Brian Agler focused on L.A.'s identity
For quite a while now, the Sparks have been the WNBA's most confounding team. Did they have talent? Heck yeah, even during the times that superstar Candace Parker has been injured. But there always seemed to be some missing ingredient.
Something -- even if it was seemingly "bad luck," like buzzer-beating shots from opponents in key playoff games -- that has kept the Sparks from making a return to the WNBA Finals for the last 11 years.
When Brian Agler -- announced Monday as the Sparks' new coach -- was asked what he thought L.A. most required for success, he had a ready answer.
"I think they need to have a personality," Agler said.
Are you nodding your head? Because I did. Agler's answer wasn't said in a glib way. It wasn't an empty clich. The Sparks really do need a personality, which is not the same thing as saying they need players with personality. They already have that.
But who are the Sparks as an organization? They are the last franchise to win back-to-back WNBA titles, but that was more than a decade ago. They are a franchise that appears to be on very solid financial footing after the ownership group that includes Magic Johnson took control a year ago. And having that solidity is a big deal in the WNBA.
However, the Sparks are also a franchise that's now on its sixth coach since 2009, which includes longtime general manager Penny Toler filling in on an interim basis for the conclusion of last season.
Now they turn to Agler, who leaves Seattle -- where he won the 2010 WNBA title -- for the enigmatic Sparks.
"There are certain things you have to hang your hat on," Agler said. "Whether it's that you're a defensive team, a great rebounding team, or whatever it is. There has to be a certain personality that you go to work with every single day and a common goal.
"And to me, that can't initially be 'win the WNBA championship.' There have to be steps to take to get to that point."
The Sparks certainly don't require a total revamp. They aren't like the hideous wallpaper, avocado-colored tile, and fake-wood vanity bathroom that needs to be demolished by the "Bath Crashers." But if they want to be a truly competitive team in the near future, they have to do a deep and nuanced observation of what might just need sprucing up and what might need to be replaced.
"I've always admired his work, and I'll have another set of eyes to look at where we maybe can make some improvements," Toler said of Agler. "Brian not only knows the league, but he is a lifer in women's basketball. So we can hit the ground running."
The interesting thing is, Toler also praised Carol Ross, who was fired the day after the All-Star Game last season. This despite Ross having been the WNBA coach of the year in 2012.
That's part of the unpleasant merry-go-round the Sparks have been for too long. When Michael Cooper -- coach of the 2001 and '02 WNBA championship teams -- returned to L.A. in 2007, it seemed like everyone knew who the Sparks were going to be: Their previous selves. That is, a team built around very dominant post play with Lisa Leslie, and a definite sense of swagger.
Then Leslie retired and Cooper left the league again after the 2009 season, and the Sparks were back to trying to figure out who they were. Then it seemed like that had been established under defensive-minded Carol Ross, who went 24-10 in both of her first two seasons, 2012 and '13. But things went awry again last year.
And the contrast between Los Angeles and teams such as eventual 2014 champion Phoenix and two-time champ Minnesota was stark. Again, not because the Sparks have a big deficit in talent compared to the Mercury or Lynx. This is a squad with players like Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver.
While you can point to things such as the games Toliver missed as she competed overseas during the 2014 WNBA season, or injuries that also contributed to struggles on the perimeter ... the bottom line is the Sparks on paper were better than their 16-18 regular-season record.
After losing 2-0 in the Western Conference semifinals to Phoenix, the Sparks were left to mull over another unsatisfying season. While knowing 2015 would bring yet another change in leadership with a new coach.
So now it's Agler's turn to see if he can help restore the purple and gold back to WNBA royalty. Agler won two titles in the short-lived ABL, and he has been in the WNBA as either a head coach or assistant since 1999. Having coached against the Sparks for so long, he's very familiar with their personnel.
This past season was the only one of Agler's seven in Seattle in which the Storm didn't make the playoffs. Seattle has the top pick in the 2015 WNBA draft, but there might not be any players in this senior class who are really No. 1 caliber. With Karen Bryant leaving the organization, Seattle also has a new chief operating officer in Alisha Valavanis. There is rebuilding to do for the Storm.
All things considered, it seemed like a good time for Agler to move on. Now we'll wait to see who takes over at Seattle -- assistant Jenny Boucek? She is definitely interested -- and who gets the still-open New York Liberty job.
Will there be pressure on Agler and Toler? Of course. Johnson and the Guggenheim Partners group want a league winner, regardless of how difficult just winning the Western Conference is.
But Agler said he is ready. He points to things such as the Sparks' 7-10 record at home last season as an obvious thing that has to change.
"I had great friends and a great work environment in Seattle, but sometimes it's just time, for a variety of factors, to leave," Agler said. "L.A. has a team that is very hungry to compete for a championship. I think [the Sparks] players are coming right into their prime.
"You want to try to create a culture that cultivates success. I don't know that there's any special ingredient to that, except that everybody understand that we're working together."
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