PG: Ticha Penicheiro/Courtney Vandersloot
SG: Epiphanny Prince/Shay Murphy
SF: Swin Cash/Tamera Young/Sonja Petrovic
PF: Ruth Riley/Le’coe Willingham
C: Sylvia Fowles/Carolyn Swords
Significant additions: Cash and Willingham (trade with Seattle), Penicheiro (free agency from Los Angeles), Riley (free agency from San Antonio), Petrovic (trade with San Antonio)
Significant losses: Michelle Snow (free agency to Washington), Erin Thorn (free agency to Minnesota), Cathrine Kraayeveld (free agency to Atlanta), Dominique Canty (free agency to Washington).
Big changes in Chicago, as head coach/GM Pokey Chatman proved that you can get a lot done in the offseason even when you’re in Russia coaching a different team at the time. In her first year in charge last season, the Sky were ultimately just as mediocre as they’ve been for their previous four season, and missed the playoffs yet again. The endless turnovers and poorly chosen shots drove Chatman nuts, so she’s kept her young backcourt and a couple of backups – along with, of course, superstar center Sylvia Fowles – and brought in a swathe of veterans with winning pedigrees to build around them. It’s a gameplan that makes a lot of sense, and has many people predicting big things for the Sky in 2012. At the very least, the Sky will be hoping to finally make their debut appearance in the WNBA postseason.
Before examining all the shiny new parts, let’s take a look at the important pieces still in town from last year’s squad. Fowles remains the key component to everything this team will ultimately accomplish. Last year’s WNBA Defensive Player of the Year – finally wrestling the title away from Tamika Catchings – Fowles is a force at both ends of the floor, but especially in protecting the basket. She changes the mode of attack for opposition teams because any penetration into the paint is always liable to be met by one of her long arms contesting the attempt. On offense she’ll score efficiently – if they can just get her the ball. Too many times last season (and in years past under other coaches), her teammates seemed to forget she was out there, and the ball never went anywhere near her for multiple possessions. While some of that is down to the team and the coaching, some of it is Fowles herself. She needs to deposit herself on the block and demand the ball a little more than she has in the past, and she’ll immediately be a contender for MVP.
Also returning this season is the Sky’s ‘backcourt of the future’, which fans will be hoping becomes a little bit more of a success in the present than they managed in 2011. Epiphanny Prince flatters to deceive at times. She can be an electric scorer, reminiscent of fellow Rutgers grad Cappie Pondexter, but far more often she forces bad shots that have little chance of dropping. Hopefully this season, on a team with more legitimate scoring and creative options alongside her, she can improve her decision-making and hence become far more efficient. She’ll likely never be near Pondexter’s level, but the raw talent is there to improve from what we’ve seen so far in the WNBA. After a stand-out college career at Gonzaga, point guard Courtney Vandersloot had a difficult rookie season. She had some trouble adapting to the speed of the WNBA game, and turned the ball over far too often and too cheaply. Chatman responded by constantly jerking her in and out of games, which only seemed to make the problems worse. With the perfect veteran now acquired to learn from, hopefully Sloot can take a big step forward in her second year as a pro, and harness that flash and entertainment we’ve seen from her in the past into a more solid, rounded game.
The first big move of Chicago’s offseason was a trade with Seattle that gave up the #2 pick in the draft for Swin Cash and Le’coe Willingham. In a draft that many saw as Nneka-and-the-rest, picking up two proven veterans rather than adding yet another kid currently looks a savvy move. Cash didn’t have the greatest of seasons in 2011, and her three-point shooting in particular came crashing back to Earth after her exploits in 2010, but all she does is win. A big wing player who can switch down and defends 4s when necessary, Cash gives the Sky a type of player that they’ve essentially never had. She knows how to play a complimentary role, and will do the dirty work to win games, but isn’t afraid to step up and take the big shot when necessary. Willingham has built herself into an excellent WNBA role player. She’s a little undersized for a post, but she’s a solid backup who’ll come in and work hard, and the team won’t miss a beat with her on the floor spelling the starters. In 18 combined seasons in the WNBA, teams featuring Cash and Willingham have only missed the playoffs twice. For a team desperate to make the postseason, they have to like those numbers.
After the big trade, Chatman went shopping for further experience in free agency. Michelle Snow went to Washington as a free agent, but Chatman retained the ‘twin tower’ potential for her frontcourt by adding Ruth Riley instead. Riley hasn’t exactly been exciting anyone with her play in San Antonio in recent years, but she’s a solid veteran who knows how to play her role. She’ll set screens, help fill the lane defensively, and stretch the defense a little with the occasional mid-range jumper. Also, with Fowles out there most of the time, her dubious rebounding for someone her size shouldn’t be as big a negative as it was with the Silver Stars. Joining her on the squad is legendary point guard Ticha Penicheiro, playing her first WNBA season for a team outside of California. Ticha can’t really shoot and doesn’t really want to, we all know this by now – although the ridiculous heights of 49% shooting last season suggest she’s worked on it – but she certainly knows how to run a team. She’ll get the ball where it needs to be, and when Chatman wants a ‘coach on the floor’ she now has the perfect person to turn to. Vandersloot, Dominique Canty and Erin Thorn did their best last year, but you feel that Chatman will have more confidence in Penicheiro to run things without constantly micromanaging.
The rest of the squad is rounded out by a few returnees and a little international potential. Tamera Young and Shay Murphy return as perimeter backups, and in that role both can do a job. Murphy is quick and aggressive offensively, while Young’s length for a perimeter player can come in handy. Carolyn Swords returns as a big body in the post, and can provide some spot minutes for Fowles and Riley when necessary. The wild card is Serbian import Sonja Petrovic, a young forward who’s played for Chatman in Russia. She broke a finger and had to have surgery, which means she’ll miss the opening games of the season, but when she returns it’ll be interesting to see how she adapts to the WNBA game. Still only 23, Petrovic isn’t a star in Europe yet, but she’s a solid complimentary wing with some skills (also used by Chatman as a power forward in emergencies, but that’ll be rare on this squad).
Summary and Outlook
This team definitely looks better prepared for the upcoming season than they have in the past. Chatman has made them a lot older very quickly, which brings with it greater immediate expectations, but also a far greater chance of finally achieving something. Cash gives them someone they can rely on for heavy minutes at small forward without having to manage that spot as they have in previous seasons, and Penicheiro should give Vandersloot more of a comfort level to try to relax and play her game. They don’t have a lot of reliable outside shooting, but with Fowles drawing constant double and triple-teams, they should have enough to survive. The only real question is whether Chatman can pull all these pieces together. Despite her strong reputation in college and a lot of success overseas – although invariably with teams that have had a surfeit of talent – this team was kind of a mess last season. She’s had a year now to put the pieces in place that she wants on the squad, not just the players handed to her. If she can mould this group into a cohesive unit – and Fowles stays healthy through 34 games – surely the playoffs finally beckon. If they really play to their full potential, they might even make some noise once they get there.