December 22, 2020
BREAKING: Derek Fisher named general manager of the Los Angeles Sparks
Inside the decision by Los Angeles to restructure its front office
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After an extended period of undefined leadership at the helm of the Los Angeles Sparks, head coach Derek Fisher has added the general manager job to his title, The Next has learned, as part of a front office revamping that sets clear lines of authority in basketball operations for the first time since Penny Toler was fired in October of 2019.
“We’ve really worked extremely hard to try and establish a culture for how we want to try and do things in terms of running basketball operations, and how we want to try to build a more cohesive organizational structure between basketball and business,” Fisher told The Next. “And we’re nowhere near done. This is just the beginning.”
The new structure of operations has Fisher as general manager, with Michael Fischer, the longtime assistant general manager, receiving the new title Vice President of Player Personnel. Eric Holoman, who held the title Managing Partner and Governor, is now Chief Executive Officer and Governor.
The business side will undergo a change as well, with Danita Johnson, team president and COO, leaving for Major League Soccer’s D.C. United.
Practically speaking, the trio of Fischer, Fisher and Holoman had all been involved in the day-to-day of player movement, but this gives Fisher, essentially, the final call on such moves ahead of a consequential offseason for the organization. The sudden change came as a surprise to many, a swift move after an extended period of stasis that had similarly befuddled many within the organization. But with free agency just around the corner — The Next has learned qualifying offers may go out as soon as January 1, negotiations may begin January 15 and signings may start on February 1 — making this decision now allows the Sparks to begin doing that work with a cohesive vision of what’s ahead.
“It was very important to make this announcement and provide some additional clarity,” Fisher said. “But it doesn’t stop there. We have a lot of work to do… because we have an opportunity to sit down with our [players’] agents as well as others, to be able to help them understand who we are and where we’re trying to go.”
That Fisher and not Fischer, the latter with much more front office experience, is getting the authority in this case reflects a belief that after two years of a self-acknowledged learning curve, the Sparks believe Fisher is ready to do the work of running an organization at both the transaction and coaching levels.
To his credit, Fisher has been anything but a coach resting on his NBA resume, understanding from the start that he needed to get to know the league, and has put in the hard work to do so, according to several sources familiar with his arc since being named head coach of the Sparks in December of 2018.
But now, with free agency just ahead, Fisher faces some significant challenges within his own roster.
No single free agent will define the Los Angeles offseason more than the decision Candace Parker will make. The lifelong member of the Sparks could elect to return to her hometown of Chicago, or head to Atlanta, where her on-air employer, Turner Broadcasting, is headquartered.
Mindful of that, Fisher has made recruiting Parker a priority, a very different end to the season from 2019, when the two finished the campaign at odds over playing time. This year, Fisher said he’s texted or spoken with Parker by phone “30 times” since the season ended, talking about how to make the Sparks better, where Parker is in her own work, though he said the two had not discussed anything like contract parameters. But he left no doubt about what his priority is when it comes to retaining Parker’s services for 2021.
“Our intentions are to make sure that Candace never plays a game for another team,” Fisher said. “But we have to earn that back from her through the right conversations.”
As for the way the Sparks plan to address their first round pick in 2021, which is slotted tenth in the draft, Fisher spoke about adding a player to a roster featuring “multiple all stars and Hall of Famers”, suggesting that there’s little reason to doubt the Sparks will retain potential free agents Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray as well, though there will be significant interest in both. Instead, a roster built to win now — but hasn’t quite reached the pinnacle, thanks in part to injuries and opt outs — might find itself adding at the margins at 10 overall, or even selecting a draft-and-stash from overseas.
“We still feel strongly that there are good players to be able to draft at that number,” Fisher said. “Whether or not it will be for us a franchise-changing draft selection, we’ll have to see.”
Fisher went on to point out that Te’a Cooper, who was immensely valuable to the Sparks in 2020, was an 18th overall pick in the 2020 draft, and not even by Los Angeles — Phoenix selected and then cut her. Notably, that was Fisher’s point of reference, not the 24th overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, a point guard who went on to win five NBA championships.
Derek Fisher is very much a WNBA creature now, and he’s got a pair of job titles to show for it. And very soon, he’ll get a chance to show whether success will follow his newfound responsibilities.