The Chicago Sky look to make a return to the postseason under first-year head coach James Wade.
Last season’s record:
Diamond DeShields (33 starts), Allie Quigley (32 starts), Courtney Vandersloot (30 starts), Gabby Williams (30 starts) and Stefanie Dolson (25 starts)
R1, P4: Katie Lou Samuelson (G/F, Connecticut)
R2, P15: Chloe Jackson (G, Baylor)
R3, P27: Maria Conde (F, Spain)
The Chicago Sky are now two seasons removed from their last playoff appearance — an appearance that came two coaches and one superstar ago.
Since then they have won just 25 games, all while fielding a historically bad defense and a middling offense. Chicago simply has not found its identity since the departure of Elena Delle Donne. New head coach James Wade and his players hope to forge one this year in their push for the playoffs.
“It’s all about culture,” Chicago Sky guard and second-year player Diamond DeShields said. “We got a new coach coming in and most all of our team is returning from last season, so it’s just all about rebuilding a winning culture. I think between James and [assistant coach] Bridget [Pettis], they both have championship experience, I think it will bring a certain edge to our team that will allow us to have a lot of success this season and in the future going forward.”
Rebuilding the Sky’s defense
DeShields hopes that edge will come through where the Sky have struggled most the past few years: defense.
“I think the approach is going to be use your length, use your quickness,” DeShields said “If you get beat you’re coming out. That’s what I think it is, that’s what I think it’s about.”
The Sky posted the worst defensive rating in WNBA history last year, and also surrendered the most points and offensive rebounds in the league. Chicago simply could not generate consistent stops and lost 14 games by 10 points or more. With only a 34 game season and a minuscule margin for error, an average or even below average defense would pay massive dividends for the Sky this season.
“Defensively they struggled last year,” Wade said. “And it wasn’t because they weren’t capable, it was a lack of discipline. But you know, [this is] a team that could be disciplined, I just thought they needed a little direction. We’ll see if we can accomplish those things. It’s hard to win games in this league. But like I said, it’s something I know that we’re up for.”
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Wade said that he is placing a lot of focus on energy and intensity on the defensive end of the floor. Chicago was often slow to close out on shooters last season and frequently got caught sleeping on rotations.
This year the Sky return a core of athletic wings such as DeShields, Kahleah Copper, and Gabby Williams, who was second in the league in steals last season. That rotation, along with a renewed focus on defense, should theoretically help the Sky get back to winning basketball.
“We have to be a team that’s hard to play against,” Wade said. “And we have to execute. Executing defensively is something that’s going to be really big [for] us and we have to rebound out of it. I think those two things are going to be key for us as a defensive unit, and we have to continue to be connected.”
Revamping Chicago’s offense
The Sky’s lack of identity did not just plague the team on defense. Their offense did little to distinguish itself from the rest of the league as well.
While Chicago tied for first in assists last season, they also led the league in turnovers and turnover percentage. They were third in 3-point percentage, but only seventh in attempts. They produced amongst the middle of the pack in free throw and field goal attempts despite averaging the second-most possessions of any team in the league.
Coach Wade figures to change that this year.
“We want to play fast,” Wade said. “We want to be able to shoot the ball, spread the floor, attack closeouts. I think that’s an exciting brand of basketball, but I also think that’s where basketball is going nowadays and I think we’re up for that.”
It is hard not to imagine Courtney Vandersloot excelling at running the offense in the open court and Chicago will certainly have the personnel to play at a high clip.
“We have a lot of speed, so I think we can use our youth to run the floor faster and harder than other teams can, and ultimately outscore them,” veteran Sky center Stefanie Dolson said.
Dolson will likely play a key part in ending opposing teams’ offensive possessions and getting the break started. Dolson’s three assists per game were more than any other center in the league, and Candace Parker, Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner were the only players taller than 6 feet to average more assists per game than her. She said that while the Sky may try and slow it down at times in the halfcourt, particularly in the pick and roll, they will ultimately look to pick up the pace this year.
Wade said that focusing on spreading the floor has been a key point of emphasis so far during training camp. The Chicago Sky are built for a four or five-out offensive system, and Chicago’s coaching staff should have no trouble getting this team ready to shoot more threes.
Among players shooting at least two threes a game, Allie Quigley and Vandersloot both ranked in the top 11 in 3-point percentage. Copper and Dolson both hit on their threes at respectable rates as well, while DeShields should improve in her second year in the league. The addition of Katie Lou Samuelson, who connected on 40.8% of her 6.6 3-point attempts in college, will help bolster the Sky’s array of shooters as well.
Wade could roll out a lineup with five shooters in Quigley, Vandersloot, Copper, Samuelson and Dolson, and will have plenty of flexibility overall with this roster. Slashers like DeShields will have the space to attack the rim in the halfcourt, and rim runners like Dolson and Cheyenne Parker should have open lanes to dive to on the pick and roll.
If Chicago can field even a half-decent defense to go along with what has the makings of an explosive uptempo offense, the Sky should be be hopeful in their bid for the postseason.
“I think we’ll be a much more entertaining team to watch this season,” DeShields said. “I think we’re really gonna open a lot of eyes around the league. I think we’re gonna get a lot of new fans this season. If I could say something to the fans it’d be [to], not only make sure you guys keep coming, but bring a friend this season because it’s definitely gonna be an experience.”
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