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Derek Fisher wasn’t afraid to make changes in executing his vision for the Sparks’ new chapter

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The first-year GM prioritized athletic, versatile players to fill out the roster, and the Sparks were forced into some tough choices to make that happen.

Las Vegas Aces v Los Angeles Sparks Photo by Juan OCampo/NBAE via Getty Images

A new era of Sparks basketball tips off tonight, one that will look markedly different from the seasons that proceeded it. This roster has been completely reshaped. Only three players remain from the squad that took the floor in 2020.

Although the rate of turnover has been surprising and even overwhelming at times, the overall vision for the franchise under first-year general manager Derek Fisher has been consistent. When Fisher spoke to the media on March 6 after being promoted to GM in addition to his head coaching duties, he gave a clear thesis for his preferred style of play, one that dictated the decisions the Sparks made during the offseason.

“You have to be able to attack the paint, like in a relentless, not taking no for an answer in terms of getting the basketball into the paint, whether through the pass, whether through the dribble, you have to get there,” Fisher said. “And we had to improve in our ability to turn the corner, to attack the paint off the dribble, players that are physically capable possession after possession after possession to run, attack, sprint the floor, run the lanes, comfortable attacking the basket, finishing through contact etc. All of those things are important to what we’re trying to do, and so we made those things a priority.”

Fisher added that he was looking for players with offensive and defensive versatility, as well as length, speed, athleticism, and the basketball IQ to put it all together.

Those attributes sound like dream goals for the architect of any roster. In hindsight, it should have been clear that Fisher was prioritizing versatility and athleticism; those are the traits that jump off the page when looking at the team’s final roster for the 2021 season, which begins today against the Dallas Wings at 7:30 p.m. on Spectrum SportsNet.

L.A’s final 12 are: Nia Coffey, Te’a Cooper, Arella Guirantes, Bria Holmes, Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike, Brittney Sykes, Kristi Toliver, Maria Vadeeva, Jasmine Walker, Erica Wheeler, and Amanda Zahui B.

2021 Los Angeles Sparks Media Day
Holmes and Coffey represent a new direction for the Sparks.
Photo by Juan Ocampo/WNBAE/Getty Images

Versatility and athleticism are the defining characteristics of two of the final players to make the Sparks roster, Coffey and Holmes. Both forwards can toggle between the 3 and the 4 — Coffey’s shooting could even allow her to play at the 2 — and they each have the pace to push the tempo the way Fisher described earlier in the offseason.

The two were signed to unprotected training camp deals and figured to be on the outside looking in as Los Angeles already had the maximum number of players under contract when they were signed. Instead, they shined in the preseason. Coffey scored in double digits in both games, leading the team with 20 in the opener while hitting the game-tying bucket in regulation of the second contest. Holmes also added double figures in the second scrimmage. Their performances reinforced the Sparks’ philosophy to put a priority on their wings who could play multiple positions — the recently-acquired Gabby Williams also fits this mold — as they parted ways with players who had more rigid skill sets.

That meant saying goodbye to Kristine Anigwe, a center who found herself behind both Ogwumikes and Zahui B at that spot, even before Vadeeva returns from Russia. It also meant bidding farewell to Sydney Wiese, the team’s 2017 first-round pick who had spent her entire WNBA career in Los Angeles. Wiese has been something of an avatar for Fisher on the court, a lefty sweet shooter who can handle the ball in a pinch and brings a necessary spirit to the court. However, she doesn’t have the speed or defensive presence of Coffey or Holmes and is somewhat limited to playing shooting guard; the Sparks thus moved her to Washington for a 2022 second-round pick. The Mystics were looking for an extra guard and will certainly find a use for Wiese’s offense, so it was nice of the Sparks to find a good fit for her even as her teammates lament her departure.

Las Vegas Aces v Los Angeles Sparks
Wiese was the crown jewel of Fisher’s player development efforts over the past two years, and a close friend to Maria Vadeeva and Brittney Sykes.
Photo by Juan OCampo/NBAE via Getty Images

Moving on from Wiese and Stephanie Watts earlier in the week cleared the path for Holmes and Coffey. Finding a space for Guirantes, the second-round steal who only squeezed in two practices in Los Angeles after clearing health and safety protocols, required a little more creativity. To make way for the rookie guard, a veteran made the assist.

Seimone Augustus is one of the greatest shooting guards in league history, a 15-year veteran with four WNBA titles, eight All-Star nods, six all-WNBA selections, and one Finals MVP trophy in addition to her three Olympic gold medals. Instead of looking to add to her collection as a player this year, Augustus retired Thursday. She had previously said that 2020 would be her last season, and her departure leaves a space for Guirantes.

Guirantes will still be able to learn from the best, as Augustus will be around the team as a member of the coaching staff. WNBA teams are allowed three assistant coaches provided one is a former player, so Augustus will be stepping into that role alongside fellow assistants Latricia Trammell and Fred Williams.

Connecticut Sun v Los Angeles Sparks
Seimone Augustus will still be directing the Sparks on the floor, just as a coach instead of a teammate.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Fisher now has a roster almost entirely of his design, as Nneka Ogwumike is the only holdover from before he arrived in 2019. It isn’t the group many expected to be taking the floor for Los Angeles (feel free to check out my predictions from the start of training camp), but there is a clear theory in place. Fisher has built a team that plays hard and together and has tremendous defensive talent, and that’s the side of the ball he expects to carry the day, especially early on.

“Our connection feels a little stronger than than what I thought it would be with a new group,” Fisher said in the final press conference of the preseason Thursday. “We assumed that some of those things would take a little more time, but to many of our players’ credit, they genuinely have competed against each other and pushed each other really hard, but also built some connection and some trust that I think will be able to go a long way for us when things start to get harder and we have to start facing opponents every few nights, so that was a pleasant surprise.

“I think it’ll still take us some time to get where we want to get offensively, just in terms of timing, screening and understanding spacing and especially because we have players that are going to play multiple spots and positions on the floor, everybody feeling comfortable, you know, with the responsibilities that come with that. We may lag a little bit in how efficient we ultimately will be to start, so we’re gonna have to really rely on our defense in order to get us going here these first few weeks.”

The Sparks were forced to turn the page because of the free-agency departures this offseason, and Fisher’s influence is leading their way into the future. This is his opportunity to prove that his direction was the right one for the franchise.