July 19, 2022 

Why James Wade has already captured the Executive of the Year award

Offseason moves paying dividends for Chicago's present and future

Don’t ask the Chicago Sky about their championship hopes. In fact, if the word “expectations” is muttered in any conversation with a member in the organization, it is met with the recycled answer about taking one day at a time. However, forward Kahleah Copper momentarily dropped the franchise’s diplomatic approach discussing its success during all-star weekend.

“I want to just rewind to free agency,” Copper said at a press conference on July 9. “We won free agency. When I heard that we were getting Emma, I’m like, ‘Are y’all really letting us have her?’ Is this okay?’ We’re like a super team.”

It’s hard to argue against Copper’s midseason assessment. The Sky stand in first place with a 19-6 record and are playing like an early favorite to win the WNBA Finals. Looking at where the team was heading into free agency, this torrid 25-game stretch wasn’t a given. The maneuvering Sky head coach/general manager James Wade and his front office had to pull off to get this group to fit into the team’s cap room and culture didn’t seem possible at the infancy of free agency. They somehow put the puzzle pieces together and it’s becoming more apparent with each game; Wade is going to add a 2022 Executive of the Year award next to his 2019 Coach of the Year trophy.

Wade’s case for EOY honors starts with this past offseason. The Sky came off their first WNBA championship with many questions to answer. Only Candace Parker, Azurá Stevens, Dana Evans and Ruthy Hebard were signed through the 2022 season. Copper, Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, Stefanie Dolson and Diamond DeShields (among others) were all heading into free agency representing Chicago’s core from the year before. There was cap space to play with, but Wade had to be creative with his roster construction to be back in the same contending position as last year.

Chicago’s front office put together a masterclass on how to balance short-term championship goals without completely mortgaging the future. Here’s a list of moves they pulled off this offseason:

  • Applied the core designation to Kahleah Copper; re-signed her to a two-year, $405,000 deal
  • Traded RFA DeShields, 2020 No. 7 pick, 2023 first-round pick for Julie Allemand and Phoenix’s 2023 first-round pick
  • Re-signed Allie Quigley to a one-year, $135,000 deal
  • Re-signed Courtney Vandersloot to a one-year, $195,000 deal
  • Signed Emma Meesseman to a one-year, $185,000 deal
  • Signed Rebekah Gardner to a one-year, $60,471 contract
  • Traded RFA Lexie Brown for the rights to Li Yueru

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All of the talk coming out of the offseason gravitated towards the Los Angeles Sparks and Phoenix Mercury putting together “super teams,” but Chicago quietly assembled the most cohesive roster in the league. It retained Copper, Vandersloot and Quigley by convincing them to take less than their market value (in Quigley’s case, a $59,000 difference between her 2021 and 2022 salaries). That trio agreeing to take pay cuts gave Wade enough financial flexibility to land a third WNBA finals MVP in Meesseman. The size, speed and stretchability of a team featuring Vandersloot, Quigley, Copper, Parker and Meesseman doesn’t converge without everyone buying in to what Wade has built over the last four years in Chicago.

“That’s going to be a tough group to battle against in a series,” one WNBA player said about the Sky over the all-star weekend. “Our mindset is that we can beat anyone, but [the Sky] did a good job putting that team together. Hats off to them.”

What looked tantalizing on paper translated to the court almost immediately. In 247 minutes on the floor together this year, a Vandersloot-Quigley-Copper-Parker-Meesseman lineup has a 13.6 net rating which is third in the league among lineups that have logged at least 100 minutes. In the fourth quarter this season, that number jumps to a ludicrous 21.3. It doesn’t matter what opponents have thrown at them: no team has found a true answer for Chicago’s closing five. Wade’s motion offense has puzzled teams, given there is no focal point in the offense. As guileless as it sounds, those five have found success keeping the ball moving until there is an open shot, a reoccurring sentiment at most Sky press conferences.

“On any given day, it can be anybody’s night,” Parker said on June 29. “We realized that stats are stats, but there’s weighted stats. There’s value in what we do consistently across the board. Even though the stats say, ‘This is what this person averages,’ we know any one of us are capable of stepping onto the court and carry us offensively.”

Wade’s case doesn’t solely rely on the production from his starting/closing five. The additions of Allemand, Gardner and Yueru along with acquiring Mercury’s 2023 first-round pick, put him in front of the rest of the pack.

Many people questioned Wade’s thinking when he guaranteed Gardner a spot on his championship roster. The 31-year-old went undrafted out of UCLA a decade ago and hadn’t played a second in the WNBA until this season. Wade, who lives in Southern France in the offseason, watched Gardner a few times this past offseason in Europe before inking her to the veteran’s minimum ($60,471). It turned out to be a steal and Gardner is looking like she could end up on an All-WNBA defensive team. Opponents are only making 27.7% of their jump shots when up against Gardner, according to Synergy Sports Tech. Wade has trusted her going up against some of the best guards in the league deep into games. She has proven to be a dream fit in Chicago after the free agency pool for affordable, athletic wings was shallow.

The Sky’s roster was built to win this year, but Wade was able to lay down building blocks for the organization’s future. He landed the rights to Allemand and the Mercury’s first-round pick despite having little leverage in negotiations given DeShields’ restricted free agent status. Allemand told The Next she is happy learning under Vandersloot this season and knew what her role would be. However, she could very well be the franchise’s future point guard whenever Vandersloot decides to move forward with her life post-Chicago Sky. Wade did the same with Yueru, who he landed when the Sky shipped Lexie Brown (also an RFA) to the Sparks. Yueru brings the physicality the Sky lost with Dolson and Astou Ndour-Fall‘s absences this season and signed a rookie-scale contract to keep her in Chicago through 2025. She can help them now in short spurts and later down the road when the frontcourt isn’t as clogged with all-star level talent.

If none of these moves convinced the voters to give Wade EOY, then maybe acquiring the Mercury’s first-round pick will. Phoenix has underperformed without Brittney Griner and took another hit when Tina Charles and the team decided to part ways. Since then, the team has started to plummet in the standings, with the road ahead being just as arduous as the one before it.

Phoenix’s remaining schedule

  • Storm (July 22)
  • Sparks (July 28)
  • @ Liberty (July 31)
  • @ Sun (Aug. 2)
  • @ Sun (Aug. 4)
  • Liberty (Aug. 6)
  • Lynx (Aug. 10)
  • Wings (Aug. 12)
  • Sky (Aug. 14)

The ninth-place Mercury only have a half-game on the Liberty and one game on the Lynx. There’s a world that exists where Wade landed a future lottery pick while also leading his team to its second championship in as many years.

There are plenty of award discussions to be had, but the executive of the year is Wade’s in 2022. There aren’t a lot of cases to be made on behalf of the other front offices either. The Aces, Storm and Sun essentially ran back the same teams they had before. Washington’s move to trade down for Shakira Austin and picks along with adding Elizabeth Williams puts Mike Thibault in the conversation, but his case probably gets drowned out by the Sky adding more talent than the Mystics this year. Every other team is below .500 at this moment.

There was a time when Wade was criticized as someone who couldn’t handle front office and on-court duties. He has wiped that narrative away with what could be one of the best roster constructions in league history if his team can make it to the promised land again. Even if the Sky don’t win this year’s finals, Wade deserves the nod for EOY.

Written by James Kay

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