WNBA’s worst performance of 2022: Liz Cambage’s and Derek Fisher’s LA exit

The Los Angeles Sparks started their 2022 season with an abundance of fanfare.

To celebrate their highest-profile free-agent signing, the Sparks rolled out the red carpet at Crypto.com Arena, announcing Liz Cambage’s arrival under the Los Angeles sunshine. Cambage took questions for an hour from the media, all with head coach and general manager Derek Fisher — the man who had brought her to LA — by her side.

The hype mirrored the grand introduction that the Sparks had given Fisher in 2018 when he was hired as the team’s head coach, back when he had an excited following in the city due to his NBA success. Then-general manager Penny Toler and then-Sparks superstar Candace Parker joined Fisher for a welcome presser at the Luxe Center City Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, when Toler famously explained that her hiring process came down to a list of one, and she got her man of her.

Three years later, on the heels of a season in which the Sparks not only missed the playoffs but also saw Parker leave and lead the Chicago Sky to their first WNBA title, Fisher was searching for a lifeline. He found one — or so he thought — in Cambage.

“We feel like this is a great day for the city of LA,” Fisher said at that February news conference, laying it on thick for his new 6-foot-8 center, acquired from the Aces. “We all recognize this city as title town. All the other sports teams are winning championships and racking up championships, it’s been six years since the Sparks have touched the trophy. … We made a decision that if an opportunity presented itself to bring in a player and a personality that could change the timing of us having a chance to access that trophy again, we would do it.”

Fisher convinced himself and team management that Cambage was that player, and he reeled her in, counting on the embattled star to make a big splash and secure his future. Instead, Cambage cut bait on her head coach early in the season, and without Fisher advocating for her, she lost her way before the year was up. The two had tied their fates to each other to start the season, and they both sank, neither of them finishing the season in Los Angeles.



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On media day in April, the good vibes were still aplenty. It’s the time of year when players say they’re in the best shape of their lives, they’ve added to their games, and no expectations are out of reach.

Cambage certainly felt that way, making a proclamation that she would have a ring by the end of the summer.

In fairness, there were reasons to feel optimistic about the collection of talent that the Sparks had assembled in the 2022 offseason. Brittney Sykes said she woke up every morning in Australia marveling at the next player the Sparks had acquired. On paper, the star power of the 2022 roster outpaced that of the 2021 team that had missed the postseason by one game.

But there were warning signs as well, some from the mouth of Fisher himself, who said on media day: “People are more curious about what our team is going to look like. Is it going to be great or is it going to implode?”

The Sparks had traded away a future first-round pick for the second consecutive offseason, this time to clear cap space and ostensibly make room for Cambage. They’d already lost a lottery pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft (which became Emily Engstler, who was taken by the Fever) and were risking a similar fate in 2023. Not only did they surrender the draft pick, but also the contract that they unloaded was that of Erica Wheeler, their point guard who had started all 32 games the previous season and kept the locker room together amid all of the team’s challenges.

In return for Wheeler in the Atlanta trade, Fisher brought in Chennedy Carter, another potentially combustible personality who wouldn’t exactly be counted on to bring her teammates together in times of distress.

The Sparks locker room still had Nneka Ogwumike, a widely respected veteran who was just elected to her third term as WNBPA president. There was also Chiney Ogwumike, who Cambage described as a sister, and two-time champ/NBA assistant coach Kristi Toliver. But Fisher insisted on compounding the chemistry complications by giving Cambage the No. 1 jersey despite the fact that Amanda Zahui B. was already wearing that number and didn’t want to give it up. Zahui B. found out she had lost her number when the photos of Cambage’s press conference hit social media.

Fisher then made the stunning call to suspend Zahui B. for the season, in what Yahoo Sports reported to be a decision unrelated to Cambage, because he feared the Swedish center would miss the first 13 games of the regular season with her European commitments. Zahui B.’s EuroLeague team did advance to the championship, but she would have been back by the Sparks’ fifth game. Her Fenerbahce teammate Kayla McBride returned to Los Angeles for that contest and ended up hitting the game-winner for the Lynx in a moment riddled with irony.

The player who missed the first 13 games due to offseason commitments ended up being Toliver, as the Dallas Mavericks made an unexpected run to the Western Conference finals. By the time the veteran leader returned, Fisher was out.



Liz Cambage’s departure is the latest in a long list of Sparks issues

The lengths Fisher went to sign and then mollify Cambage might have been justified had Cambage played like a star, but that wasn’t the case. Offensively, Cambage was a force inside her, drawing fouls at a comparable rate to her 2021 All-Star season with the Aces and proving to be a matchup problem for most bigs in the league. However, the center said on multiple occasions throughout the season that she was still working her way into shape, and that manifested itself most prominently in her defensive effort.

The Sparks had been a top-three defensive outfit each of the prior three seasons under the tutelage of assistant Latricia Trammell, the newly-hired Dallas Wings head coach, but even she couldn’t coax the requisite production out of Cambage. It was no surprise that the Sparks looked at their best when the Ogwumike sisters played together in the frontcourt, unleashing the switching and frenetic activity that had become Trammell’s trademark of her. LA was 9.7 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Chiney Ogwumike (Cambage’s primary backup) played.

There was also an off-court scandal: a video released of Cambage, who played for Team Australia, showed her elbowing a Nigerian player during a pre-Olympic scrimmage in 2021, and she reportedly directed racial slurs at the Nigerian team — an allegation she has denied. The initial incident led Cambage to withdraw from the Olympics and she was given a formal reprimand by Basketball Australia. The situation was unpleasant and uncomfortable, especially because LA teammates Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike are of Nigerian descent, and their sister Erica was suiting up for the Nigerian national team at the time.

The Sparks had already spent the first half of the season dealing with a player whose ego didn’t match her production; now the Ogwumikes were forced to relive that trauma (the sisters reportedly knew the details of the scrimmage ahead of time, but had chosen to put it in the past) and speak on Cambage’s behalf of her as her teammates.

About a week later, Fisher benched Cambage for the final 7 minutes, 40 seconds against Phoenix. The Sparks lost the game, Fisher lost Cambage’s trust, and he no longer had a job two days later. The team says it was a mutual decision to part.

It was widely speculated in Sparks circles that Fisher was unlikely to last beyond 2022 — even before the Cambage issues surfaced. And he had become her only real ally in the locker room, even if Cambage had a prior productive relationship with interim head coach Fred Williams when the pair were in Dallas. The losses mounted, and tensions increased.

In hindsight, it should have raised some red flags that the Aces, a team competing for a title, didn’t seem all that broken up about losing Cambage from their championship pursuit in 2022. It wasn’t that the Aces couldn’t make do without a center on the court, but rather that they didn’t need Cambage. And they seemed to take particular pride in going after Cambage, as they did to the tune of 39 first-quarter points — then a franchise record — in their first meeting with the Sparks.

Perhaps it was fitting that the end of the road for Cambage came in July in Las Vegas, as her present team crumbled and her former team thrived. For reporting from Yahoo, Cambage left as quickly as she could after another blowout loss, telling her teammates on the way out, “I can’t do this anymore. Best of luck to you guys.”

The Sparks agreed to a contract buyout with Cambage shortly afterwards. The team made only Williams available to speak to the media about Cambage’s departure, instead of the players, and effectively shut the door on that part of the season. Managing partner Eric Holoman issued a statement, saying that the Sparks remained “focused on our run towards a 2022 playoff berth,” but a roster constructed around Cambage couldn’t adapt. LA lost nine of its final 10 games and missed the postseason, surrendering another lottery pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft. If anything, the timeline Fisher referenced in February changed for the worse, as the Sparks missed out on another high draft selection and developmental minutes for their young bigs.

After a month of radio silence, Cambage resurfaced in August to say that she was stepping away from the WNBA. Upon his departure from her, Fisher noted that he would be pursuing professional opportunities in “the NBA and other private endeavors.”

Fisher and Cambage took a big swing together in 2022. It may end up being their last stand.



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(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Juan Ocampo, Adam Pantozzi / Getty Images)


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