The Sparks hired the former Connecticut Sun head coach for the same position Friday, bringing the two-time WNBA coach of the year to save the franchise that has missed the playoffs two years in a row.
Miller went 140-86 in the regular season during his seven-year tenure with the Sun and led the team to six postseason appearances, including two WNBA Finals berths in the last four seasons.
The 54-year-old returns to the Sparks after serving as an assistant in 2015. The year still holds a “special place in my heart,” Miller told The Los Angeles Times on Friday. It was when he jumped from the college ranks into a star-studded Sparks team with Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Alana Beard and Kristi Toliver. They had championship aspirations. He told himself that if an opportunity ever arose to return, it would be hard to pass up.
Yet the franchise Miller returns to seven years later is far removed from its celebrated past. The team has just one playoff win in the last four years.
“I love to build,” said Miller, who was a head coach at Bowling Green and Indiana before coming to the WNBA. “I look at what a lot of people will perceive as a hard rebuild. I look at it as an exciting time in L.A. that you can really create something special.”
Miller, who doubled as the Sun’s general manager for six years, will only assume coaching responsibilities with a separate general manager to be hired. While he was named WNBA executive of the year in 2017, Miller looks forward to concentrating all his energy on the coaching side while working “in lockstep” with the future general manager to steer the franchise’s new era.
“The GM role was terrific, it helped accelerate my knowledge of the league, it helped me understand the cap, it helped me understand the [collective bargaining agreement] and it taught me a lot and certainly was an integral part of my growth in Connecticut,” Miller said. “At the same time, it takes a lot of time to wear the dual hat.”
The Sparks, who finished 11th last year with a 13-23 record — could have a sour taste from their last attempt at consolidating head coach and general manager responsibilities after Derek Fisher was fired on June 7. The former Laker went 37-19 during the regular season in his first two years as a dedicated head coach but was 17-27 when he added general manager responsibilities. During free agency, Fisher lost Parker and All-Star guard Chelsea Gray, who have both rebounded with WNBA championships in the last two years, and signed Liz Cambage, who quit the team halfway through her first year.
Miller had a hand in burying the Sparks in recent years, leading the Sun to seven consecutive head-to-head wins, including an Aug. 11 blowout at Crypto.com Arena that eliminated the Sparks from playoff contention last year.
The Sun, who had missed the playoffs for three straight years before Miller’s arrival, ranked among the league’s top three in defensive and offensive rating during the last two seasons. With WNBA most valuable player Jonquel Jones, they claimed the top seed in 2021 but never broke through to win the franchise’s first title.
“I’ll always be frustrated that we weren’t able to win that championship,” Miller said.
Sparks executives have key free agency decisions to make as they embark on their own championship hunt. The team has just two players from last year — Katie Lou Samuelson and Chennedy Carter — set to return on protected contracts. There are six unrestricted free agents, including Ogwumike. Miller has already spoken to the former WNBA most valuable player and seven-time All-Star.
“There’s no better leader in the league than Nneka,” said Miller, who also coached Chiney Ogwumike with the Sun.
While the franchise needs a rebuild, Miller maintained his belief that the Sparks still carry a special energy that can attract players to win championships.
“Players want to be in L.A.,” Miller said. “As we now have stability and a vision and a new era, it’s going to be really exciting to sell that and talk to players about coming back to L.A.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.