Column: Is turmoil within LA Sparks about Penny Toler or Derek Fisher?

Photo Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Oh did this turn out to be a cryptic tweet or what?

Game 2 of the WNBA Finals occurred this past Tuesday when the Connecticut Sun evened things up with the Washington Mystics with its 99-87 victory at the nation’s capital.

With the series shifting to Connecticut for Games 3 and 4, the first game of this year’s Finals in Uncasville would not tip off until Sunday – a scheduling question mark that had many in the WNBA community scratching its collective heads.

Firstly, was the nearly week-long layoff necessary given that the Finals was not too adversely affected by travel the way the last few Finals were given the proximity of D.C. to Connecticut. Secondly, why have Game 3 on a Sunday when it would be lost (unfortunately) in the sea of NFL regular season coverage the media would partake in instead of the Finals.

It turned out well for the Mystics, who got Elena Delle Donne back after much panic about her Game 2 injury as her return (as well as that of Ariel Atkins) were major catalysts in Washington’s 94-81 victory in Game 3.

But with the long wait between the two games, we figured much of the WNBA conversation would surround Delle Donne’s injury and how it would affect the complexion of the series between the Sun and Mystics.

Turns out that the attention of WNBA fans was directed west thanks to an eye-popping article on ESPN about the Los Angeles Sparks and how things fell apart for them down the stretch.

The Ramona Shelburne-penned piece centered into why Candace Parker only played 11 minutes in a Game 3 of a series when the Sparks were facing elimination. The decision by coach Derek Fisher to sit the face of the Los Angeles franchise in a do-or-die Game 3 once again rejuvenated the questions on how he got the Sparks job in the first place (which were rampant when the hire was announced by Penny Toler).

The article mentioned quotes from Fisher that he wanted to try something different for Game 3, but it quoted anonymous sources who believe that it had something to do with a profanity and racial epithet-laced tirade from Toler to her players after Game 2 in Uncasville – one Toler herself admitted happened.

As a result, the Los Angeles Times later reported that the WNBA would open an investigation into the proceedings. A few days later, it was announced that Toler was let go as Sparks general manager after 20 years.

The irony is that Toler, in the tirade per Shelburne’s piece, threatened the players’ jobs if they got swept (which the Sparks eventually did). There was also a tense disagreement between Fisher and Parker over strategy, per the report – a clear sign that the Sparks were self-destructing at the wrong time.

The firing of Toler had to be a watershed moment for not only the Sparks but for the WNBA as a whole. Toler got the first WNBA basket when the league first debuted in 1997. She had been with the Sparks since the team and league first debuted in 1997, first as a player from ’97 to ’99, then as its general manager.

But if this is true that Toler’s outbursts became more pronounced and frequent, a change had to be made regardless of her tenure with the franchise.

When we think of professional basketball franchises in Southern California with turmoil and drama, we typically think of the Los Angeles Lakers, who share Staples Center with the Sparks and LA Clippers (even though the Clippers have its eye on a new arena in Inglewood). While Toler may have been the first one to go as a result of that expose on the team, this news may really be about the most visible member of Los Angeles’ front office present during game days.

A late charge from Los Angeles enabled the team to claim the third seed in this year’s playoffs, a single bye, and a berth in the semifinals after defeating the Seattle Storm. The Sparks are anything but a bad team – in fact, the Sparks have been one of the most consistently winning teams in the W over the past few years, which includes winning a championship in 2016.

Los Angeles also topped attendance for 2019, averaging over 11,000 fans per game at Staples.

Those fans saw the Sparks post a 22-12 record in 2019. That’s five wins more than Fisher’s entire first season as coach of the New York Knicks, who had a 17-65 mark in 2014-15. It is also just one win less than in the 2015-16 campaign when he was fired after going 23-31.

Fisher notably lost nine of his last 10 games in Gotham before getting the pink slip out of the Big Apple.

So while Fisher’s coaching record now includes more victories thanks to his 2019 season (a season that actually was a three-game improvement on 2018 when Los Angeles finished 19-15), the Sparks were always expected to contend. The addition of Chiney Ogwumike to a team already rich in veteran talent put the Sparks on paper as preseason favorites with Washington and Las Vegas to win this year’s WNBA championship.

But the hiring of Fisher, eager for another coaching opportunity after flaming out at Madison Square Garden was one that raised eyebrows when it was first announced. The hiring of Fisher would not have been possible without the departure of Brian Agler, the Sparks previous head coach and now occupying that same position in Dallas with the Wings.

Agler was the Sparks’ coach from 2015-18 and his resume included two appearances in the Finals plus the 2016 title (LA’s first since 2002) – not exactly a resume that would warrant a firing. When Agler left, a statement was put out by the Sparks that the team would embark on an extensive coaching search to replace him.

That extensive search, Toler admitted in Fisher’s introductory press conference, only included one candidate. Toler described the shortlist of candidates to serve in Agler’s stead as a “list of one.”

That lone detail of the proceedings had to raise more questions on if Fisher got the gig because of his Lakers connections to the Sparks (Magic Johnson heads the Sparks’ ownership group) just as his Lakers connections in New York (Phil Jackson) may have been instrumental in him landing the Knicks job. Also – was there something behind the scenes that led to Agler departing from the Sparks?

Also, at the time that Agler left and Fisher was hired, Fred Williams was still in search of a job after his eventful firing from Dallas. A Williams hire as head coach could have upped the Sparks’ chances of completing a Liz Cambage trade in the offseason given how she credits Williams in large part with her return to the W. Williams was hired as an assistant shortly after the Fisher hire was announced.

The same Parker who was shockingly benched in Game 3 against the Sun had glowing words to say at Fisher’s introductory presser, but those are to be expected in a more formal setting such as a news conference.

Just to be a part of something where somebody loves basketball, where he breathes and sleeps it, I mean, I’m excited about it.

–Candace Parker (at Derek Fisher’s introductory press conference as LA Sparks coach)

She even went as far as to push back on the idea that the hire was a step back for the Sparks and the W given the league’s commitment to diversity.

If diversity is an issue within the WNBA, it’s not an issue within the LA Sparks and never has been.

–Candace Parker (at Derek Fisher’s introductory press conference as LA Sparks coach)

Ironically, at that same press conference, one of the things Fisher emphasized was building a bond with players, believing that it is as every bit as important as being an X’s and O’s coach.

That’s where my coaching experience really helped me in terms of learning how to communicate with players.

–Derek Fisher at introductory press conference as Sparks head coach

Allowing your best player to only go 11 minutes with the season on the line probably is not the best way to build rapport with your roster. If anything, that is a surefire way to lose your locker room instead of gain it.

Toler clearly lost the respect of Sparks players and made them uncomfortable – that is why Sparks ownership decided to let her go despite her significance in WNBA history. While Fisher is still the coach for now and they’ve hired an interim general manager, one has to believe Fisher is not far behind given his status as a Toler hire.

Whoever delivered the goods to ESPN was clearly unhappy with where the Sparks were and had an axe to grind regarding the culture around the franchise – and laid the blame at Toler’s feet.

As Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times revealed, the Sparks already had one major item on its wish list this offseason – extend its lease at Staples Center and get the ball rolling on a statue of Lisa Leslie outside the building. A second could be a full re-evaluation of the team, including hoping to resign a number of players listed as unrestricted free agents including Chelsea Gray, Alana Beard and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt.

Fisher’s status could go a long way as to if players want to come back and if the new general manager concludes that their willingness to re sign with the Sparks hinges on if Fisher is there or not, then Fisher may find himself fishing for another coaching job. That could be either in the pros or in college.

Williams could get a promotion from assistant to head coach. Pokey Chatman, who was recently let go as Indiana Fever coach, may also be a name to look out for if Fisher gets canned.

The most shocking element of the unrest happening in Tinseltown is – once again – the fact that the Sparks are a winning team as of late.

One would expect this sort of unease around a team like the New York Liberty which just went through the most tumultuous two-year stretch in its history that included a controversial move to Westchester County Center, a sale to Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, remaining unanswered questions on where its post-White Plains home court will be (please let it be Barclays, by the way), lingering questions about coach Katie Smith and a 17-51 record between 2018 and 2019.

Out east, the Liberty have kept things relatively together in spite of a lack of winning basketball as of late. As we now know, we cannot say the same for out west.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *