Despite a haunting finish to the season, the Chicago Sky are still primed for the future.
Call it the Hamby Heave. Call it the Thomas & Mack Miracle. Call it whatever you want.
Dearica Hamby’s half court shot ended the Chicago Sky’s season in the most gutting fashion imaginable for a team that seemingly only had to hit a few free throws to advance to the WNBA semifinals.
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But sports are a den of cruelties fostered on the backs of heartaching losses and almosts.
Courtney Vandersloot, who had played as close to perfect as a point guard can all season, made an uncharacteristically bad pass that gave the ball back to the Las Vegas Aces late in the game. She had 12 assists to just two turnovers in the game, but her second turnover will be what sears in the back of her head for the next year, the rest of her game forgotten.
Making a shot like Hamby’s does things like that. It erases.
It can erase the memory of Vandersloot’s passing and its irreplaceable impact in the playoffs. It can erase a nearly-perfectly executed game plan. It can erase the fact that there were seven seconds left in the game when Hamby launched her shot. It can make 21 wins vanish into the nothingness that is history.
Those down moments—like when Chicago dropped four games in a row in June, losing both a three-point heartbreaker to the Seattle Storm and a 25-point bludgeoning to the Los Angeles Sparks—which only enhanced the highs—like Chicago’s euphoric win at home over the Washington Mystics, ending a nine-game losing streak against the Elena Delle Donne Mystics and producing MVP chants for Vandersloot—become lost in the sterile rows and columns of stat sites and record books.
But that erasure—the erasure in sports that boils down adrenaline-pumping moments into box scores for the losers and banners for the winners—can provide the blueprint for a team’s future.
The reminder that, for a team gunning for rings, all highlights and stat lines cease to matter when you fall short of the promised land. It isn’t about legacy when legacy can wait—for players like Vandersloot it’s about winning, pure and simple.
What made the 2019 Sky season special was that it flew in the face of the past two season of Chicago mediocrity. With relatively little roster turnover, the Sky transformed from a middling 12 and 13-win team into a 20-win team that exploded in the second half of the season. Losses began to matter a lot more and suddenly Chicago became the team to beat.
A team that lacked accountability and consistency found it in a rookie head coach who went on to both win Coach of the Year and win his locker room over while pushing his players further than they had been in quite some time.
Nothing can change the fact that, on a sweltering Sunday afternoon, the Las Vegas Aces beat the Chicago Sky 93-92. And they did it in one of the most exciting fashions in basketball history. That much is written.
But the foundation that the Sky’s heartbreak was built upon still remains. You can’t lose big games if you don’t play in them, and Chicago is primed to return to those games next season.
Diamond DeShields, who averaged 24 points, five rebounds, two assists and a block in two playoff games, will enter just her third WNBA season in 2020. She is the scoring superstar the Sky need to continue to push past their ceiling and this year’s playoffs proved that she can be that weapon.
Allie Quigley and Vandersloot are both set to be free agents this offseason, but all signs point to the married couple returning to Chicago. Vandersloot had 300 assists this year and beat the old assist record which she set the season prior. The thought that the General might not have hit her overall ceiling yet seems impossible, but we may still be in store for more.
Quigley set a career-high in 3-pointers despite taking time to settle into the offense earlier in the season. There are still questions about how she can be utilized more effectively, but the Sky’s second-leading scorer will still be deadly regardless.
That core alone is reason enough to expect continued improvement from Chicago after a season of chemistry building and roster jelling. But the Sky also bring a plethora of other pieces to the table.
Whether or not James Wade opts to run back most, if not all, of his 2019 roster in 2020, he has a treasure trove of talent across the team to work with. Consider that Gabby Williams didn’t even hit her stride as backup point guard until later in the season and that the team was forced to finish the season without Jantel Lavender, who was sidelined with a season-ending foot injury.
The Sky are not without their questions, however.
Wade will still need to figure out if he’s completely happy with the front court rotation. Astou Ndour’s availability could be questionable with the Olympics looming, which would be a considerable blow given how well the 6-foot-5 center had filled in for Lavender. Stefanie Dolson struggled with foul trouble all year and had volatile playtime as a result. Cheyenne Parker has been a force off the bench, but could she be elevated to a starting role?
Katie Lou Samuelson failed to make a consistent impact in her rookie year after a broken wrist sidelined her earlier in the season. Could Wade free up minutes for Samuelson in the front court or will he go the opposite direction by either drafting another big or keeping a veteran backup around?
Consistency cannot be complacency for the Sky, as the W stops for nobody. The talent level will only rise next year as teams improve, Hall of Famers return from injury and the next batch of rookies come in. A 20-win season and second-round exit has only made a playoff-hungry basketball town ready for more.
Chicago had their playoff hopes erased Sunday. In its place now lies championship expectations.
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