Liz Cambage it wasn’t just about what she could bring to court. Increased media and fan attention has also been on Derek Fishermind when the former sparks coach and general manager signed a controversial four-time All-Star.
“It will be great?” Fischer asked on the team’s preseason press day. Or will it explode?
It didn’t take a whole season to answer the last question.
Cambage, the award-winning free agent Fisher, who has publicly stated that Los Angeles has always been her final WNBA destination, abruptly left the Sparks on Tuesday as the team announced a “contract divorce.” The Sparks (12-15) will play Phoenix on Thursday, a game that is critical to a playoff seed.
“I have to respect what she wants,” said interim coach Fred Williams, whose relationship with Cambage began in 2018 when she played for Williams’ Dallas Wings team. “As soon as a person verbally tells you what he wants, you have to listen, because it can be something else, it can be something not related to basketball.”
“It is with support that we share Liz Cambage’s decision to terminate her contract with the organization,” Sparks managing partner Eric Holoman said in a statement. “We want the best for Liz and have agreed to part amicably. The Sparks remain thrilled with our core group and are focused on our quest to make the 2022 playoffs.”
Cambage averaged 13 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25 games and 24 games for the sixth seed Sparks with less than three weeks left in the regular season. This is the 30-year-old’s second-highest season in her WNBA career, second only to her rookie season, when she averaged 11.5 points per game for the Tulsa Shock in 2011.
Williams, who replaced Fischer when he was sacked on June 7, said during the season that Cambage struggled with fitness and faced double and triple teams. Williams implied that Cambage cited her physical struggles as the reason for the unexpected departure, in addition to “lingering” personal issues.
While Cambage seemed to be picking up form, racking up five double-digit points in six games, she was knocked out by COVID-19 on July 14. She missed two games while on the health and safety protocols. Her last game was an 11-point, five-rebound game in Las Vegas against her former team on Saturday.
“There was a lot of emotion around,” Williams, the only person the Sparks provided to reporters after Tuesday’s practice, said. The Sparks lost 84–66, losing in a four-game series to the WNBA runners-up.
“For a coach, it’s puzzling,” Williams said of the timing. “But you still have to put puzzles together and keep making them work.”
Williams expects the team to shift the focus from hitting the ball from the bottom to moving the ball around the perimeter and attacking the basket on drives. The Sparks scored 49.4% in paint, the highest by any player in the league. Conversely, they make just 16.4 three-pointers per game, the lowest in the league, and shoot 34.5% from behind the arc.
Chinai Ogwumike Revival Season gives Sparks the ability to play in the frontcourt without Cambage, but Ogwumike’s daily availability is a concern. She was late in two games this month, missing the game with a knee injury and losing on Saturday in Las Vegas with a non-COVID illness. She started in her last four matches.
On Tuesday, the Sparks signed rookie defenseman Kianna Smith to a seven-day contract. The Louisville alum was selected in the second round of this year’s draft and played in two home games earlier this month as injuries ravaged the Sparks’ backcourt.
This isn’t the first time the former Australian star has abruptly left the team. Instead of returning to the Shock after the 2012 Olympics, Cambege announced on the morning before her scheduled flight to the United States that she would miss the remainder of the WNBA season because she was “physically exhausted” by duty for the national team
In 2021, she withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics less than two weeks before the Games, citing mental health issues. The sudden move came after Kembej was involved in an incident with members of the Nigerian national team during a close quarters fight. Cambage accused of using racist slurs during the outbreak after she inadvertently fouled a Nigerian player who Kembej said “physically assaulted her” in retaliation, sparking an altercation between the teams on the touchline. Cambage denied using insults and received support from her Sparks teammates when reports surfaced in May.
Cambage became the WNBA’s second high-profile “contract divorce” this season after center Tina Charles parted ways with Phoenix last month. The former WNBA MVP signed with the Seattle Storm three days later and became the fourth player in league history to score 7,000 points in Monday’s win over the Atlanta Dream.
Such a redemption story seems unlikely for Cambege given her controversial history, but Williams, who once shared a promise with Cambege to meet in Los Angeles, said he hopes the star can play in the WNBA again.
“I’m not on her mind right now,” Williams said, “but I hope she has the opportunity to come back and play. Let’s see. Time will tell.”