Coming out of the Olympic break, the Chicago Sky are looking to put a chaotic first half of the season behind them. They endured a seven-game losing streak after Candace Parker went down with an ankle injury before embarking on a seven-game winning streak of their own, during which they looked like one of the best teams in the WNBA.
Sitting in the fifth seed with a 10-10 record, Chicago has a clean bill of health and faces a pivotal stretch that will determine their playoff fate. Here are four storylines to follow as the Sky approach the tail end of the regular season.
The Sky’s Response to a Tough Second-Half Schedule
Chicago is going to try to make up some ground in the standings after it scuffled when Parker was sidelined for eight games at the start of the season. That won’t be an easy feat given its road ahead in the second half.
With 12 games left before the playoffs, the Sky are slated to face the Aces and Storm three times respectively and the fourth-place Minnesota Lynx once. They will get a chance to sweep the Indiana Fever in the last game of the season, but before then, the Sky will have to go against the Mercury in Phoenix, the Wings (who beat the Sky earlier this season and had the best offensive rating in the league in the last nine games before the Olympic break) and a Mystics team that could have Elena Delle Donne back in some capacity.
The Lynx are the team Chicago should look out for during this final stretch. Just like the Sky, Minnesota struggled to find its footing early on in the 2021 campaign but rebounded to climb back up in the standings. The Lynx went on a seven-game winning streak before the break and are two and a half games ahead of the Sky for the fourth seed.
The Lynx During Their Seven-Game Win Streak
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Minnesota hasn’t received a ton of production from its bench this season (the Lynx are ninth in bench points per game), but it’s about to get Natalie Achonwa and possibly Aerial Powers back from their injury stints. That could be enough to put the Lynx over the edge to claim the fourth seed. The Sky will do everything they can to avoid a scenario in which they would have to play in the first round of the playoffs and lose home-court advantage if they were to play Minnesota in the second round.
On the other side of the coin, Chicago has a chance to make a dent in the top of the standings against Las Vegas and Seattle. If they can win four or five of the six matchups they have against the league’s elite, the momentum the Sky would have heading into the playoffs could give them the edge in the early rounds of the postseason.
How the Backcourt Will Fare When Courtney Vandersloot Goes to the Bench
Over the past two and a half seasons, the Sky have been searching for a backup point guard to run the offense when Courtney Vandersloot takes a seat. In 2019 and 2020, the Sky relied on forward Gabby Williams to take over playmaking responsibilities, but she was traded in the offseason. James Wade drafted 19-year-old Shyla Heal this year to try to fill the void, but a seven-game losing streak forced him to pivot to veteran Lexie Brown when Heal and fellow rookie Stephanie Watts struggled during their time with the Sky.
Chicago is still looking for an answer to their backup point guard problem as the Sky struggle tremendously when their All-WNBA facilitator isn’t on the floor.
The Sky’s NETRTG Difference With Courtney Vandersloot on/off the Court
Vandersloot is playing a career-high 32.2 minutes per game this season, which is partly due to the team’s limited roster at the start of the year. Since Candace Parker’s return to the lineup, the Sky’s backcourt has improved (0.0 net rating with Sloot off the court), but Brown and Dana Evans are going to be tasked with making sure the offense’s wheels don’t fall off when going up against other teams’ second units.
Allie Quigley’s Sixth Woman of the Year Campaign
When the Sky needed an offensive spark during their seven-game losing streak, Allie Quigley provided it. Despite playing her fewest minutes per game since 2016, this year’s three-point shooting contest winner is averaging the third-most points per game on the Sky while shooting 40.7 percent from three-point range. According to Synergy, she is also second in the league in points coming off of screens despite missing six games with a hamstring injury.
Quigley’s play has put her right in the center of the Sixth Woman of the Year discussion. She has already won the award twice in her career (2014 and 2015) and has a chance to dethrone Dearica Hamby, who has won it in the past two years.
“[Quigley] is a three-time all-star coming off of the bench,” said Courtney Vandersloot during a press conference on July 10. “I think all sixth women could be a starter in this league, but she has really embraced this role. It is huge for us having her come off the bench and being a scoring threat right away.
“I think in all of our wins you can tell that she’s been that factor in that she’s so efficient and comes in and does it in a short amount of minutes, so that’s what you look for in a Sixth Woman of the Year.”
Hamby has put together another solid case for her reign to continue, but she might be facing some competition on her own team. Kelsey Plum, who usually checks in with Hamby, is scoring a league-leading 13.5 ppg off the bench. Those two could potentially split the difference, which would leave Quigley and Wings guard Marina Mabrey in a position to take home the award.
Mabrey’s Sixth Woman of the Year campaign manager might disagree with this notion, but if Dallas ends up falling further in the standings, the sharpshooter might miss out on Sixth Woman of the Year honors. Every player who has won this award since 2015 played on a team seeded in the top four. The Wings are currently in ninth, and despite being one of the best offenses in the league over the last nine games of the first half, they struggle mightily on the defensive end. If they don’t gain any ground in the standings, Mabrey’s chances would be limited.
There is stiff competition for this award, but Quigley could separate herself from the rest of the pack if she keeps up her first-half productivity.
Azurá Stevens’ Availability
Before her 2020 campaign was cut short by an injury to her left knee, Azurá Stevens looked like she was the missing frontcourt piece the Sky had been searching for in 2019. The Sky started off 5-2 last season as Stevens averaged 11.9 ppg and led the team with a 60.5 effective field goal percentage (eFG%). The Sky’s season was derailed shortly after Stevens and Diamond DeShields left the Wubble, but Wade saw enough in Stevens to reward her with a one-year, $140,000 contract extension.
James Wade has been cautious with Stevens’ workload this season to make sure she doesn’t burn out before the playoffs. She hasn’t played more than 20 minutes in a game since June 3 and said in a press conference on Aug. 11 that she is still working her way back from her knee injury last season.
“I’m getting there,” said Stevens. “This has been a challenging season for me personally, but I am taking it day by day. Physically, I am feeling better, but I am not really where I want to be. I’m just doing all that I can to be the best version of myself for this team, and mentally, that’s just what I’m focusing on, step by step, moment by moment. I’m looking forward to the second half of this season and then playoffs after that.”
The Sky are going to be facing some of the best frontcourts in the league going against the Aces, who throw out various lineups featuring Hamby, A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage, and Seattle with Breanna Stewart and Ezi Magbegor. Stevens’ defensive versatility and ability to force rim protectors out to the perimeter to guard her would be a luxury for the Sky with 12 games left in the regular season.
Do not rule out a finals run for this Chicago Sky team. The season starts over once the postseason begins, and at their peak in 2021, the Sky looked like they could look past their rough start and win the franchise’s first title. Before they can go down that path, they need to take care of business in the last 12 games of the regular season.
“We have been working hard,” said Stevens on Aug. 12. “We have some big matchups coming up, and the second half of this slate will be good for this team.”