Ever had an itch so annoying that scratching only made it worse?
Such was the dilemma in the offseason at the Chicago Sky's Kinzie Street headquarters. After seven years as a WNBA franchise, despite the highest average increase in attendance last season (29%) playing at Allstate Arena, the Chicago Sky comes into the 2012 season holding a distinction the size of an itchy New Orleans Hornets' bite:
The Sky are the the only WNBA team to have not made the playoffs any season in their existence. And this includes teams like the Atlanta Dream, who went from one win its first season to twice the WNBA Finals runner-up.
The buzz on the Sky's blogsites and message boards were clear: the team's disappointing fourth place finish in the Eastern Conference in 2011 and not making the playoffs again, despite a roster that included three All-Stars: Sylvia Fowles, Epiphanny Prince and rookie Courtney Vandersloot, were unacceptable to the Sky faithful. And the Sky's Head Coach and General Manager, Pokey Chatman made a decision that she hopes will change their course. Despite the roster of talent, and three previous coaches before Chatman, they'd never really had any one with championship experience on their team. No one who could step high, play defense consistently, and most importantly, close out games. And so they went "all in," forsaking a #2 overall pick for WNBA champions.
Earlier this year, as we reported, the Sky traded its first round pick in the 2012 draft to the Seattle Storm in exchange for WNBA championforwards Swin Cash and Le’coe Willingham. They added more depth the lineup with center Ruth Riley, guard Ticha Penicheiro, Serbian forward Sonja Petrovic and former DePaul standout forward Felicia Chester-Wooton.
Picking in the second and third rounds at #23 and #27, the Sky drafted young and defensive, filling another longtime gap, with Shey Peddy of Temple University and Sydney Carter of Texas A&M University.
Peddy, a 5-foot 7-inch guard, was the 2011-12 Atlantic 10 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. She set the Owls single-season record for steals last season with 104 and helped guide Temple to a 23-10 record and a WNIT berth. Named the Owl’s MVP in her senior season, she averaged 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game
Carter, a 5-foot 6-inch guard, was a three-time co-captain for the Aggies, 2011-12 Big 12 All-Defensive Team member and named to the All-Big 12 Second Team. In 2010-2011, she was named the NCAA Dallas Regional Most Outstanding Player en route to Texas A&M winning their first national championship. Carter was also selected for the 2008-09 Big 12 All-Freshman Team.
"I feel we were able to get a couple of quality players with our picks,” said Chatman. “Shey’s dominated both sides of the ball, as she was the Atlantic 10's Player of the Year, as well as the Defensive Player of the Year.
"Sydney's that combo guard that will get after you defensively and knock down tough shots," Chatman continued. "The bonus for me is that both come from very good programs and have received top-notch coaching, which will benefit their transition to this level.”
What message does the Sky send to the league with its roster moves? "It shows a commitment to all the other teams in the league, to the players in the league, to the free agents that are out there and college players that (owner) Michael Alter and this organization is very, very serious about winning championships here in Chicago, " Assistant Coach Jeff House said, "And that’s what Pokey Chatman has a history of doing, that’s what she came here to do and being able to put the pieces around somebody like Sylvia, you know again, arguably one of the finest post players in the world sends a message that will trigger other players that are free agents in the next couple years or college players that would love to play with a Sylvia Fowles or would love to play with a Courtney Vandersloot"
The Sky opens training camp on April 29. On May 10, they host a special exhibition game with the Washington Mystics at New Trier High School in Winnetka, home of the Trevians. Last year, the Sky drafted former Trevian star Amy Jaeschke; she did not make the Sky's final roster, but made history as the first Northwestern University women's basketball player drafted into the WNBA.
Chicago’s home opener is on Friday, May 25 versus the Indiana Fever at Allstate Arena.
With the talent roster in place, it's up to Chatman to manage the new, bright Sky. To me, it's something like the challenge the Bulls' Phil Jackson faced as the coach worked to meld personalities, chemistry, and competing styles together. Chatman has never reminded me of the ZenMaster. Maybe...closer to Tom Thibodeau? She coaches year-round, she never seems to sleep, and focuses teams on improving its defense. She hasn't ever talked about a family or a personal life.
Yep, Thibs would be the right comparison.
However, Chatman might want to do some Zen meditation and channeling Minnesota Lynx, the second most hapless team in the WNBA before striking championship gold last year.
The Lynx's painful, thwarted road to the WNBA Championship took 13 years. For all the years of struggle: losing seasons, including a record-setting 20 losses in 2006, four head coaches and frustrated number-one draft picks (Lindsey Harding, 2008, Seimone Augustus, 2006). However, with the addition of 2011 #1 pick Maya Moore, out of UConn, the Lynx finally had all the pieces together: four All-Stars on one of the deepest player-for-player rosters in league history, including Moore, Augustus, Candace Wiggins and Rebekkah Brunson, The Lynx entered The Finals as the favorite, beat San Antonio 2-1 in the first round, then swept the Phoenix Mercury in the West Finals. They completed a dream season at the Target Center by sweeping the pesky Dream in WNBA Finals last September.
The Dream came into the Finals as a hot, but very dangerous squad. On the strength of All-Star Angel McCoughtry, former Lynx draftee Harding, and starting center Erika Souza, the Dream's second-leading scorer at 11.6 points a game, The Eastern Conference Champions finished the regular season on an 11-3 tear before upsetting the Connecticut Sun and the top-seeded Indiana Fever en route to the Finals.
In this scenario, there's Fowles, long the face of the Sky's franchise, who just received a multiyear contract, and Cash, the veteran face of the Seattle Storm.
Is there trouble already?
Fowles, after all, referred to Cash as a "diva/devil" on the phone at the draft. "I don't think it's going to be hard to get along with Swin," said the newly re-signed Fowles by phone, "Even though she is like a diva/devil, if you go in and do the work, and do what you have to do, she won't have any problem."
The 6-6 Fowles from LSU has accomplished much in her short WNBA career, A three-time All-Star, she is the Sky's all-time leader in scoring average (15.9), rebounds (1,000) blocks (227), and field goal percentage (57.9%). She reigns as 2011's Defensive Player of the Year.
Adam Fox, the team's President and General Manager, said it best when summing up what a 2012 playoff run would mean:
" A playoff berth is the next step in the validation of our franchise." Fox said after last season. "We are starting to see rapid growth in our attendance, which is validating for us to see that the message is starting to get through.
Fox took a breath and continued. "People are starting to become fans of what we do. I think to be able to deliver the playoffs, you can go from being a four seed to the championship round rather quickly, it means quite a bit."
"People want to support successful teams and one of the measures of the many that there are for a sports team is how successful they are competing for a championship."
With the players, coaching staff, and Sky faithful all on the same page and committed to winning a playoff berth, what can the season offer fans?
Ahhhhh.. blessed relief.