2016 WNBA season recap: Chicago Sky

FILE - In this May 5, 2016, file photo, Chicago Sky's Elena Delle Donne dribbles the ball up court during the first half of a WNBA basketball game agains the Atlanta Dream in Uncasville, Conn. Candace Parker and the Los Angeles Sparks prepare to play Elena delle Donne and the Chicago Sky in the Western Conference finals. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)
AP Photo/Jessica Hill

2016 Regular-Season Record: 18-16 (second in Eastern Conference)

Postseason: Defeated Atlanta Dream in second round, Lost to Los Angeles Sparks 3-0 in WNBA Semifinals

Ever since Elena Delle Donne’s arrival in Chicago, the Sky have been a threat, experiencing more success in those three seasons than in the previous seven combined. The team’s run to the 2014 Finals and Delle Donne’s subsequent MVP campaign stand out, along with back-to-back Sixth Woman of the Year honors for shooting guard Allie Quigley and a general increased level of respect for the franchise both on and off the court.

2016 was a season full of twists and turns for Chicago. They struggled out of the gate, losing four straight games in May as head coach and general manager Pokey Chatman implored them to play better defense. They were still lacking much of a frontcourt presence, and the pace at which they played meant that if Chicago wasn’t getting buckets on one end, they were likely giving them up on the other.

Chatman was well aware of this deficiency and drafted Texas center Imani Boyette to shore things up on the interior, but as Boyette learned to play at the WNBA level, it was Chicago’s point guard tandem that kept them afloat. The league had known of Courtney Vandersloot’s excellence for years now, and backup Jamierra Faulkner exploded onto the scene in 2016, leading the WNBA in AST% and ensuring that the Sky missed very little as Vandersloot struggled with injuries.

Even so, the Sky were mediocre through the Olympic break. Delle Donne was her usual dominant self — even more so than in 2015, in fact — but the individual numbers weren’t translating into victories. A post-break injury for Chicago’s star meant they’d have to fight even harder to get their act together and make the playoffs.

Remarkably, they did. Chicago won seven of its 10 post-Olympic games (and three-of-four without Delle Donne) to secure a winning record and a first-round playoff bye. Just as the Sky had success with a small lineup last season, they were once again able to push the envelope and win high-scoring games; this time, without perhaps the best pure scorer in the game. Lineups with both Vandersloot and Faulkner (and Boyette, who had snagged the starting center role) put on a passing clinic, showing growth for all players involved and the team proving once again they were much more than one player.

Unfortunately for the Sky, they ran into the buzzsaw that was the LA Sparks in the WNBA Semifinals. With Delle Donne shelved for the remainder of the season, they just didn’t have enough firepower to beat the star-studded Sparks in a five-game series.

Ultimately, it was once again Chicago’s poor defense that would be the downfall: the Sky finished 11th of the 12 WNBA teams in points allowed per 100 possessions, falling well short of Chatman’s top-five goal in team defense. On a final low note, the Sky chose to let Chatman go as both coach and general manager, ending a season of highs and lows with a gaping hole in the team’s basketball operations.

Biggest need heading into 2017: Coaching and Front Office

Okay, so this may go without saying, but it’s been over a month now and Chicago still hasn’t found a replacement for Chatman at either head coach or GM. This could be expected from a team that has been in the dumps for a while (the San Antonio Stars, for instance, are taking their sweet time looking for candidates to lead their rebuild), but this isn’t your Sky of old. The franchise has finally established itself as a contender, making four straight playoff appearances after years and years of futility. Unexpected firings usually suggest that a team has something better in mind. This clearly isn’t the case in Chicago.

This begs the question: exactly what direction are the Chicago Sky headed? They’ve shed the label of perennial lottery team, sure, but in every season since, they’ve been outclassed in the postseason by teams that have just been better. What is required for the Sky to get past that level, and who will guide them there?

Oh, and Delle Donne still hasn’t re-signed. They might want to get that taken care of, too.

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