From the moment he took over the reins of the Chicago Sky in 2019, James Wade provided a presence the organization lacked in its previous years. The Sky’s head coach and general manager has managed to align the team with his playing style, lead them to their first playoff appearance since 2016, and instill championship expectations into the Sky’s fan base in just over one season.
The reigning Coach of the Year and his team have shown flashes of being Finals contenders since the start of last season. Now three weeks into their Wubble exploits, the Sky have demonstrated that they are willing to ride or die with the same formula they have used since day one of the James Wade era.
Even without Stef Dolson’s ability to stretch the floor (not to mention her infectious pregame mirth) and the team unable to unleash a fully healthy Diamond DeShields, Chicago finds itself in a similar spot as last year: a second-tier team with very high upside. The continuity the Sky possess any time they step on the floor gives them an advantage in an abbreviated Wubble season but with it comes a few lingering, but fixable, proclivities from 2019.
So far in 2020, the Sky have picked up right where they left off on offense. They boast a ten-player rotation featuring the elevated games of complementary pieces like Kahleah Copper, Gabby Williams, Cheyenne Parker, and Azurá Stevens. Like last season, they rank top-five in the league in points per game (85.5 in 2020; 84.6 in 2019) and offensive rating (101.6 in 2019; 103.5 in 2020). Chicago is able to keep teams off balance by pushing the pace, ranking top-four in the last two seasons (99.00 PACE in 2020; 99.50 PACE in 2019). The Sky also have five players averaging double-digits in points, which doesn’t include DeShields or Dolson, who averaged 16.2 and 9.3 points per game respectively last year.
While deploying an elite offense over the past two years, the biggest problem the Sky have faced is their high turnover rate. They ranked ninth in turnovers per game last year (15.3) and have seen that number jump to 17.4 this season. According to Across the Timeline’s database, only four teams in WNBA history have won a championship averaging over 15 turnovers a game (the last team to do it was the 2006 Detroit Shock).
Despite coughing the ball up so much, Chicago has been able to fight back late in games and can hang with any team when point guard Courtney Vandersloot is running the offense.
The Sky are 18-10 in games decided by five or less points since 2019 and have held opponents to the lowest field goal percentage (34.4) in the league in close contests. When it matters most, Chicago doesn’t turn the ball over at the same rate as it does in the first 35 minutes of the game (they are the third-best team in the league this season when it comes to CLUTCH turnovers per game).
Because of that, there have been plenty of fireworks in Chicago since the start of 2019.
Gabby Williams CLUTCH AF 🚨 @gabbywilliams15
via @wnbachicagosky pic.twitter.com/d7fxedFxZ8
— WSLAM (@wslam) July 13, 2019
The inbounder is always the most dangerous player in late game, out-of-timeout situations, but a nice misdirect on the other side of the court almost makes the Aces forget about the best shooter in basketball. Jackie Young makes it back to her but Allie Quigley is too good. pic.twitter.com/VP8aiqEh7n
— Huw Hopkins (@coach_huw) July 27, 2020
Having one of the best point guards in basketball history in Vandersloot, who recently passed Becky Hammon for fifth place on the all-time list for career assists, has kept the offense humming while stabilizing the defense. When Sloot is on the floor this season, the Sky own an impressive 12.3 net rating which is 6.1 points higher than her 2019 mark (6.2).
However, when she has left the floor over the past two seasons, the team has collapsed on both ends of the floor. In 2020, Chicago’s net rating without her is a whopping -37.8 which is significantly worse than their 2019 mark of -11.8.
Outside of the advanced stats, Chicago’s backcourt features guards that bring something different to the table when they check into games. Kahleah Copper acts as a much-needed slasher who bullies her way to the rim and charity stripe. Swiss army knife Gabby Williams is capable of switching onto opponent’s bigs and has sharpened her playmaking and ability to hit from three-point range. Allie Quigley is best suited as an off-ball assassin while Sydney Colson, who is still recovering from having COVID-19 a few weeks ago, is able to bring energy and pace that’s required from any ball handler in Wade’s system.
The point is: none of them are Courtney Vandersloot and Chicago is still trying to piece together a puzzle that doesn’t run their general into the ground before the playoffs.
Yes, Chicago has dealt with some headaches but it can’t be stated enough: this team has only played 48 games together under Wade and still finds itself as one of the elite teams in the WNBA. The Sky have been without former starter Jantel Lavender since last July and still have half a season to figure out their plan of attack. With Dolson’s return after a seven-game absence and DeShields working her way back from injuries, their ceiling for this season requires a telescope to see it.
Time can heal all wounds and, in Chicago’s case, will probably solve some of its fixable flaws that it has faced since the start of last year.