Plaschke: Sparks’ new season, and Derek Fisher’s job security, off to a shaky start

Plaschke: Sparks’ new season, and Derek Fisher’s job security, off to a shaky start

The smattering of fans are standing, shrieking, bouncing, transforming the lower bowl of Crypto.com Arena into a downtown block party.

Dancers hop across a stage behind one basket. Sparky the Dog leads cheers from midcourt. Lisa Leslie waves from courtside. The relentless DJ Mal-Ski fills every quiet moment with chants and cheers and pleas.

“We need you!” he exhorts the intimate gathering. “C’mon, y’all!”

The Sparks began their 26th summer in Los Angeles on Tuesday with their usual furious flair, but on this opening night they needed something more than a community connection and shared spirit.

They needed a win.

They didn’t get it.

C’mon, y’all!

Arguably the most important summer in Sparks history began with a home-opening loss to what was the only winless team in the WNBA — and wait, it gets worse.

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The final two plays in an 87-84 defeat to the Minnesota Lynx were botched by the author of some of the greatest final seconds in this city’s basketball history.

Five games into the season, coach Derek Fisher is already in the hot seat. After yet another potentially happy ending dissolved into chaos, the beloved former Laker is surely wearing out his generous Sparks welcome.

In his first three seasons, Fisher had caused great grumbling among the small but passionate Sparks faithful by winning only one playoff game while also directing a front office that allowed Candace Parker to walk off to a WNBA championship in Chicago.

This summer was going to be different. This summer his basketball decisions shined. This summer they added more stars than they lost. This summer they are loaded.

They have a new marquee player in colorful giant Liz Cambage, a new point guard in UCLA’s Jordin Canada, a new three-point splasher in Katie Lou Samuelson, a new toughness in Chennedy Carter, and the inimitable Ogwumike sisters Nneke and Chiney both healthy and playing together again.

Then there’s new president Vanessa Shay, who kicked off Tuesday’s activities by vowing to make this team relevant again.

“I think L.A. has forgotten about the Sparks.” Shay said. “The team has been in this market for 25 years. It’s time to bring the Sparks up to remind everybody we’re here. … We’re ready. It’s time. It’s time for women’s basketball in Los Angeles to make a huge step forward.”

Several hours later, they took another step back.

With 2.1 seconds remaining in a tie game, the Lynx’s Kayla McBride sneaked behind a confused Sparks defense for a reverse layup-and-one while the 6-foot-8 Cambage inexplicably watched from the bench with five fouls.

Why wasn’t one of the game’s greatest rim protectors in the game when the rim most needed protecting?

“I wanted to protect her in terms of six fouls if we went into overtime,” Fisher said, later adding: “I hold myself accountable as much as I do our players. Some of the decisions are never going to be perfect. I just have to own it and accept it and keep working to do better.”

The Sparks still had a chance to save their coach, but he made another unfortunate decision. On the final offensive possession, instead of immediately setting up for a game-tying three, Samuelson threw the ball inside to Cambage. The ball clanked off the rim and Cambage’s hands and bounced into the corner, from where Canada’s contested attempt had no chance.

What were they going for on that play?

“I can’t even tell you, to be honest,” said guard Lexi Brown. “We needed a three and we obviously were going for a two, so I think that was just a miscommunication.”

Fisher explained that no, the entire thing was planned: Cambage was supposed to catch it and throw it out to Allen, instead of Samuelson throwing directly to Allen, because it is “really difficult to throw directly to three on the catch, at times.”

But didn’t Fisher sink his two-point game-winning shot against San Antonio in the 2004 playoffs directly from an in-bounds pass?

That was but one of several questions surrounding another lost opportunity in a young season that already includes a three-game losing streak, with two of those losses by one possession.

How long can a franchise keep playing in Crypto.com Arena if it can’t even draw 5,000 spectators in its home opener? Even though the Sparks are owned by the deep-pocketed investors from the Dodgers’ Guggenheim group, how long can any Los Angeles team survive a continued run of invisibility?

The WNBA desperately needs a team to thrive in Los Angeles, and Los Angeles needs an inclusive and enlightened organization like the WNBA, so the Sparks need to win.

Does Derek Fisher give them their best chance? Even with his celebrated name and likable reputation, is he the best coach and general manager to take them back to their three-championships level?

Business-boss Shay acknowledged that even those most benevolent dollar signs are ultimately produced by victories.

“Winning is No. 1,” Shay said. “You’re a professional sports team, you’re a for-profit entity. … Winning attracts fans, winning attracts sponsors.”

When Fisher was named head coach before the 2019 season, he was the perfectly popular choice to replace the successful Brian Agler, who quit suddenly amid discord with the front office.

When Fisher was later named general manager, he represented another bit of damage control, as he replaced Penny Toler after she was fired in October 2019 when it was revealed she used a racial slur in a post-game locker-room tirade.

Twice for the Sparks, Fisher was the right person at the right time.

But is that time finally running out on the coach who once benched Parker in the fourth quarter of a playoff game?

Here’s guessing this summer will decide.

Fisher acknowledged the tenuousness of any coaching situation.

“You’re fired, hired, whatever happens, just always appreciative, grateful, thankful, humble, working hard, never taking it for granted, and that’s just how I try to approach it every day and knowing that at one minute, it can be gone,” he said.

Fisher the Coach said he actually embraces the pressure that Fisher the General Manager has placed upon him.

“We didn’t make the decisions to create this roster because of pressure, but once we started putting the pieces together, we wanted to set high expectations for ourselves, and I think we wanted to be in a position where we’re expected to be successful,” he said, adding: “So quite a bit of pressure in terms of front office to coach, but that just kind of comes with the job, too, so it’s not an uncomfortable position to be in. … Looking forward to it and just, yeah, excited for what we can do.”

So far, not so good.

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