Can Curt Miller transform revitalized Sparks into a WNBA power again?

TORRANCE-CA-MAY 4, 2023: L.A. Sparks head coach Curt Miller, right, and general manager Karen Bryant.

Curt Miller is not a patient man. It was, as his mother constantly reminded him, his greatest growth area. It’s what could make the beginning of his second stint in L.A. so difficult.

"I'm not a good loser," the first-year Sparks head coach said with a grin, “but I'm a good builder."

Miller’s renovation of the Sparks will require patience in an impatient city. He and first-year general manager Karen Bryant have dodged specific championship talk, especially as the Sparks come off a 13-23 record and 11th-place finish, but are hoping to lay a strong foundation that will be worth the wait.

“We’re here to win a championship,” Bryant said, “but success is defined as so much more [than wins] as we build something very, very special in one of the iconic franchises.”

In 2023, the Sparks feel iconic in name only. They’re one of three original WNBA franchises remaining and, two decades later, still the last team to win back-to-back championships. But they've missed the playoffs for two consecutive years. Even their 2016 championship feels “in the shadows,” Miller said.

As the Sparks begin the season Friday against the Phoenix Mercury at 8 p.m. at Arena, the WNBA limelight has shifted to superteams such as New York and Las Vegas, two organizations with ownership groups that have demonstrated, sometimes to the point of controversy, their willingness to invest in their teams. Superstar Breanna Stewart highlighted Joe and Clara Wu Tsai’s investment as a factor in her free-agency decision to sign with the Liberty. In April, the defending champion Aces unveiled a new practice facility, the first dedicated space for a WNBA team. Seattle is scheduled to open a facility in 2024.

While other teams make strides in player-support options, Miller held an uncomfortable, knowing grin for 10 seconds as he contemplated how to describe the Sparks' structure surrounding player experience when he arrived. The silent smirk was louder than anything he could have said.

With Bryant’s leadership, the Sparks have secured a consistent, season-long practice facility at El Camino College. Team-living accommodations are “a huge, huge upgrade,” Miller assured. The franchise created a new role — vice president of basketball operations and player relations — to oversee team operations, including travel, facilities, player housing and scheduling.

Creating a “holistic, outstanding experience for the players” was a major focus to help the Sparks compete in the modern WNBA, Miller said. Players are experts at competing through distractions, but even the best professionals can’t always keep off-court stress at bay. To Miller, there’s “no doubt” that some of the Sparks’ recent on-court struggles can be tied back to the lack of organizational infrastructure.

“Before, it felt like there was a lot of chaos around us,” forward Chiney Ogwumike said. “Now the noise has been quieted and we’re just focused on being our best selves in practice.”

Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike brings the ball up the court against the Chicago Sky.

For the first time in her 12-year WNBA career, star forward Nneka Ogwumike has “really experienced what I believe to be a professional organization,” she said on the first day of training camp.

“It’s really nice to be surrounded by great people who share the same vision of wanting to be great and also really comprehending and understanding what it takes to play in this city,” Nneka Ogwumike said. “To play basketball in this city, to play in this city in the WNBA, there’s a lot of history. You have to respect it, you have to know about it and you have to contribute to that legacy.”

The climb back to the top of the WNBA will be arduous for the Sparks. The team is already down two key players; sharp-shooting wings Stephanie Talbot (knee) and Katie Lou Samuelson (pregnancy) will miss the season. Despite Miller’s emphasis on spacing on offense, guard Lexie Brown is the team’s only proven three-point shooter surrounding the potent 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 Dearica Hamby defied expectations by returning in time for the beginning of the season after giving birth to her son in March.

Miller’s tenure in Connecticut, where he went to the playoffs six times in seven years, including two WNBA Finals appearances, showed the type of success he can have with dynamic post players. But expectations of a championship for a rebuilt team that finished second-to-last in the league last season are “incredibly unfair,” ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said.

“I don’t think they’re going to be competing for a championship this year,” Lobo said. “And I think fans are OK with that as long as there’s progress. There’s movement in the right direction. It might take a few years, but we’re confident we can get there.”

After missing the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, Connecticut hired Miller in 2016. The Sun missed the postseason during his first year. His patience was tested as he didn’t get his first playoff victory until 2019, when the Sun swept the Sparks in the semifinals. It was the beginning of four consecutive years with the Sun as championship contenders.

With a focus on building the same sustained success in L.A., Miller knows his Sparks tenure will start with his team as underdogs in most matchups. He’s not worried.

“I say all the time: a paper doesn’t win games,” Miller said. “I want us to be a team that gets defined as a team that competes, that plays hard, that is fearless.” 

With another blank-slate season ahead, just the thought of a challenge brings an excited smile to Miller’s face. Even after 20 years as a coach, he still gets anxious on game days. They're when he can finally get answers to his many questions. How will the players work together? What works for his team? What doesn’t?

He’ll have to wait patiently for the answers.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.