Chicago’s injury woes continue as their championship hopes flicker

Stevens out for season, Sky trade Lavender, DeShields leaves Bubble

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Azurá Stevens #30 and Kahleah Cooper #2 of the Chicago Sky play defense against the Phoenix Mercury on August 6, 2020 (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE viaGetty Images)

Azurá Stevens’ stellar season has come to an end.

Stevens is reportedly out for the rest of the season with a left knee injury, per a Sky press release. Doug Feinberg of the AP was the first to break the news.

The injury cuts short what was a promising season for the young forward, with Stevens starting in 13 games and averaging 11.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 0.9 steals. Stevens will be evaluated by a cartilage specialist to address an osteochondral defect in her left knee, and will be out for the remainder of the season.

Chicago acquired Stevens this off season via trade with the expectation that she would take time to make an on-court impact following foot surgery 2019. But an extended off season and successful rehabilitation allowed Stevens to thrive from day one for the Sky. Stevens had missed the previous two games, both for soreness, after an otherwise healthy season.

The Sky have suffered a number of injuries on the wing and in the front court this season. Losing Stevens will only make matters worse.

Prior to the season’s start, Sky forward Jantel Lavender underwent season-ending foot surgery. Forward Cheyenne Parker and center Stefanie have both missed time, and guard Diamond DeShields is currently out with a thigh injury. DeShields, whose production had been limited previously due to inflammation in her knee, left the bubble Saturday for personal reasons.

Stevens was arguably the most impactful defender in a Sky defense that ranks just sixth in the league in defensive rating. Despite sporting one of the best offenses in the league, Chicago’s play on the other end of the floor has dragged the team down all season. Losing Stevens will only exacerbate matters.

Chicago will try to shore up some depth and rally via their latest trade, which was made before the announcement of Stevens’ injury. The Sky traded Lavender along with a second and third round draft pick on Friday, acquiring Indiana Fever forward Stephanie Mavunga in the process.

“This is a strong hit for our leadership as far as losing Jantel, a seasoned veteran with championship experience, such a great person, and someone who played well in the Chicago uniform,” Sky General Manager and Head Coach James Wade said in a press release on Friday. “With all the injuries and with the competitive season, we felt that it was best for the betterment of our team to add another young piece that was a good player and had great character.”

Wade traded for Lavender during the 2019 off season, seeking to add championship experience and leadership to his new team. Lavender, who had won a title with the Sparks in 2016 and was entering her ninth year in the league, provided just that in 2019. Throughout her tenure, Lavender was a vocal presence in the Sky locker room and a steady hand on the court when healthy.

Despite not traveling to Bradenton, Florida with the team following foot surgery, Lavender had continued her leadership role and helped Chicago bounce back mentally after their controversial loss to the Phoenix Mercury. But with Lavender on an expiring contract and Chicago short on roster room for any future second or third round draft picks, shoring up his now-decimated roster became top priority for Wade.

“It's a tough day for us, but we'll feel good when Stephanie gets here and we're able to welcome her in like family,” Wade said in the release. “These things are always bothersome, especially for a coach and especially in this day and time. When you are making decisions like these, you don't make these decisions lightly, but we have to do what’s best for the players that are playing and it was obvious to us we had to have healthy bodies.”

Mavunga is averaging five points and four rebounds in just under 12 minutes a game this year.

“I don’t know if she’s shown her full range of potential as far how much she spaces the floor and being, I guess, a ball scorer and rebounder,” Wade said Saturday during media availability. “So she hasn’t shown that as much in the WNBA, but I’ve gotten a chance to see her for the last two years in Europe and we’ve [paid] close attention to her.”

Wade added that Mavunga’s contract, which runs through 2021, was also a consideration in the trade. The third-year forward is still on her rookie contract and will now have the rest of this season and the following off season to get acquainted with Wade’s system.

Mavunga has only appeared in five games this season after suffering a facial injury and leaving Bradenton. The 6-foot-3 forward has been cleared to play, but has been quarantining in accordance with league protocol since Wednesday. Wade said he expects her to be available by Tuesday or Wednesday.

The injury to Stevens, who averaged 27 minutes per game, will give Mavunga plenty of opportunities for playing time. It will also open the door for rookie Ruthy Hebard to play a bigger role for the Sky. Hebard has impressed with her play so far, and she is averaging 15.8 minutes of play per game the last five games.

Chicago faces off against the Seattle Storm today in what looked like a measuring stick for their championship hopes just a week ago.