May 17, 2023 

2023 WNBA season preview: Chicago Sky

Traces of 2019 Sky entangled in 2023 team's DNA

James Wade has been through this before.

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In Wade’s first year as the Chicago Sky’s general manager/coach in 2019, fans and media alike wrote in ink his team wouldn’t be a threat to the upper echelon of the league. Chicago had a rising star in Diamond DeShields and a formidable backcourt in Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley but the Sky went 13-21 the previous year. The question beckoned: how far could a first-year head coach in the WNBA take a bottom-10 team to the next level with virtually the same core?

The Sky responded to their skeptics with a 20-14 record, finishing the year with the second-best offensive rating in the WNBA. On a deeper level, the culture Wade had cultivated in his first months in Chicago had extended to his players on the court. The enthusiasm and connectivity the team lacked in 2018 suddenly became a franchise staple. Whether it was winning, losing or light-hearted sparring with the media, Wade’s Sky was going to steer the rudder as one unit.

Chicago was eventually bounced in the second round of the playoffs after the infamous “Hamby Heave” sent it home but Wade led his team to what many believed would be unchartered postseason territory for Chicago heading into the season.

“It hurt because it was our first time (in the playoffs) and I got the players to believe,” Wade said before the 2021 Finals. “We knew in our hearts that we were going to beat Vegas, but it didn’t work out and I felt like I let them down.”

Fast forward to now and Wade is back in the same position he was in four years ago: getting his team to believe in itself when others won’t.

This past offseason, the organization watched its championship-contending nucleus come apart after Vandersloot, Quigley, Candace Parker, Emma Meesseman and Azurá Stevens departed from the Sky. Most thought Chicago would pivot into rebuild mode but Wade, to put it in his words, was not “f***ing planning on losing.” The option of piecing together a superstar-laden roster wasn’t on the table like it had been the past two seasons. The front office needed to dig deeper and what it unearthed was a desire to return to the roots Wade used to rejuvenate the franchise at the top of his Chicago Sky tenure. 

The 2023 free agency class was full of players who fit the “us versus the rest of the world” mentality Chicago has operated under since 2019. The Sky inked Isabelle Harrison and Elizabeth Williams on two-year deals after both were underutilized in their previous stops in the WNBA. The team also took a gamble on Alanna Smith, who hasn’t found her footing in the league since being drafted in 2019, with the hope she can translate her success in Poland back over to the United States. Chicago doubled down on its championship ambitions by executing a four-team trade to acquire Marina Mabrey that included the Sky sending out the most first-round picks in WNBA history

The Sky’s recent additions to the team paired with players like Kahleah Copper, Courtney Williams, Dana Evans and Rebekah Gardner, all of whom have been overlooked at some point during their careers, has resulted in the fabric of the 2019 Sky being weaved into the 2023 iteration of the team.

“A lot of similarities,” Wade said when asked about the parallels of the 2019 roster compared to his current one. “It’s a new energy, a new offense for players that just came in. I had a couple of relationships that could help the buy-in of the new players in 2019 and it is the same thing here with (my) relationships with Ruthy (Hebard), (Kahleah Copper) and Dana (Evans).

“I was really confident we could win a championship (in 2019) and I still have that same confidence. I think what helped it out is that we won in 2017 (when Wade was an assistant with the Minnesota Lynx) and I was a part of that and I was a part of the one here in 2021 which was two years prior so I have the same confidence. It’s a good energy.” 

Make no mistake: the stakes could not be higher for the Chicago Sky this season. Copper has one year remaining on her current deal and will have the chance to test free agency next summer. The uncertainty of her future in Chicago paired with the lack of draft capital the team has going into 2024 could alter the franchise for years to come. The team (rightfully) isn’t pondering that scenario at this moment but the WNBA’s second tier is as deep as its ever been. The months-long kerfuffle over the construction of super teams overshadowed the fact there will be multiple talented rosters who won’t be a part of this year’s postseason. No win will come easy night-to-night.

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That type of league-wide chaos might feed into the Sky’s identity like it did in 2019. That year, Chicago played in a league-high 23 clutch games and only outscored opponents by 27 points, per the league’s website. Their defensive shortcomings that season forced them to grind out every possession (only the 10-24 Liberty gave up more first-chance points) but their belief in one another as a united group pushed them over the edge in close matchups. 

The Chicago Sky will need more of the same in 2023 if they want to fulfill their championship aspirations. However, it’ll be the defense that dictates how far this team can go. In its second preseason game, Chicago’s defensive activity overwhelmed a young Fever team by turning 24 turnovers into 25 points on the other end. Expect more of that same formula in 2023. With a relatively thin front court, Chicago’s path to success is going to come by agitating opposing back courts with aggressive hedging and maximizing the brutality all of the Sky’s guards play with. Theoretically, on the other end, this group will feast on opponents in the open court. 12.7% of Chicago’s points came in the fast break in 2019 which was the second-highest in the league. That number could skyrocket, if you will, in 2023. 

The degree of peskiness the Chicago Sky will be able to play with on the perimeter will be in control of the team’s x-factor this season: Elizabeth Williams. Losing Parker, Meesseman and Stevens was a devastating blow to the team’s rim protection but Williams is no stranger to erasing shots in the restricted area. Out of all players who have averaged over 25 minutes per game in their career, Williams has the third-highest block rate in WNBA history. She is currently in concussion protocol after hitting the floor hard against the Fever but she has flown under the radar as an elite defensive playmaker. When she returns to full health, Chicago is going to make opposing offenses work every night.

No matter how long Williams is out for, the Sky’s familiar edge will be on display. The early returns of WNBA power rankings have the Sky firmly planted at the bottom of the standings. The focus has been about what the team has lost versus what they have now – which is a potential MVP candidate in Copper, a level-upped Dana Evans, and a cast of players looking to prove their doubters wrong.

It’s familiar territory (just ask James Wade).

“I feel like we’ve got a really good team, contrary to popular belief,” Wade told The Next after this year’s draft. “This is probably the most excited that I’ve been in the five years that I’ve been here.”

Written by James Kay

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