While the All-Star festivities were taking place in Phoenix over the weekend, the Los Angeles Sparks were making moves that might affect actual meaningful games in the WNBA. They relieved head coach Carol Ross of her duties on Sunday night, replacing her with long-time Sparks general manager Penny Toler until the end of the season.
As has been mentioned here several times this season, Ross’s job was inevitably going to come under threat as a team that was supposed to contend for a championship sat under .500 and barely clinging to a playoff spot. The Sparks have been a disjointed team all season, inconsistent at both ends of the floor, and the head coach is invariably the person who has to pay. Ross floated between different lineups and systems this year, searching for something that would click and have the Sparks playing closer to their potential, but never managed to find it. Injuries and absences didn’t help, primarily Candice Wiggins (knee) and Kristi Toliver (missing several games due to joining the Slovak national team), the two guards on the roster with remotely consistent three-point range. But either the team had tuned her out, or Ross had run out of ideas – either way, it’s a little surprising that the decision took this long.
Toler taking over is a shocking move. She has absolutely no coaching experience, having gone directly from playing the game to the LA front office. Assistant coach Gail Goestenkors resigned in apparent solidarity with Ross, but Gary Kloppenburg is sticking around to help out while Steve Smith returns after previous stints as an assistant with the Sparks several years ago (not the NBA player with the Hawks and several other teams, by the way – different Steve Smith). Without being inside the franchise, it’s hard to know what the process was here. Maybe Goestenkors and/or Kloppenburg were offered the top chair, and didn’t want to touch it with the state the team are currently in. Maybe the relatively new Sparks owners told Toler to go down to the bench and sort out her own mess, refusing to pay a second head coach on top of whatever Ross is still getting. Maybe Toler’s just a complete egomaniac who feels like the roster she assembled should’ve been playing much better, so she’s pushed Ross out of the way in anticipation of being able to do better herself. Regardless of the process, putting the team in the hands of a complete coaching novice – assisted by one of the people who helped create the current situation and guy even Sparks lifers would struggle to remember – seems a hell of a hail mary. When Phoenix dumped Corey Gaines in midseason last year, and didn’t want to hand the reins over to an existing assistant, they at least went out and found an experienced coach to take over for the rest of the year. They didn’t just send someone down from the office, hand her a whistle, and tell her to get on with it.