Los Angeles Sparks look to return to winning ways with revamped vision and retooled roster

LOS ANGELES -- Gold banners hang from the ceiling, one for each of the Los Angeles Lakers' 17 world championships. White decals with the jersey numbers of Lakers Hall of Famers line the black walls along the baselines. Abdul-Jabbar. Chamberlain. Bryant. O'Neal. The aura of championships is inescapable. Even NBA legend and Los Angeles Sparks co-owner Magic Johnson stopped by camp and pulled up a chair.

The Sparks -- who held their first two weeks of training camp at the UCLA Health Training Center in El Segundo, the Lakers' state-of-the-art practice facility -- have their own storied history with three WNBA titles. But this proximity to greatness isn't so much aspirational as a reminder that winning is the standard in Los Angeles -- and that both local scrutiny and outside hostility is more prominent here than anywhere else.

"We're a Showtime team. That's what L.A. is known for, Showtime," Sparks guard Brittney Sykes said. "But they get the job done as well. We can't just be Showtime and then be out here losing."

Losing came more frequently than usual for the Sparks in 2021, their first season following the free-agency departures of Chelsea Gray and two-time MVP Candace Parker, who up to that point had spent her entire WNBA career in Los Angeles. Riddled with injuries and searching for a new identity, the Sparks finished 12-20 and missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade, just the third time since 1999.

Entering the second season of the post-Parker era, and Derek Fisher's fourth since coming aboard as head coach, the Sparks readily admit they are in "rebirth" mode. They entered this past offseason with a renewed urgency to get the franchise back to its winning ways, exemplified by an aggressive free agency that brought in four-time All-Star Liz Cambage and Chennedy Carter, the No. 4 draft pick in 2020. How effectively and quickly this conglomeration of skill sets, talent and strong personalities can jell will be a defining question for a team determined at minimum to return to the postseason as the 2022 season opens Friday at the Chicago Sky.

Those on the outside have pondered how all the disparate pieces will fit together, but the group is embracing its 2022 season slogan, both on an individual level and as a collective: It's "time to show." To show the Sparks can be, in former MVP Nneka Ogwumike's words, a phoenix rising from the ashes, can become dominant once more in an increasingly competitive league, and can deepen their reach in an unforgiving town, where the expectation is championships and the alternative is arguably something worse than derision: irrelevancy.

The pressure is on the Sparks even more so after the Lakers returned to championship form in 2020, as did the Dodgers (2020) and Rams (2022). And the momentum around the NWSL's Angel City FC, who played their inaugural game Friday in front of a sellout-crowd of 22,000 and is backed by a group of celebrity investors, has the city buzzing.

The Sparks, Ogwumike said, feel like the middle child in such a crowded sports market. One way to fix that? Competing for and ultimately winning championships.

"I want us to matter in L.A. again," Fisher said. "Because right now, we don't."

MORE HAS CHANGED than remained the same since the Sparks' back-to-back WNBA Finals appearances five years ago -- the first, in 2016, when L.A. won its third title. Following the resignation of coach Brian Agler, Fisher took over going into 2019 and guided the Sparks to strong regular-season finishes in 2019 and 2020 before they flamed out early in the postseason both years. Longtime general manager Penny Toler was fired shortly after the 2019 playoffs, and Fisher took over the role in December 2020.

The 2021 season was always going to be an adjustment period after Parker left to play in her hometown of Chicago, forcing the Sparks to acclimate to life without their longtime franchise player. But between a slew of injuries, as well as off-court turmoil for Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, whatever identity the Sparks were hoping to take on never materialized.

Chiney, who opted out of the 2020 season, was limited to just seven games due to lingering knee issues. Nneka suffered what she deemed an "identity crisis" following the departure of Parker, whom she called the Batman to her Robin, and struggled to navigate what was needed from her on court. When she managed to find her stride, she also dealt with a knee injury, missing 14 games. And both sisters coped with the emotional toll of Nneka being left off the U.S. Olympic squad and initiating a still-ongoing battle with FIBA to be allowed to play for the Nigerian national team.

The disarray wasn't limited to the Ogwumikes. Kristi Toliver, who helped the Sparks and Washington Mystics win titles in 2016 and 2019, respectively, was also sidelined with multiple injuries throughout the season. Russian center Maria Vadeeva never joined the team, and 2021 first-round draft pick Jasmine Walker tore her ACL early on.

L.A. fell one win short of making the playoffs, yet even amid the circumstances it was a startling layoff for one of the WNBA's most prestigious franchises, one that enjoys a prized status as one of the league's three remaining original franchises.

As the longest-tenured player on the team, Nneka had experienced a lot of disruption in her time in L.A., such as having four different coaches in her first eight years since being drafted in 2012. But to her, last season "was the peak of, 'Whoa, what's going on?'"

MISSING THE POSTSEASON, Fisher said, catalyzed the front office into making the necessary moves to reshape the roster. Part of that entailed shifting the franchise's approach from chasing its success from 2016 to building a team and organization better suited for the long term.

"We spent a lot of time trying to recreate or extend what the Sparks have accomplished in the past," said Fisher, who won five titles with the Lakers during his 18-year NBA career. "To win in the WNBA now, what do you need? What kind of roster [given the] new CBA, different contracts structures? We have to move in that direction. I think this year we actually got a chance to do that."

Nneka Ogwumike had felt the franchise's tendency to fixate on trying to recreate 2016, but the way forward, she noted, won't ignore the franchise's championship tradition, either.

"This is like a tree we had to cut down and let it grow again," she said. "The foundation is there, the roots are there. But what it looks like now is going to be very different."

In the offseason, Fisher traded for Carter, brought in hometown products Jordin Canada and Katie Lou Samuelson and signed Cambage, who signed for nearly $60,000 below the supermax so the Sparks could carry a full 12-player roster. While the Sparks had a top three defense each of the past six years, their offense and rebounding suffered greatly in 2021, which the additions of the 6-foot-8 Cambage, the explosive Carter, the two-way threat Canada and the sharpshooter Samuelson could help correct. The Ogwumikes are the only holdovers on the roster from when Fisher first took over.

Carter is eager to embrace the razzle-dazzle of Hollywood -- that is her nickname, after all. She played just 11 games last season, her second in the league, after being sidelined with an elbow injury and then being suspended mid-season by the Atlanta Dream for "conduct detrimental to the team." A change of environment could make for a breakout year for the budding star.

"I'm proving to myself that this situation is perfect for me. I'm a good, respectful kid, and I know how to be in a situation and make it work and I know how to deal with people," Carter said. "Maybe people need to look a little deeper into me and realize, 'Hey, the kid maybe just misunderstood a little bit, some things may not be all the way right with what she went through. But outside of that the kid can play, the kid wants to be a team player and just wants to win.'"

Everyone who's in L.A. wants to be here, Nneka noted, perhaps no one more so than Cambage. The Australian center grew up idolizing L.A. culture, making it clear before she was even drafted into the WNBA 11 years ago that she wanted to play for the Sparks. Being in L.A. doesn't just mean that Cambage has limitless access to opportunities for her fashion, DJing and design endeavors, although she is excited for what's to come on those fronts: "If anyone needs a seven-foot extra in the back of a movie, hit me up, I'm in town," she said. "Or I'd love to be a main character in a movie."

Entering her sixth season in the WNBA, Cambage wants to get back to being a three-level scorer, which she exhibited when she put up a WNBA-record 53 points playing for the Wings in 2018. She went 4-for-5 on 3s that game before being told from the get-go with the Las Vegas Aces not to shoot from the arc.

Cambage has long polarized WNBA fans with her edge on the court and for how outspoken she is off of it, including recently when she criticized new Aces coach Becky Hammon's salary being four times the player supermax. Last year, she withdrew from playing for Team Australia shortly before the Tokyo Olympics citing her mental health, while reports emerged that she was involved in a physical altercation and verbal exchange in a closed-door scrimmage. And in December, Cambage said she had zero interest in representing the Opals in September's FIBA World Cup. She said she has been pleasantly surprised by the support she has received from fans since arriving in L.A., but that has also come with increased pressure to win.

"I feel like if you're a losing team in L.A., you get no love," Cambage said. "We've got to turn the winning up and really do our thing out here."

THE SPARKS ARE going over offensive sets one week before the regular season begins, and there are moments when it's clear that Cambage and Carter are new. Nneka Ogwumike gives pointers to Cambage under the basket on where she's supposed to be; later, it's Sykes who pulls Carter off to the side to talk things over.

The basketball work might be serious, but the players still choose their spots to have fun, whether it's Cambage letting out a random shimmy after a play, Carter joking around with 2022 draftee Rae Burrell in between drills, or Fisher orchestrating a half-court contest that results in pandemonium when rookie Olivia Nelson-Ododa is the first to hit the shot.

It's easy for things to stay light before the games begin. But between the infusion of youth and so many vibrant personalities, the heaviness the team felt in previous years has been replaced with "a levity in the group I haven't felt in a long time," Nneka said.

"We've finally released a lot of the things that have burdened us individually and collectively. Now it's like 'Wow, the air is refreshed,'" Chiney said. "And all we have to do is come in and play basketball. That's what we've been wanting for so long, and now we have it."

How the Sparks come together on the floor is still a work in progress, and will likely be in the weeks to come. But Nneka knows she doesn't have to take on the role of Batman alone.

"This is like the Avengers now," Nneka said. "Avengers, Justice League, whatever you want to call it. We have multiple people who can [step up]."

What's in store for 2023 and beyond is more of an open question, as each of the Sparks' players on protected contracts -- the Ogwumikes, Toliver, Cambage and Canada -- in addition to Sykes, will be unrestricted free agents after this season. Age isn't entirely on the Sparks' side, either, as the Ogwumikes are in their early 30s and Toliver will turn 36 next year.

But Fisher said his long-term vision is to develop the Sparks' young players -- Burrell, Walker and Nelson-Ododa -- to the point where, when paired with what Fisher called the "star power" they hope to add over the next few seasons, the Sparks can get back to competing for multiple championships across the next decade. Ten of the players on their opening night roster have four or fewer years in the league, and unlike most teams, L.A. is carrying three of its four 2022 draftees to start the season.

Still, "that doesn't mean we're taking the year off of competing for a championship now," Fisher said.

The Sparks hope that if they do this right, on the court and in the front office, they'll set themselves up not just to surpass expectations in 2022, but for success in the years to come. And maybe redefine what it means to be a champion in L.A.

"We're not trying to hide the fact that we're trying to get pieces to put together a dynasty to win a championship and to bring some banners on the women's side of Los Angeles," Sykes said. "We see the pieces. As players we have to take that faith and belief and go out and get the job done."