As the saying goes: the season starts over come playoff time. This year’s Chicago Sky team should take solace in that mentality after a chaotic regular season. After newly-acquired superstar Candace Parker went down with injury, the Sky endured a seven-game losing streak, only to embark on a seven-game winning streak once she returned.
Chicago hasn’t found its footing since, going 6-6 since the Olympic break. They now stand in the sixth seed with the 2021 postseason set to begin on Sept. 23.
History is not on the Sky’s side heading into this year’s playoffs. Of the 24 WNBA champions, 19 led the league in net rating in the regular season. No team in WNBA history has won the title ranking outside of the top-two in net rating. The Sky had the sixth-best net rating this season, and their +1.1 total would be the lowest of any WNBA champion.
Chicago, on paper, has one of the deepest rosters in the WNBA. While FiveThirtyEight projects this team to have less than a one percent chance of winning the Finals, Skytown will talk itself into buying into a lineup that features three 2021 All-Stars, the league’s most lethal shooter in Allie Quigley, and a second unit that was third in the league in bench points per game (PPG).
The road ahead is long and winding, but, theoretically, there is a best-case scenario in which this team miraculously pulls together a deep postseason run.
First Round: Take care of Dallas at home
The Sky will host the Wings in the first round of the playoffs at Wintrust Arena, where they sport the third-worst home record in the WNBA. Opponents have also outscored the Sky by thirty points at home since the Olympic break.
Dallas won the season series between these two teams, and they held opponents to 77.5 PPG in their last six regular season contests (which ranked fourth in the league over that span). While their offense has waned in recent weeks, the Wings have enough firepower between Arike Ogunbowale, Marina Mabrey, Allisha Gray, and Satou Sabally to overcome their recent struggles on that end of the floor.
In this win-or-go-home scenario, Chicago needs to run Dallas out of the gym. According to Synergy Sports Tech, the Sky are third in the league in transition points and have the second-highest adjusted field goal percentage in transition (59.7 percent). On the other side, the Wings are 11th in opponents fastbreak points per game.
Under head coach and general manager James Wade, Chicago has thrived playing uptempo basketball. Not letting the other team set up on the other end has been this team’s calling card, and that will be crucial when Dallas matches up Bella Alarie against Candace Parker. The Wings have a 91.6 defensive rating when Alarie is on the court, compared to 106.0 when she takes a seat. She did a solid job keeping Parker in front of her in the half court during the teams’ last meeting, but the Sky found ways to free Parker by getting out on the break. Expect more of this when the two square off in the first round.
The best case scenario for the Sky: Chicago picks apart Dallas’ front court and utilizes the athleticism of Kahleah Copper, Diamond DeShields, and Allie Quigley (all of whom rank in the top ten in fast break points per game since the Olympic break) in transition to spark the offense.
Second Round: Hope the Liberty beat the Mercury, face Seattle on the road again
The New York Liberty somehow secured the eighth seed after losing eight of their last 10 regular season games. The bracket is re-seeded after each of the first two rounds of the playoffs, and the best-case scenario would be if the Liberty upset a Phoenix team that will most likely get Diana Taurasi back, setting up Chicago to face the Seattle Storm.
Chicago swept the reigning champs in the regular season, beating the Storm on the road twice in a span of three days. Seattle’s limited depth struggled to contain the Sky on the perimeter throughout the series, where Chicago shot 44.9 percent from three-point range. While playing Jewell Loyd, Sue Bird, and possibly Breanna Stewart in a win-or-go-home situation isn’t ideal for any team, the Sky would be catching Seattle at a time when the Storm have been searching for answers on the offensive end.
If the Liberty were to lose to the Mercury, which is the more likely scenario, Chicago would be running into one of the hottest teams in the league on the other side of the bracket. Minnesota has fended off the injury bug enough to jump the Storm for the three-seed by winning nine out of their last 12 games. Losing Damiris Dantas for the rest of the season is a huge blow to the team’s already limited depth, but Aerial Powers’ insertion into the starting lineup has kept this team afloat (Powers shot 51.5 / 41.2 / 94.17 in her last five games).
Since the Sky traded Sylvia Fowles to the Lynx in 2015, Fowles is 10-5 versus her former team, posting 17 PPG, 9.8 rebounds per game, 1.6 blocks per game, and 1.7 steals per game. Chicago hasn’t found an answer for Fowles since her departure, but if the Sky are able to get Stef Dolson back, who has been out the past two games with a knee injury, her physicality paired with Candace Parker’s patience protecting the rim might be enough to stunt Fowles’ production. In 269 minutes on the court together this season, Parker and Dolson have an 87.5 defensive rating.
Best case scenario for the Sky: The Liberty upset the Mercury, the Sky march into Seattle and beat the reigning champs on their home floor for the third time this season.
Semifinals: Chicago finds a way to shut down A’ja Wilson again
If they are able to come out of the first two rounds unscatched, the Sky are going to have an uphill battle facing an Aces team that possesses the most potent offense in the W. Las Vegas became the first team in league history to have seven players average 10 or more points per game in a single season. Chicago had a taste of that in their Sept. 17 matchup versus the Aces, where the Sky were blown out 103-70, their worst loss of the season.
However, Chicago did have a statement win versus the Aces at home in their second matchup, where they looked like the team that won seven games in a row back in June. The Sky went to the free throw line 23 times and shot 36.7 percent from three-point range versus Las Vegas on Sept. 5. In wins this season, Chicago shot 39.5 percent from deep and got to the line 19.1 times per game; in losses, they shot a paltry 29.4 from behind the arc and went to the free throw line 14.8 times. If they play like they did on Sept. 5 throughout an entire five-game series, the Sky have a shot at upsetting a Las Vegas team that has a 70 percent chance of going to the Finals, according to FiveThirtyEight’s projections.
No matter how the offense plays, disrupting A’ja Wilson and Kelsey Plum is going to be the key for the Sky to get by the league’s top offense. After its first matchup where Wilson went to the line eight times, Chicago held Wilson to four free throw attempts and 7-of-21 shooting, as Parker and Astou Ndour-Fall kept Wilson in check.
Unlike with Wilson, the Sky don’t have a game this season where they have found a way to shut down Kelsey Plum. The leading Sixth Woman of the Year candidate averaged 21.3 PPG against Chicago this season and led the Aces in plus-minus with +30 in their most recent win. Whether it’s Courtney Vandersloot, Diamond DeShields, Lexie Brown, or Kahleah Copper, someone in the Sky’s backcourt is going to need to find an answer for Plum—or this series won’t be close.
Best case scenario for the Sky: Between Parker, Azurá Stevens, and Ndour-Fall, the front court limits Wilson, while a combination of DeShields and Copper slows down Plum in one on one situations. The Sky consistently get to the free throw line and find their groove from behind the arc to overcome the Ace’s high-powered offense.
Finals: Chicago returns to its June form and takes down the Sun’s all-time defense
Buckle up—the case for the sixth-seeded Chicago Sky to beat the best team in the WNBA in the finals is about to get wild (in this scenario, the Sun make the Finals after having an 85 percent chance of getting to the final stage of the postseason).
Connecticut not only has the best defense in the league this year, they had the best defensive rating (91.7) of any regular season team since the 2007 Indiana Fever. They devastated offenses by only surrendering 69.9 PPG and holding their opponents to 40.9 percent from the field. The Sun did this without Alyssa Thomas for most of the season, and Jonquel Jones for five games during Eurobasket. As previously mentioned at the top of this article, 19 of the 24 WNBA champions led the league in net rating in the regular season, which the Sun did this year (12.4).
So you ask: how are the Chicago Sky going to beat a team that went undefeated after the Commissioner’s Cup? The chances of this happening are lower than when Dr. Strange told Iron Man there was only one outcome for the Avengers taking down Thanos.
Let’s roll with it anyway.
The Sun are 11th in the league in turnovers per game, while the Sky have forced opponents to turn the ball over at the third-highest clip. According to Inpredictable’s database, Chicago was second in the WNBA in points per possession after forcing a turnover. Given that Connecticut was last in the league in PACE this year, the Sky could try to throw the Sun off by getting out in transition and not letting them settle into their half-court defensive sets.
Best case scenario for the Sky: If Chicago’s offense returns to its win-streak form, where it had the third-best offensive rating in the league (105.9), and generate enough offense for 40 minutes a game against this all-time defense, they might have a chance of making this an interesting series.
Let’s be real—the chances of the Sky going out and winning the Finals this year are miniscule. Inconsistency on both sides of the ball has plagued Chicago since the Olympic break, and the topic brought up the most in their recent post-game press conferences has been their lack of energy.
My prediction: the Sky get eliminated in the second round of the playoffs, with their ceiling being a semifinals appearance. WNBA history isn’t on their side, and it is too late in the season for them to be looking for an identity as a group. Crazier things have happened, and this team does have high-level talent up and down the roster. It just hasn’t come together in the way most expected heading into the 2021 season.