Where they finished last season: 19-15 (lost in the second round)
Roster additions: Kalani Brown; Chiney Ogwumike; Marina Mabrey; Ashley Walker; Tierra Ruffin-Pratt; Alina Iagupova
Roster losses: Jantel Lavender; Essence Carson
Following their second round exit in the 2018 postseason, the Sparks didn’t wait long to make severe changes in Los Angeles. At the beginning of November, just months after the season’s conclusion, head coach Brian Agler – now leading the Dallas Wings – resigned from his position.
“I had a great time in LA,” Agler told Double Clutch UK last month. “It’s a great city, great fan-base, I really loved the players, organisation, front office, ownership group – top notch. There’s a reason they’ve had success. We had a really good thing going, it was fun and I enjoyed every single day at practice as well as the game. It wasn’t an easy decision but sometimes it’s time to take on a different challenge and make a move.”
Sparks GM Penny Toler wasted no time and began a search as soon as Agler left town. Eventually, as decision was made to hire Los Angeles basketball legend, Derek Fisher. When Toler spoke to Double Clutch in December, she described the fit between the 5-time NBA Champion and the organisation.
“I knew that he was interested, so I thought he was right for the job because he knows the WNBA’s brand and understands Sparks basketball,” Toler explained. “Also, I know him well. I have had the privilege of knowing Derek for more than 20 years now. Over that time we have talked basketball so many times. When we had a vacancy, it was perfect timing. He’s a humble guy who will roll his sleeves up and get his hands dirty if he needs to.”
Changes were afoot higher up in the franchise also, as a major front office reshuffle took place. Christine Simmons took a wild career turn and stepped down from her role as President & COO of the Sparks, in order to become COO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. This left a hole in the organisation that was promptly filled by former Director of Business Operations at the Los Angeles Clippers, Danito Johnson, who now holds the position of both President & COO. Fisher’s coaching staff was then acquired, with Latricia Tramell and Fred Williams becoming Assistants.
Trade rumours surrounded the team through the entirety of the offseason, as discussions around Liz Cambage’s next playing destination chugged along. Los Angeles were believed to frontrunners when it came to putting together a package for the Australian center, but it wasn’t to be as she packed her bags for Las Vegas.
One trade that the Sparks did manage to push over the line was the one that brought in the versatile Chiney Ogwumike from the Conneticut Sun in exchange for the team’s 2020 first round draft pick. The forward averaged 14.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, shooting at a clip of 60.3 percent from the field and spending much of her time as an ESPN analyst on the side.
She joins her sister on the roster to make a formidable frontcourt pairing, as 2016 league MVP Nneka logged an impressive 16 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists in 2018. Together, they have impressed when sharing the floor in preseason. They also acquired Alexis Jones from Minnesota in exchange for recently re-signed Odyssey Sims. Jones finds herself in a team loaded in the frontcourt, which will present her plenty of opportunity as a guard.
In the draft, L.A. used their seventh pick to select yet another big in the form of 6’7 center Kalani Brown from Baylor University, before taking both Marina Mabrey and Angela Salvadores with later picks. Brown was named in the NCAA All-Defensive team and shot an efficient 61 percent while scoring 15.6 points last year. Meanwhile, Mabrey played in two national championship games with Notre Dame and spent last year gaining professional experience with Ensino in Spain.
Toler and her staff also re-signed a number of familiar faces to ensure a decent proportion of last year’s roster remain intact. Defensive Player of the Year Alana Beard resigned along with Riquna Williams, Chelsea Gray and Karlie Samuelson. Speaking to Double Clutch UK last month, Samuelson expressed just how much she was looking forward to working with coach Fisher.
“I’m excited. He’s an awesome person and I cant wait to see what he’s like as a coach. He understands the game.”
Where the Sparks really threw their haymakers however was in free agency, where they brought in a wealth of talent. Off the back of an amazing Eurocup season in Turkey, Ashley Walker arrived in Los Angeles to showcase her talents as a strong rebounder and disruptor on the defensive side of the floor. Versatile guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt was then signed after spending six years with the Washington Mystics. Also signed was Ukrainian guard Alina Iagupova, whose future involvement with the Sparks remains unclear.
Following the various stages of recruitment, a brutal training camp meant that some extremely tough cuts took place to ironed out the shape of the 2019 roster, including that of Loryn Goodwin and Gabby Green.
In terms of stylistic approach, it makes sense for the Sparks to go big, considered the available personnel. The logjam at forward and center will likely create some healthy competition for places and provide opportunity to newly-signed guards.
One of the options at forward is inarguably L.A.’s most important piece. WNBA legend Candace Parker recent suffered a hamstring injury in preseason that will rule her out for the first month of action. Much of the Sparks expectations lie at her feet, meaning fans and the organisation will anticipate her return with baited breath.
The Sparks are an unequivocally ambitious organisation and the sheer amount of change during the offseason could, naturally, cause some slight growing pains heading into the 2019 season. But with the talent they have at their disposal, don’t be surprised if they make some serious noise.
“The Sparks are going to be pretty tough to beat,” Samuelson told us.“We’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”