2015 Regular-Season Record: 21-13 (2nd in Eastern Conference)
Postseason: Lost 2-1 to Indiana Fever in Eastern Conference Semifinals
After making an improbable run to the 2014 WNBA Finals (in which they were swept by the Phoenix Mercury), the Chicago Sky reloaded for 2015, entering “win-now” mode and making a shooting-guard swap with New York. Hometown product Cappie Pondexter was brought in to get the Sky over the championship hump, forming a fearsome trio alongside budding star Elena Delle Donne and powerhouse center Sylvia Fowles.
There was just one problem: Fowles never showed up. After receiving the “core” designation from the Sky in the offseason, she requested a trade to a specific team (one that wasn’t revealed until later) and sat out until it was granted, leaving a gaping hole in the Sky’s frontcourt with little time or resources to fix it.
This, in a way, changed the Sky’s identity as a team. Chicago turned up the pace in 2015, turning what were once slow, turnover-prone Fowles post-ups into faster offense. The team’s numbers speak for themselves: at 106.3 points per 100 possessions, the Sky ran the most-efficient offense in the league. Yes, the fast play helped to boost this number, but Chicago simply made more out of their possessions than most teams. For comparison’s sake, Atlanta played even faster than the Sky this season, but their team scoring efficiency was mediocre (as I alluded to here). Needless to say, this wasn’t a problem for Pokey Chatman’s squad, who turned the ball over on just 12.7 percent of their possessions.
Point guard Courtney Vandersloot was key to this transformation. Vandersloot dished out a league-leading 198 assists (nearly 50 more than second-place Danielle Robinson) while turning the ball over only 17 times per 100 plays (which was by far a career low). That Vandersloot was able to lead the charge for the Sky and play with such control was a remarkable feat. She’s always been a good point guard in terms of playing with pace, but playing faster and steadier while running the WNBA’s highest-scoring offense (and scoring the ball herself like she’s never done before) means that Vandersloot was arguably the league’s top floor general in 2015.
Of course, you can’t talk about the Sky (or these days, even the WNBA in general) without giving the lion’s share of the credit to Elena Delle Donne. Finally healthy after finishing 2014 battling a Lyme disease flareup, Delle Donne was simply brilliant, taking full advantage of the Sky’s newfound floor spacing to win the league’s scoring title (23.4 PPG) and MVP award.
More than anyone else on the Sky, Delle Donne flourished from playing in a smaller lineup. She’s already an automatic mismatch wherever she plays, but playing alongside three guards meant that Delle Donne was able to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim more often. This translated into many, many free throw attempts (218) and many, many free throws made (Delle Donne converted on an astounding 95 percent of them). With her size and vast array of skills, featuring Delle Donne more prominently in a perimeter-based offense made too much sense, and she delivered by leading the league in win shares (8.7) and PER (32.7). Once again, we see an increase in both volume and efficiency…and she’s only completed her third season. Plainly put, EDD is a beast.
Biggest Need Heading Into 2016: Defense, Frontcourt Presence
Unfortunately for the Sky, there’s only so much a team can do to mask the loss of an anchor like Fowles. While Chicago’s smaller lineups produced big scoring numbers, if they were unable to control the pace of the game, there often just wasn’t enough size or strength in their frontcourt to keep bigger teams out of the paint and off the glass. Forwards Jessica Breland and Clarissa dos Santos are both good rebounders and defenders for their size, but there’s only so much they could do at 6’1” when they were constantly matched up against players four-to-six inches taller. Chicago allowed 38 percent of opponents’ shots to come within five feet of the basket (only San Antonio was worse in this area), meaning far too many easy points were scored against their undersized front line.
Chatman tried to fix this by acquiring Erika de Souza as part of the eventual Fowles trade, which did give the Sky a veteran center with plenty of size. de Souza’s best days are far behind her, though, and at times it seemed as if the additional size in the frontcourt just slowed the Sky down without giving them the defense and rebounding necessary to offset the drop in pace.
What’s more, it’s unknown what de Souza’s status will be in 2016. She and dos Santos are both members of the Brazilian national team, and it’s possible that they’ll want to forego the first portion of the 2016 WNBA season to prepare for the Rio Olympics. If this is the case, the Sky will once again need to find an answer in a hurry.
And to be fair, they may already have one: Cheyenne Parker was picked at #5 in the 2014 WNBA Draft, and at 6’4” she has the athleticism and physical tools necessary to play center in the WNBA. Whether or not Chatman trusts her to play starter’s minutes next season is another issue entirely, though. Sky fans need to hope that players like Pondexter and de Souza still have enough left in the tank to assist Delle Donne in another playoff run while Parker and the team’s 2016 draft pick develop.