The theme of this WNBA season has been patience with a heavy emphasis on winning now. Former Los Angeles Sparks’ GM and head coach Derek Fisher was the second firing in the middle of a season in a league which typically strays from in-season coaching decisions.
The Sparks are now left to wait to find out who their new leader will be in the long term. In the meantime, Fred Williams was named interim head coach in hopes of weathering the ship nearly midway into the season. While there is speculation over who might take over the job next year, Williams will have every chance to earn the position with a successful turnaround.
Here are five objectives the Sparks must accomplish in order to help Williams secure the head coaching role for next season:
Get Back to the Playoffs
This team was built on the assumption that the Sparks would make the playoffs. But so far, Los Angeles finds itself exactly where it was last season—right on the bubble. The Sparks appear to be trending in the right direction following wins over the Dallas Wings and New York Liberty, but getting to the postseason is far from a guarantee.
If this reloaded roster misses the playoffs for a second-straight season, the Sparks should have little problem moving on from Williams.
Play Better Defense
Los Angeles took a giant step or two back defensively this season. After finishing third in the league in defensive rating last season, the Sparks are near the bottom in 2022 with a 104.6 rating. In addition, they’re now allowing a whopping 85.5 points per game, putting them above only the Indiana Fever when it comes to opposing points allowed.
It’s not that the Sparks don’t have the personnel to play great defense. Both Brittney Sykes and Lexie Brown are stingy defenders and have contributed to the Sparks’ league-leading 8.5 steals per game. Additionally, the Sparks are fourth in the league with 4.5 blocks per game, which is largely thanks to Liz Cambage’s ability to patrol the paint.
Instead, the issues are that the Sparks are giving up open threes and fouling too much. On average, LA gives up 20.8 free-throw attempts while allowing teams to shoot 37.2 percent from beyond the arc. Both stats put the Sparks near the bottom of the league in those categories.
If the Sparks hope to make the postseason, they must get back to their bread and butter of slowing teams down. While their offense is more than capable of putting points on the board, it is a losing strategy to rely on winning shootouts.
Keep Cambage Available
The Australian center has had a relatively successful first season in Los Angeles. Cambage is second on the team in scoring and rebounds while leading the team’s interior defense with 1.8 blocks per game. But there’s a big caveat that comes with her performance thus far: She hasn’t played much.
There’s little question that all things being equal, Cambage’s minutes should look similar to fellow post player Nneka Ogwumike’s playing time. However, that hasn’t been the case thus far this season. Nneka currently leads the team with 32.0 minutes, while Cambage is seventh on the team at 23.4 MPG.
There are two big reasons for her lack of minutes. Cambage’s conditioning has been a factor in the Sparks limiting her time on the floor. Additionally, while Cambage is a prolific shot blocker, she is near the top of the league for the number of fouls she’s called for, averaging 3.3 per game. She fouled twice this season while also racking up five fouls in five different contests so far this season.
LA knows that getting availability from Cambage is critical to winning this season. Therefore, it’s in Williams’ best interest to help Cambage play for longer stretches by getting her in better shape and helping her do what she does best—block shots—without fouling.
Advance Chennedy Carter’s Improvement
Carter has shown flashes of what she can be at her best—a slashing, quick guard who can break down defenses and get buckets at will. The problem is that she hasn’t shown that talent consistently. Her last big performance came against the Minnesota Lynx on May 29. During this matchup, Carter scored 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting to go with six rebounds and four assists. However, she scored in the double digits just once and finished with a 9-of-29 shooting slump in June.
Carter has more than enough skill to not only start for the Sparks but also become an All-Star in the league. If Williams hopes to get more from this year’s squad, he will need to help Carter find her groove on a more consistent basis.
Balance Guard Playing Time
The Sparks are deepest at the guard position, but that depth comes with some interesting challenges. Kristi Toliver recently rejoined the team after finishing up her coaching duties with the Dallas Mavericks, but Lexie Brown has made a compelling case to stay on the floor as she has been one of the team’s biggest surprises stepping in as a knockdown shooter. Prior to Katie Lou Samuelson’s return, Fisher often deployed three-guard lineups. While Williams will still resort to a smaller lineup at times, the Sparks give up size and spacing every time Samuelson isn’t on the floor. The need to play Samuelson will likely lead to even worse minute scarcity among the guards.
From a guard standpoint, LA has an endless number of questions to solve for. Do they opt to maximize shooting by playing Jordin Canada and Brown, or does Toliver’s experience and leadership take priority? Where does Carter’s development factor into the equation?
These are all questions Williams must answer soon if he hopes to turn this season around. Based on the rotation decisions he made in the Sparks’ 84-82 win over the Washington Mystics, early indications are that he values veteran leadership above all. His two most tenured guards, Sykes and Toliver, clocked in above 25 minutes, and Canada took most of the minutes off the bench.
The Sparks have more than enough time to gel together and make a run for the playoffs, but if that’s going to happen, it must happen soon. Otherwise, the front office will not only be looking for a new coach in charge but also the core of this group may be in jeopardy.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of WNBA Stats.