What if the Chicago Sky aren’t rebuilding, after all?

ROSEMONT, IL - JULY 12: Courtney Vandersloot
ROSEMONT, IL - JULY 12: Courtney Vandersloot /

When the Chicago Sky stumbled out to a 3-12 start, punctuated by a loss to previously winless San Antonio to end June, few people were surprised.

This past offseason, the Sky were forced to trade franchise player Elena Delle Donne. Moreover, the deal with Washington brought back Stefanie Dolson, who plays the same position as incumbent center Imani Boyette.

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And then a draft night near-deal left the Sky with little to show for its two first round picks, between Alaina Coates, another center who isn’t likely to play at all in 2017, and Tori Jankoska, who was jettisoned after one regular season game.

Add all that to losing a pair of point guards—Jamierra Faulkner for the season due to injury, and missing Courtney Vandersloot due to overseas commitments for much of the early season—and virtually any team would struggle, even without the added challenge of integrating new head coach Amber Stocks’ vision for the team.

UNCASVILLE, CONNECTICUT- May 2: Amber Stocks, head coach of the Chicago Sky, on the sideline during the Connecticut Sun Vs Chicago Sky, WNBA pre season game at Mohegan Sun Arena on May 2, 2017 in Uncasville, Connecticut. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)
UNCASVILLE, CONNECTICUT- May 2: Amber Stocks, head coach of the Chicago Sky, on the sideline during the Connecticut Sun Vs Chicago Sky, WNBA pre season game at Mohegan Sun Arena on May 2, 2017 in Uncasville, Connecticut. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images) /

“We understood before the year started that people were going to be writing us off, that it was going to be a redevelopment year,” Vandersloot told The Summitt Friday night, following Chicago’s victory over the New York Liberty. “And I knew there were going to be growing pains, plus the difficulty of me coming in late. But for me, and all of us knew, it is how you end the season. The start wasn’t what we wanted obviously. But we see this in the WNBA all the time, teams start slow and then end up in the payoffs.”

So what is fascinating about the recent hot streak from the Sky—a three-game winning streak, with another excellent performance in a 2OT loss at Dallas on Sunday afternoon—isn’t just that the team appears to be figuring things out, though the 50.3 percent accuracy from the field and 25.5 assists per game over that span, both league-leading figures, certainly indicate they have. It’s where in the career arc those who are contributing the most can be found.

ATLANTA, GA – JUNE 23: Stefanie Dolson
ATLANTA, GA – JUNE 23: Stefanie Dolson /

Consider that during this recent hot streak, three players have been most responsible: Vandersloot, Dolson and Allie Quigley.

In each case, these are not players still finding their way in the league. These are veterans—Quigley is 31, Vandersloot 28 and Dolson 25—with significant accomplishments under their belts already. Quigley is a two-time Sixth Woman of the Year. Vandersloot and Dolson have both made WNBA all star teams.

And with Stocks playing the three of them in their customary positions, between Vandersloot commanding the game in a ball-dominant fashion, Quigley slashing to complement her elite perimeter shooting, and Dolson unleashing a full complement of her expanded offensive game, the Sky find themselves performing well above their early-season sluggish offensive start.

From Dolson’s perspective, that all starts with Vandersloot, something apparent in the way the two of them play off of one another.

“It’s huge,” Dolson told The Summitt Friday. “She’s a point guard for a reason. She sees things other people don’t—she’ll pass me the ball sometimes when I don’t even know I’m open. And it’s fun to play with a player like that.”

Stocks sees the current streak as evidence of a process that began back in April, but just as notable is what’s changed. The past four games, the Sky have been without Cappie Pondexter, who had been operating as a primary point guard even with Vandersloot back. That often forced Quigley to the wing or bench.

The season also began with both Dolson and Boyette in the lineup at the same time, creating spacing issues and defensive mismatches. It even sent Jessica Breland, a prototype stretch four, to the three, and crowded out the versatile Tamera Young, a logical three for this team.

But to Stocks’ credit, she hasn’t forced the roster she put together into roles that she sees weren’t working. She told The Summitt that even once Pondexter returns, “we will continue to play with the style that we have now. And Cappie will be put in a position to play more to her strengths.”

ROSEMONT, IL – JULY 8: Allie Quigley
ROSEMONT, IL – JULY 8: Allie Quigley /

It’s a promising sign of growth and development from Stocks, too, and leaves the Sky in a position to consider whether a full teardown should be cast aside for a plan revolving around the veterans on hand, supplemented by young players like Kahleah Copper, whoever the Sky pick in the 2018 draft, and potential return for those outside the current rotation like Boyette. But while those are questions for Stocks the general manager, how to maximize what’s available to her is the consistent challenge for Stocks the coach.

“There’s been a lot that I’ve adapted, not only for the current roster that we have, but for the players we have there at the moment,” she said, agreeing that many of the defensive tactics she utilized to limit New York on Friday night, for instance, were taken from the Brian Agler playbook, Stocks’ boss when she was an assistant in Los Angeles.

As for the roster Stocks will give Stocks, well, that doesn’t sound settled either, with the Sky actively talking to other teams ahead of the July 31 trade deadline.

“We’re always evaluating potential moves,” Stocks said. “And looking at not only performing at our best for this season, but as a general manager, it’s important that I look ahead to our future seasons, and continue to assess, evaluate what options are out there. And operate accordingly.”

But suddenly, with the Sky just three games out of the last playoff spot, trailing three teams that have exhibited their own flaws this season—Seattle, Atlanta and Indiana—just what that window for winning is appears to have changed. Quigley is no longer a sixth woman, but now a legitimate all star-level performer. Dolson has expanded beyond the form that made her a 2015 all star, taking and making more threes than she did in either of the past two seasons.

“Stefanie Dolson is an all star,” is how Stocks put it.

And Vandersloot, one of the most overlooked players in the league, is orchestrating all of it. In her eyes, this is no longer a rebuilding season. And the results of late certainly support her view.

“I think we’d be selling ourselves short if we aren’t competing for a playoff spot,” Vandersloot said. And she believes the reason why is that the Sky have discovered today’s core among the roster that most presumed was in transition, looking at tomorrow. “I do. I think that’s key. You hear that a lot in basketball, that trio. And we have a lot of different combos of trios. When you have a pair who can shoot like that, it’s a point guard’s dream.”