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Curt Miller pushes ‘culture creation’ in first year with Sparks

Curt Miller made his first public comments as the new head coach of the Sparks on Wednesday. (Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Curt Miller is a builder. That’s what newly appointed chief administrative officer and general manager Karen Bryant liked about him as a candidate for the Los Angeles Sparks head coaching job.

Bryant helped hire the two-time WNBA Coach of the Year away from the Connecticut Sun in October as Sparks interim president at the time.

“He is known for sustained success, not one-off successes,” Bryant said in an introductory press conference Wednesday. “And he very quickly emerged as the right person for this role and the right person to help lead the transformation of the Sparks, to really put us in position to have sustainable success.”

Miller built a program first at Bowling Green. In his 11 years at the helm, he elevated the women’s basketball team from winning 41 percent of its games and zero titles in his first three seasons, to a 72 percent win rate and five conference regular-season and tournament championships by the time he left.

Then, came the Sun job, where Miller helped the team rebound from a four-year playoff drought to earn trips to two WNBA Finals and two semifinals in his final four seasons with the franchise.

But between his years as a college and WNBA head coach, there was a pit stop as an assistant. L.A. was the city that introduced Miller to the WNBA, and the Sparks the team that prepared him to coach in it.

In 2015, Miller spent one season on the Sparks staff, and it had a profound effect on his career.

“My first year in the league was such a special experience that I thought, if the opportunity to return ever presented itself, it would be too good to pass up,” Miller said. “It was a dream opportunity. It’s an iconic franchise.”

It’s also a franchise in need of some help, but with a solid foundation upon which to build.

After multiple playoff disappointments and a 5-7 record to start the season, Los Angeles parted ways with coach and GM Derek Fisher in June and endured roster upheaval, including the departure of Liz Cambage via contract divorce. Fisher had previously faced criticism for his inability to re-sign key free agents Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray — both of whom went on to win WNBA Championships with their next teams — and for focusing too much energy and salary-cap space on Cambage and third-year guard Chennedy Carter.

Miller knows he has a lot of work to do, and quickly. The Sparks, an original WNBA franchise and the owners of three WNBA championships, expect to win.

“As a coach, you want to be with an organization that has high expectations,” he said. “That is where you desire to be.”

With the drama-filled 2022 season behind them, Miller is turning his attention to the Sparks’ locker room.

“Culture creation is paramount,” he said. “We are not going to cut corners. We are excited about building a culture, and for me, culture starts with preparation. That is always our first pillar.

“Championships are won in the locker room before they are won on the court.”

Sparks veteran Nneka Ogwumike is a free agent this offseason. (Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

That process starts with re-signing Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, who are both free agents this offseason. Chiney came to the Sparks in 2019, and then sat out the 2020 season due to health concerns during the pandemic but returned in 2021. Her sister, Nneka, has been with the Sparks since she was drafted by the franchise in 2012.

Nneka was one of the lone highlights during a difficult 2022 season for the Sparks. The veteran was named to the All-WNBA Second Team and earned All-Star honors. After the season, she said she would like to stay with the Sparks but lamented that “being the one that scores all the points is a heavy cross to bear.”

“I’m excited about speaking with them in free agency,” Miller said. “They are important pieces. They are both so talented. But more importantly, they are great leaders by example. They are tremendous in the locker room, and players around the league gravitate toward them and want to play with them.”

The Sparks plan to be aggressive when free agency begins. Miller and Bryant both acknowledged that former Sparks star Candace Parker is on their radar, though no official talks will take place until free agency negotiations begin on Jan. 21.

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.