Curt Miller is not a patient man. His mother kept reminding him that it was his biggest growing area. That could make the start of his second stint in LA so difficult.
“I’m not a good loser,” said the Sparks freshman head coach with a grin, “but I’m a good point guard.”
Miller’s renovation of the Sparks will take patience in an impatient city. He and first-year general manager Karen Bryant have dodged specific discussions about the championship, especially given that the Sparks have a 13-23 record and 11th place finish, but hope to lay a strong foundation from which to build worth the wait.
“We’re here to win a championship,” Bryant said, “but success means so much more.” [than wins] because we are building something very, very special in one of the iconic franchises.”
In 2023, the Sparks feel iconic in name alone. They are one of three original remaining WNBA franchises and two decades later are still the last team to win back-to-back championships. But they missed the playoffs two years in a row. Even their 2016 championship feels “in the shadows,” Miller said.
As the Sparks start the season on Friday against the Phoenix Mercury At 8 p.m. at the Crypto.com Arena, the WNBA’s spotlight has shifted to superteams like New York and Las Vegas, two organizations with ownership groups that have shown a willingness to invest in their teams, sometimes to the point of controversy. Superstar Breanna Stewart singled out Joe and Clara Wu Tsai’s investment as a factor in their free agency decision to sign with the Liberty. In April, defending champion Aces introduced a new practice facility, the first dedicated room for a WNBA team. Seattle is slated to open a facility in 2024.
As other teams progress on player support options, Miller grinned uncomfortably and knowingly for ten seconds as he considered how to describe the structure of the Sparks in terms of player experience upon arrival. The silent grin was louder than anything he could have said.
“Playing basketball in this city, playing in the WNBA in this city, that has a lot of history. You have to respect it, you have to know about it and you have to contribute to this legacy.”
— Nneka Ogwumike, Sparks star, on the team’s transformation
Under Bryant’s leadership, the Sparks have secured a consistent, season-long practice facility at El Camino College. The living quarters for the team are “a huge improvement,” Miller said. The franchise created a new role—vice president of basketball operations and player relations—to oversee team operations including travel, facilities, player lodging and scheduling.
A key focus has been helping the Sparks create a “holistic, outstanding player experience” in the modern WNBA, Miller said. Players are experts at competing through distractions, but even the best pros can’t always manage stress off the field. For Miller, there is “no doubt” that some of the Sparks’ recent struggles on the court stem from a lack of organizational infrastructure.
“It used to feel like there was a lot of chaos around us,” said forward Chiney Ogwumike. “Now the noise has died down and we’re just concentrating on doing our best in practice.”
For the first time in her 12-year WNBA career, star forward Nneka Ogwumike has “really experienced what I think professional organization is.” she said on the first day of training camp.
“It’s really nice to be surrounded by great people who share the same vision: they want to be great and really understand and grasp what it takes to play in this city,” said Nneka Ogwumike. “Playing basketball in this city, playing in the WNBA in this city, that has a lot of history. You have to respect it, you have to know about it and you have to contribute to this legacy.”
Climbing back to the top of the WNBA will be arduous for the Sparks. The team has already lost two key players; Heavy-shooting wingers Stephanie Talbot (knee) and Katie Lou Samuelson (pregnancy) will miss the season. Though Miller emphasizes distances on offense, guard Lexie Brown is the team’s only proven three-pointer around the strong combination of post players led by the Ogwumike sisters. Former Chicago Sky forward Azurá Stevens was Bryant’s top free-agent signing and two-time All-Star player Dearica Hamby exceeded expectations by returning on time for the start of the season after giving birth to her son in March .
Miller’s tenure in Connecticut, where he made the playoffs six times in seven years, including two appearances in the WNBA Finals, showed the success he can have with dynamic post players. But championship expectations for a newly formed team that finished second to bottom in the league last season are “incredibly unfair,” said ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo.
“I don’t think they will fight for a championship this year,” said Lobo. “And I think fans are fine with that as long as there’s progress. There is movement in the right direction. It may take a few years, but we’re confident we can do it.”
After missing the playoffs three straight seasons, Connecticut hired Miller in 2016. The Sun missed the postseason in its freshman year. His patience was tested as he didn’t get his first playoff win until 2019 when the Sun defeated the Sparks in the semifinals. It was the start of four straight years with the Sun as championship contenders.
Miller is focused on building that same sustained success in LA and knows his Sparks tenure will begin with his team being considered underdogs in most games. He’s not worried.
“I always say, a newspaper doesn’t win games,” Miller said. “I want us to be a team that is competitive, plays hard and is fearless.”
With another untold season ahead of us, just the thought of a challenge brings an excited smile to Miller’s face. Even after 20 years as a coach, he’s still restless on matchdays. Then he can finally get answers to his many questions. How will the squad work together? What works for his team? What not?
He has to wait patiently for the answers.
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