By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)
Transitions, in an ideal world, would always be seamless.
Sports is anything but an ideal world, but even still, sometimes teams are both prepared enough and lucky enough to make a transition between two successful eras.
Two decades into its history, the WNBA is still nascent enough for many teams to have only boasted one franchise player or to have celebrated one era of good fortune, or maybe less. In the case of the Chicago Sky an easy demarcation of their historical point of plenty is clear: there is With Elena Delle Donne and Without Elena Delle Donne.
With Delle Donne, the Sky posted their first winning seasons in team history, made the postseason four straight times and took a surprise trip to the WNBA Finals in 2014. Delle Donne won the 2015 WNBA MVP Award and any arguments against the honor were negligible at best. For the first time, the Chicago Sky were contenders.
Then everything collapsed.
Defensive anchor Sylvia Fowles asked out of town. Pokey Chatman, who guided the team through their ascent to relevance, was let go. Relations between the team and Delle Donne soured enough that she was traded to Washington a mere two years after her MVP campaign. Championship aspirations disappeared nearly as quickly as they materialized.
Since that 2014 Finals cameo, the Sky have essentially hit the reset button. Only three players remain from that roster. Chatman’s replacement Amber Stocks was fired after two seasons. They’ve even moved to a new home arena. A vocal grassroots campaign for increased salaries and media coverage has put the WNBA at the forefront of national consciousness, and a series of serendipitous events have put Chicago in the conversation for the postseason.
After a precipitous fall, Sky fans are feeling hope. But is it justified?
Out With the Old, In With Katie Lou
Stocks’ dismissal was a bit surprising, but it showed that Michael Alter and the rest of the Sky ownership weren’t content to kick the can down the road as in years past. To that end, Minnesota Lynx assistant James Wade was hired as head coach in November, just after the end of the season.
The Sky open the 2019 WNBA season on the road Saturday night in Minnesota against Wade’s former team.
Wade has stated that he feels he’s been brought in “to make the playoffs,” and highly-touted rookie Katie Lou Samuelson will be key to fulfilling that promise. Reigning assists leader Courtney Vandersloot and backcourt partner (and new roommate!) Allie Quigley, who’s thrived in her first two seasons as a full-time starter, took over primary scoring duties two years ago. In that time, both guards shot better than 39% on threes and averaged over 12 points per game. Adding the sharpshooting Samuelson to that rotation — she shot nearly 50% from deep her junior year at UConn and posted 49/41/85 shooting splits for her college career — gives the Sky near-instant offense in the backcourt.
That triple option also presents interesting lineup choices for Chicago. Sophomore Diamond DeShields had an uneven rookie season, but her athleticism and speed provide a slashing component to the offense. At 6’1, DeShields’ size also presents match-up problems for opponents. Putting her on the floor with Samuelson (6’3), Quigley, Vandersloot and either Stefanie Dolson or Cheyenne Parker would have the Sky playing the kind of “positionless basketball” that has been in vogue recently at the pro level.
Will Defense Tell the Tale?
While dreaming of endless three-pointers is fun, the Sky’s major weakness has been on the defensive end. They have been either worst or second-worst in points allowed per game for the last five seasons. Rebounding and blocks in particular cratered after Delle Donne and Jessica Breland changed teams.
Stocks’ commitment to defense last year backfired stupendously, as Chicago allowed 90 points per game — nearly nine points above the league average. In Wade’s view, concentrating on defense with the Sky’s roster was the wrong plan. As he said in a recent Sun-Times article, “Sometimes with teams you want to put a strength together and say, ‘This is the focus, this is who we are,’ but it doesn’t match the personnel.”
Samuelson’s selection means the Sky are doubling down on increasing their offensive output. However, it’s possible their defense could improve without adding a rim protector or perimeter defensive specialist.
Gabby Williams led the league in steal percentage and finished second in total steals her rookie season. Parker finished top ten in all three advanced rebounding categories and block percentage. DeShields didn’t finish on any defensive leaderboards, but stated last year that she wanted to be “in the conversation” as one of the best defenders in the league. New acquisition Jantel Lavender also adds size and rebounding off the bench.
Wade should and will be fine-tuning the Sky offense first, but a more adept defense will key any push for the playoffs.
(Maybe) Believe the Hype
Chicago has not only improved their personnel and coaching staff, they’ll also be entering a WNBA season lacking some of the biggest stars in the sport. MVP Breanna Stewart tore her ACL while playing overseas and teammate Sue Bird underwent season-ending knee surgery, all but knocking the 2018 champion Seattle Storm out of the title picture. Superstar Maya Moore is sitting out the year to focus on ministry work. Skylar Diggins-Smith, Angel McCoughtry, Diana Taurasi and other top players are all missing significant time this year.
Health has not been a concern for the Sky, aside from guard Jamierra Faulkner’s recovery from ACL surgery, and it would be easy to immediately elevate them to contention. However, the league’s small size and global talent pool means the “W” won’t miss too much in quality play this season, as this FiveThirtyEight column points out. The Las Vegas Aces are the favorites for the championship after their blockbuster trade for MVP candidate Liz Cambage, and the Washington Mystics are returning most of their rotation from last year’s Finals team. Even without Taurasi, Brittney Griner and the Phoenix Mercury are a quality pick to play for the championship.
High hopes for the Sky are only localized at this point. In a survey of WNBA general managers (many of whom also coach their teams), the Sky weren’t mentioned as a conference contender and only eight percent of the GMs surveyed picked Samuelson for Rookie of the Year. Still, the team’s Media Day showed a team with a rosy outlook on the season, including DeShields, who is aspiring to an MVP award herself.
The clouds may have finally parted for the Chicago Sky. It will be up to Wade and his team to leave behind their fractured past and begin a new era of prosperity.
Chris Pennant covers professional basketball for WARR Media