to try and take advantage of. There’s a lot of similarities [with the NBA] in terms of the things you’re trying to identify as key areas to success.
The quickest thing that I need to become more proficient in is an understanding of the individual personnel so that I can really help our staff as we build that out. We’re putting together scouting reports and preparing to play opponents, and have a really good feel for what this young lady likes to do, what she’s capable of. Is she a great shooter, or is she not? Not just relying on what it says on paper, but that I’ve officially seen enough of her to feel confident in what our gameplay can be.
SB: You guys have a bunch of free agents. What kind of players are you hoping to surround Parker, Ogwumike, and restricted free agent Chelsea Gray (if she comes back) with?
DF: Penny has a hard job trying to balance the numbers and the cap.
The roster we had this past season is a great one. I’d love to be able to work with a lot of the players we currently have on our roster. It might not always stay that way, but I think surrounding those core three players, we need to continue to make sure we have the right floor spacing offensively. That is going to be huge. Candace is such a phenomenal player, her versatility, Nneka has versatility at her size, Chelsea Gray is a guard with size. Players that can shoot, stretch the floor, but also athletically in terms of speed, being able to challenge people defensively, those are areas of focus as well with our roster being around those three players.
A number of the women that I’ve mentioned who’ve been on the roster this past year fit that skillset, but we might not be able to bring them all back.
That’ll be Penny’s job. She’s shown the ability to put together a roster that has a chance to compete for a title just about every season. The Sparks haven’t won it every year, but in terms of playoff appearances and being a team everyone expects to at least have a chance. Penny’s done an amazing job to make sure that happens every year.
So whatever ends up happening I know our roster will have a chance to compete.
SB: Last year ended the Lynx/Sparks reign. The Storm took over the league and spaced out the floor and became a crazy three-point shooting team. Is there an aspect of the Sparks’ game you hope to improve that will put them back in title contention?
DF: A couple of things jump out. I think you’re right about Seattle, Dan Hughes in his first year [there] did an amazing job. Being able to put his team in position to really play well together, they were connected more so in their style of play. Watching and studying them, I think last offseason, Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, and [Noelle] Quinn spent a lot of time together. A month or so before the season started, the three of them connected on how they wanted to lead their team. I thought everything flowed from there.
The first step for us is to be connected. Once we get our roster set, it’s finding a way to connect in terms of what our vision is going to be, how we envision playing basketball together. Then specifically, technically, tactically, we have to figure out how to play with a little more pace so that we can take advantage of things earlier in the offense.
But more importantly, when the spacing on the floor is better, everyone’s trying to play faster because defenses are not set. So that’s one area we have to improve in.
The past couple years, the Sparks have been basically second in the league in defensive rating, but rebounding has been low. I think we can be really dangerous if we can finish more defensive possession with rebounds. Imagine Candace Parker rebounding and pushing it herself, Nneka rebounding and pushing herself. You’re talking about five players, whether Chelsea rebounds, if Essence is back, Alana Beard, Odyssey Sims, whoever. Everyone can rebound and push and go. I think that’s a feature we have to take more advantage of.
But it starts with being in the right position defensively, and I think offensively, playing with more pace, but also better spacing will be our focus.
SB: You have previous experience as president of the NBA Players Association during a labor dispute. Now you’re coaching Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the WNBPA. Have you spoken to her about anything CBA-related, because that’s going to be such a big topic in this upcoming year.
DF: I haven’t. I’m sure it will come up for us as we get the opportunity to spend more time together. With my experience, there are things I can help her with, in just allowing her to spitball and share her thoughts and ideas. When I can help her, I will, but I have to walk that fine line of being a team employee and that’s not my battle to fight anymore in representing the players union and players association.
But I for sure am proud of the work she has done, I think she’s an amazing leader in terms of representing the PA in that regard.
SB: What has your job been like so far? You have a while before free agency starts, and you’re jumping into everything brand new. What’s your day-to-day life been, and what are your plans until free agency?
DF: It’s been a whirlwind of continuing watching and consuming as much video and games and really watching players, watching teams. Watching women’s college basketball. We have the No. 7 pick, the No. 19 pick, and the No. 31 pick. Watching the young ladies coming up who we’ll have an opportunity to draft and work with in the future. It’s been all about consuming the women’s game at a more intense level than I did before being a head coach, that’s been one of the top priorities.
I’ve also been getting more familiar and establishing communication patterns with Penny and our assistant general manager Michael Fischer. Meeting with them and creating our priority list in terms of building out a staff. What kind of staff we need to get the most out of our players. Then, starting to identify those key dates coming up with free agency, and also we’ll get to the draft and the Final Four and maybe a scouting trip or two. And just preparing.
I’m so excited about this opportunity to have more space to prepare for the things we have to be on top of compared to when I accepted the job with the Knicks. Within two weeks, I went to plan with coaching and everything that comes with that. Our first year was basically installation and implementation and then in our second year we started to make major progress.
This year, I feel like stepping into the Sparks job, that experience, although not long in terms of coaching experience, will pay major dividends as far as how comfortable and confident I feel going into this season.
SB: Your new role at Luxury Asset Capital caused backlash on Twitter. What is your workload for that, and do you have any response to what Baron Davis and Jared Dudley tweeted before?
Man!!!! Hell Naw!!!! Stay away from this!!!! https://t.co/PzvK7oED2n— Jared Dudley (@JaredDudley619) December 12, 2018
DF: Luxury Asset Capital is an alternative finance business that I was working and partnering with this group long before the Sparks conversation started.
My workload is fairly minimal. My job is to help establish relationships and build a network of people that we can work together with in partnership to help players out. Whether that’s their agent, their attorney, their financial advisor etc., everything is above board.
It’s a great business, these are great people, credible people. I got involved to help players and clients, not hurt them. There’s no practice of predatory lending. We focus on clients of high net worth, and that have substantial assets. We just want to be an option in terms of financing and or lending, that sometimes a traditional banking system doesn’t fit.