What stands in the way of Chicago Sky’s title hopes?

Questions on defense and the bench still remain

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PALMETTO, FL - AUGUST 25: Amanda Zahui B #17 of the New York Liberty drives to the basket during a game against the Chicago Sky on August 25, 2020 (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE viaGetty Images)

Despite an off shooting night and a porous defensive performance, the Sky tied the Liberty with 20 seconds left in the game after a wide-open three from Chicago center Stefanie Dolson.

But another series of defensive miscues led Liberty guard Layshia Clarendon to the line with 0.3 seconds on the lock. Clarendon put New York up by two and Chicago failed to get a shot off on the lobbed inbounds pass.

New York 101, Chicago 99.

“They just wanted it more,” Sky head coach and general manager James Wade said in the post-game presser. “There’s nothing I can say. We gave them confidence and they were able to make shots, and we weren't in place. And now you have a team that's down and you have another team that's happy in their locker room. But this is what you get when you don't do what you're supposed to do.”

There are few, if any, silver linings in Chicago handing New York their second win of the season. All five starters scored in double digits, but the offense was stilted most of the night. Sky guard Allie Quigley tied her career high of 29 points, but her aggressive night was more the product of trying to make something happen than that of a potent offense.

“We weren’t driving the basketball,” Wade said. “We were just taking shots. I don’t think we were good offensively.”

And that’s what the Sky are capable of doing at any point in the game: making shots. They’ve now mounted a few comebacks by getting hot in the fourth. But they haven’t proven that they can consistently control games the same way other contenders around the league have and there’s a reason some of those comebacks have fallen flat.

“You can't win a game when they score 100-something points,” Quigley said after the game. “No matter what, no matter how good you do on offense if they score 100. So I think we need to focus on our defense and then just being a little bit more consistent on offense.”

So what stands in the way of Chicago’s title hopes?

First, let’s talk offense

Chicago’s offensive identity continues to be pace and space with four or five shooters on the perimeter.

The Sky boast the second-best offensive rating in the league and lead the WNBA in most shooting categories. They have a skilled front court and an assortment of athletic guards headed by MVP dark-horse candidate Courtney Vandersloot. 

Vandersloot leads the league in assists by a country mile and is the heart of one of the most assist happy offenses in the WNBA. Her on/off court net rating (sample size be damned) is the highest in the WNBA.

But that’s both a compliment to Vandersloot’s caliber of play and a damning stat for the Sky’s performance without her. Wade is still searching for the answer to those 10 minutes a game when Vandersloot sits. There’s no Vandersloot hiding somewhere on Chicago’s bench (or anywhere else in the league for that matter), but the dropoff on offense is untenable.

The Sky haven’t been able to recreate any semblance of her production with their committee of wings, and backup point guard Sydney Colson hasn’t elevated the bench offense thus far. But Colson, who joined the team midseason and missed all in-market workouts after contracting COVID-19, isn’t culpable for Chicago’s offense falling off a cliff without Vandersloot on the floor. 

If you’re going to argue for Vandersloot as MVP, this is the avenue to take. She’s the engine of one of the best offenses in the league and that same offense totally breaks down without her. Saying Vandersloot elevates Chicago’s system would be inaccurate because Vandersloot is Chicago’s system.

That same argument, however, spells trouble for the Sky in the playoffs. Given the current state of their defense, Chicago might not be able to afford those non-Sloot minutes against the best of the league.

There’s no defending Chicago’s defense

The offense was never a big question mark for the Sky heading into this season. The biggest barrier to contention has always been on the defensive end and those concerns have reared their ugly head all year.

Chicago frequently misses rotations and their defense in space leaves much to be desired. They struggle to get back on defense in transition and allow the ninth-most fast break points per game.

“We’ve got to execute one-on-one things like one-on-one defense, not always depending on help,” Wade said after the loss. “So if they don't learn it, like we'll go home early, if we don't learn what we're supposed to learn from it.”

It’s not that the Sky are incapable of playing good defense, but they haven’t shown the ability to put together defensive stretches with any sort of consistency. The bright spots are exciting but far and few between.

Even with their offense firing on all cylinders, it would take an historic run for the Sky to ride it all the way to a title.

Their offense is good but not untouchable by the other contenders in the WNBA. Chicago’s 106.6 offensive rating is second only to the Seattle Storm in the WNBA, but the Las Vegas Aces aren’t far off at 105.2. By contrast, the Storm and Aces are also No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, in the league in defensive rating. Chicago’s defensive rating sits at No. 6, 4.9 points behind the Aces and 10 points behind the Storm.

That’s not to mention the Sparks and Lynx, who both boast better defenses than Chicago while also sporting offenses more than capable of going toe to toe with the Sky in a series.

Granted, Chicago is dealing with a number of injuries to key players. Stefanie Dolson missed time early in the season, forward Azurá Stevens has missed the last two games and guard Diamond DeShields has been battling knee tendinitis all year and is now missing time with a quad injury.

But those players don’t move the needle on defense enough for the Sky this season.

Dolson is Chicago’s best bet for one-on-one post match ups against the big centers of the league, but she’s not a defensive anchor for the Sky. Stevens has flashed a lot of potential as a defensive force — she’s seventh in the league in block percentage among players playing 15 minutes or more per game — but she’s not a system changer yet. DeShields has been an impactful but inconsistent defender so far in her WNBA career, and it’s too big of an ask to expect her to be 100% healthy so soon.

At this point, Chicago’s best hope on defense is for internal improvement, and quick. Getting dismantled by a very fun, but very 2-12 New York Liberty team doesn’t bode well in that regard, but it could be the sort of shock that wakes the Sky up.

“We know we got to take tonight and take it to the gut,” Vandersloot said after the loss. “This one hurt. And [we’ve got to] learn from it and be better next game. We’ve got another game and we can’t let this game get away from us.”

But with only seven games left on the schedule and seeding on the line, time is running out for the Sky.