Epiphanny Prince/Tamera Young/Allie Quigley/Aaryn Ellenberg/Jamierra Faulkner
Elena Delle Donne/Courtney Clements
Jessica Breland/Gennifer Brandon
Sylvia Fowles/Sasha Goodlett/Markeisha Gatling
subtract Faulkner, Ellenberg, Clements or Brandon whenever Prince shows up (or possibly by the end of today, depending on how they go about things)
Significant additions: Breland, and they hope Gatling and/or Goodlett
Significant losses: Fowles for a while to start the season, a little bit of Prince for undisclosed reasons, Swin Cash, Carolyn Swords, Shay Murphy, sense of optimism
Last year was meant to be the breakthrough for the Chicago Sky. After years in the doldrums, the arrival of Elena Delle Donne was like a ray of sunshine brushing away the clouds. They finally forced their way to the top of the Eastern Conference, and made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. They were summarily dumped out in the first round by Indiana, which was a disappointing finish after such a strong regular season, but it still felt like they’d taken strides forwards. It’s kind of a shame that the offseason hasn’t managed to carry that positivity through to 2014.
After her season in China, franchise center Sylvia Fowles came home and had arthroscopic surgery on her hip to repair a torn labrum and impingement. The Sky kept it quiet for weeks, and once they released the information have been reluctant to put a date on when she might return. Somewhere in the middle of the season is about as good of an estimate as any of us can come up with. She said ‘soon’ in a recent interview, but that could mean anything as well. The absence of Fowles changes everything for this franchise. Delle Donne might’ve been the final piece that helped them break through, but Fowles was the bedrock that they were built on, especially defensively. She filled the lane and covered for mistakes made elsewhere, while also providing efficient scoring in the paint whenever her teammates could actually get her the ball. They need her back, and they need her back soon.
They also lost another frontcourt piece due to the Swin Cash saga, which again complicates their defense more than anything else. The plan in virtually every game last year was for Fowles to take the primary low post threat, put Cash on the most dangerous forward, and then Delle Donne could hide as much as possible on whoever was left. With Cash gone and Fowles out for an indeterminate period, Delle Donne’s going to have to work much harder defensively, even regardless of the extra scoring load Fowles’s absence will place on her shoulders.
To top off the ugly offseason, scoring guard Epiphanny Prince hasn’t been in camp due to undisclosed personal reasons. A story that emerged on Wednesday stated that she’d be with the team sometime in the next couple of weeks, which is soon enough to not be a particularly big deal, as long as it proves to be true. She didn’t have a great season at all last year, despite all the attention drawn by Fowles and Delle Donne, but she can still be an electric scorer and the Sky need her on the floor as Delle Donne’s second-banana to help drive the offense. Pokey Chatman’s schemes to feed Fowles in the post have typically ground the Sky offense to a halt in previous years, so maybe they’ll actually loosen up a bit without her in the paint. But you still need as much talent as possible elsewhere to put the ball in the basket. Delle Donne can’t do it all on her own.
Now let’s switch to the good news. This is a team that won 24 games last season. Delle Donne’s combination of size, coordination and simple pure scoring ability from anywhere on the floor was already scary when she was a rookie. After an offseason training regime that apparently has her significantly stronger for her second year, she should only be more dangerous. Point guard Courtney Vandersloot was noticeably improved last season, taking better care of the ball, being dragged off the floor by Chatman far less frequently, and providing much better defense on primary ballhandlers. If Fowles returns in one piece, and Prince shows up at some point ready to play, this team still has a talented core that can compete with anyone and win games.
Assisting those stars are a couple of decent pieces that can help fill in for the departed Cash. The likely starter is Jessica Breland, a power forward who looked pretty useful in her return to the WNBA with Indiana last year. She’s a cancer survivor from her days in college, and since then there have always been some questions about her stamina if she’s asked to play significant minutes, but she can definitely help this team with her mobility and activity at the 4. Tamera Young is the perimeter option if they wanted to go smaller (Delle Donne could play small or power forward, depending on how they want to set up). She’s an inconsistent offensive player, but a decent defender who’ll produce the occasional flash of scoring. Allie Quigley is back as well, a shooter who can score in bunches on the right night. Chatman asked her to backup Vandersloot at the point at times last season, which is never a good idea, but as a gunner off the bench Quigley can sometimes be useful.
The problem is, those are the good options helping out Chicago’s stars. This team’s bench is so full of holes, unknowns, question marks and second chancers it’s hard to know where to begin. Trying to fill in for Fowles until she gets back is likely to be some combination of Sasha Goodlett and rookie Markeisha Gatling. Goodlett was dumped by Indiana last year after a second season where she actually regressed from an unimpressive rookie year. Reportedly she’s in better shape now, but it’s a case of ‘see it before we believe it’ with her at this point. Gatling is a similarly big-bodied post who went with the 10th pick in this year’s draft, a selection practically forced on Chatman by Fowles’s injury and the lack of alternatives. They’re going to need at least one of those two to step up while they wait anxiously for Big Syl to get back.
The remaining backups are whoever sticks around from Courtney Clements (a gunner who does nothing but shoot, and only hit one-in-five last season when she bizarrely lasted the whole year in Atlanta) and rookies Aaryn Ellenberg, Jamierra Faulkner and Gennifer Brandon. There’s always the chance that one or more of these kids turns out to be a diamond in the rough, but you never want to be going into a season with so many unproven pieces on your roster, especially when your key players are picking up injuries or showing up late.
So it’s not been the best offseason for Pokey Chatman the GM, and Pokey Chatman the head coach is going to have more work to do this season with Fowles’s injury, Prince’s late arrival and very limited depth. While Chatman’s typically built solid defenses, we’ll now find out how much of that was simply down to having Fowles as the anchor. And at the offensive end, some kind of development on the stilted mess – heavily dependent on the raw individual talent of the team’s stars – that we’ve seen in previous years is necessary. Also, for a former point guard who’s always jerked her point guards around whenever they make a mistake or two, she’s contrived a roster that basically doesn’t have a backup for Vandersloot. Prince can do it, once she’s there, but they tried to keep her away from that job last year so she could focus on scoring. They might not have any choice this year, once Quigley fails to work there again.
This has largely sounded very negative, which is unfortunate because this can still be a very, very good team once they’re back in one piece. By the end of the season, if they’re healthy, they could be a threat to anyone in the playoffs. Especially if someone’s shown up to help out their depth, either coming through the group currently on their bench or cropping up on the waiver wire. But repeating last year’s 24 wins is probably optimistic after the way the offseason’s gone – unless Delle Donne’s somehow markedly improved on the near-MVP candidate she was as a rookie. If that’s the case, all bets could be off, and it could be a hell of a ride.