2016 WNBA Team Previews: Chicago Sky

 

PG: Courtney Vandersloot/Jamierra Faulkner

SG: Cappie Pondexter/Allie Quigley

SF: Elena Delle Donne/Tamera Young/Betnijah Laney

PF: Jessica Breland/Cheyenne Parker

C: Erika de Souza/Imani Boyette/Clarissa Dos Santos

Guard Yvonne Turner is still in camp, but seems unlikely to beat out any of the 12 above.


Significant additions
: Boyette, they hope. That’s literally it.

Significant losses: Also virtually nothing. This is a rinse-and-repeat squad, hoping for internal growth and a little more luck than last year.


Overview

The Sky haven’t changed much from last year because they didn’t feel like they had to. And that’s understandable. Elena Delle Donne made that extra leap from star to MVP, stayed largely healthy over the course of the season, and if that repeats they’ve got every chance to be one of the best teams in the league once again. Courtney Vandersloot has developed into one of the better point guards in the WNBA, both as the manager of Chicago’s offense and as a shooter willing to fire away when the opportunity presents itself. Cappie Pondexter fit in nicely last year as Delle Donne’s second-banana, looking happy to have the weight taken off her shoulders rather than annoyed at no longer being her team’s star. And when they need more perimeter scoring, Allie Quigley’s still there coming off the bench.

The questions for Chicago come on the interior, and at the defensive end. Delle Donne will play plenty of power forward, so they don’t need 80 minutes from their collection of posts, but they do need some modicum of rim protection and an attention to detail that was lacking at times last year. They don’t have the distraction of Sylvia Fowles’s holdout hanging over their heads this year, but they also don’t have anything resembling the interior presence she used to provide. Erika de Souza is back, but looked a shadow of her former self even before being acquired by the Sky midway through last season. Jessica Breland offers some range with her elbow jumper and some hard-nosed play at the 4, but in some ways is an awkward fit with Delle Donne. The superstar’s most effective position, at both ends of the floor, is probably also power forward, so matching up the defensive assignments can be awkward with Delle Donne, Breland and a big all on the floor. Beyond that, you’re hoping for the young bucks to step forward and demand time. Cheyenne Parker showed occasional flashes as a rookie, but little that looked deserving of being the #5 overall pick. Boyette is long and athletic, but looked raw even in college. As in various previous years, Pokey Chatman is going into the season not knowing quite what she’ll get from several pieces, and hoping they add up to enough to get the job done.

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2015 WNBA Season Previews: Chicago Sky

 

PG: Courtney Vandersloot/Jamierra Faulkner

SG: Cappie Pondexter/Allie Quigley/Jackie Gemelos

SF: Tamera Young/Betnijah Laney

PF: Elena Delle Donne/Jessica Breland/Clarissa dos Santos

C: Cheyenne Parker/Sasha Goodlett/Victoria Macaulay

 

Significant additions: Pondexter, and hopefully Parker.

Significant losses: Sylvia Fowles and Epiphanny Prince

 

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After the quiet of Atlanta, now we move on to the storm of Chicago. They’d already made one of the biggest transactions of the offseason, swapping shooting guards with New York to bring in Cappie Pondexter for Epiphanny Prince. Then around the draft news finally broke that star center Sylvia Fowles had asked for a trade, and wouldn’t be playing in the league at all unless her request was fulfilled. It later emerged that Minnesota appeared to be her desired destination. Sky head coach and general manager Pokey Chatman decided that she didn’t like any of the offers on the table for Fowles, and would rather let her sit on her couch and rot than trade her for whatever she could get. That leaves Chicago with a talented roster that still looks threatening, but a big hole in the middle and only question marks to fill it with.

 

First let’s start with the good news. That begins with Elena Delle Donne, who spent the entire offseason in the US rather than overseas like most of the rest of the league, and appears to have recovered from the various injuries she was fighting through by the end of last season. Her well-documented battles with Lyme disease always make her something of a health risk, but when she’s on the court she’s an unguardable offensive force who can score from anywhere and rack up points in a hurry. They’ll need her to take on a heavier load with Fowles out, but the offense may open up a little without a star post constantly demanding the ball down low. If she plays 34 games, Delle Donne in an MVP candidate.

 

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The Daily W, 09/14/2014: Even without Griner, Mercury sweep Sky away to take WNBA title

 

Phoenix Mercury 87 @ Chicago Sky 82

 

Lineups: The big news before tip-off was that Brittney Griner was out after an outpatient procedure on her right eye the day before. Missing the game was a precautionary measure advised by her doctors, and she would’ve likely been available for future games in the series. If Phoenix hadn’t been up 2-0 and utterly dominant so far in the series, they might’ve pushed the medical staff a little harder to clear her. Ewelina Kobryn came into the starting lineup to fill her spot, as the slightly bigger and more physical option ahead of Mistie Bass. Importantly, Kobryn is also a better defender than Bass, although obviously either was going to be a significant drop-off from Griner.

 

Story of the Game: In the previous two games, the teams had been closely matched during the minutes that Griner spent on the bench. So it was no surprise that we ended up with a tight contest while she watched from the sidelines. As you’d expect, the Sky looked to feed Sylvia Fowles in the paint early on. Kobryn did a decent job battling with her and playing the Griner-role guarding the pass on the pick-and-roll, but the basic gaps in size and athleticism between her and Griner made the passes and finishes easier for Chicago. That said, Fowles still missed some straightforward layups around the rim, and Kobryn was getting most of the points back at the other end with finishes over and around Fowles. Unfortunately for Phoenix, Kobryn picked up a cheap early foul, and then a desperately soft call added her second. She was back on the bench after barely five minutes of play.

 

The problem for Chicago was that while the absence of Griner had opened up some room for their offense, they still couldn’t stop the Mercury. A couple of early fouls for Tamera Young didn’t help, sending one of the Sky’s key defenders back to the bench, and Phoenix continued to score just as smoothly and easily as they had in the previous games. Kobryn and Bass had too much room to finish inside as Fowles continued to show hard on high screens without decent rotation help behind her. Diana Taurasi continued to shoot and score over Courtney Vandersloot whenever she felt like it. And as they’d done throughout the series, Phoenix attacked Elena Delle Donne with whoever she happened to be guarding. Delle Donne looked relatively mobile and healthy in this game on offense, joining Fowles as Chicago’s primary threats in the early stages. But her defense isn’t great to begin with, and with her back problems limiting her physically the Mercury have been exploiting her since Game 1. She started the game on DeWanna Bonner, slid over to Candice Dupree when Young sat down, and both scored with relative ease. The Sky were right in the contest, but they were doing no better defensively than in previous games.

 

Behind jump shots from Delle Donne and Allie Quigley, Chicago actually led midway through the second quarter, a rare occurrence in this series. But Phoenix responded through Candice Dupree, who carried most of their offense in the second period. Her regular display of smooth finishes inside and mid-range jump shots that dropped like layups kept the points rolling for Phoenix (and considering Young only had two fouls and had done a solid job defending Dupree whenever given the chance in this series, you’d have to ask Pokey Chatman to find out why Young never came back in during the second quarter to try to cool Dupree off). Fowles and Kobryn both came back in to resume their battle in the paint (and Kobryn picked up another foul when Fowles backed her under the rim), while Taurasi got a little too aggressive with her jumper and started forcing – and missing – a few. She scored consistently and often easily when defended by Vandersloot in this series, but when Chicago slid someone else over to cover her – even similarly small or weak defenders like Quigley or Epiphanny Prince – she wasn’t quite as successful. The Sky were only down by two at the break, which was a lot better than where they’d been at halftime in the previous games.

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The Daily W, 09/11/2014: Mercury on the brink of a title thanks to another dominant win over Sky

 

Chicago Sky 68 @ Phoenix Mercury 97

 

Lineups: The same fives that opened Game 1 came out for Game 2, so Elena Delle Donne was ready to play despite the problems with her back.

 

Story of the Game: There was an immediately obvious switch for the Sky from Game 1, with Tamera Young sliding over to guard Candice Dupree while Delle Donne tried to hide on DeWanna Bonner. It wasn’t the move to having Young guard Diana Taurasi that I’d been hoping for, but it at least made use of Young being on the floor. Of course, the hope for Chicago would’ve been that it put less stress on Delle Donne (and that she wouldn’t give up so many points defensively, after Dupree lit up the Sky in Game 1).

 

The energy and attack mentality of the Sky was a little better in the early stages than we’d seen for much of Game 1, but we also saw Sylvia Fowles blow yet more finishes around the rim under pressure from Brittney Griner, while Griner converted over or around Fowles at the other end. That was the same as 48 hours earlier. Then Fowles inadvertently took Griner out of the game for several minutes after catching her in the face with a swipe of her arm while fighting for a rebound. Griner was left lying on the court for several seconds while play continued, and went to the sidelines for treatment on a scratch near her right eye. Ewelina Kobryn was the choice to fill in, rather than Mistie Bass, due to her greater size and bulk to match up with Fowles.

 

Whether Griner was in the game or not, Chicago still weren’t particularly effective in running anything offensively, but they did have Delle Donne looking relatively mobile and hitting a couple of shots. Phoenix largely scored with the same regularity that they had in Game 1, with Bonner more aggressive in an effort to exploit Delle Donne’s defense. The Mercury were hurt by foul trouble for Taurasi, after she’d taken one intentionally to stop the game for Griner’s injury, then was called for a push-off after barely five minutes of action. But Chicago still weren’t exactly effective in slowing them down. By the end of the first quarter Phoenix were up by seven, and both Fowles and Griner had joined Taurasi on two fouls apiece (Fowles picking up both of hers while defending Kobryn, Griner adding her second on an illegal screen – so all pretty dumb).

 

The early stages of the second quarter were Chicago’s most positive minutes of the series. Griner started it on the bench, and the Sky finally found some success with their pick-and-roll game, working it mostly with Markeisha Gatling and Epiphanny Prince. Without Griner’s movement and long arms there to block the way, either the dump-off pass to Gatling was available, or Prince pulled up and hit shots in space. Even once Griner came back in, the Sky had finally discovered some offensive rhythm, and Prince was joined by Delle Donne and Allie Quigley in hitting some shots from the perimeter. This was the other element the Sky had missed in Game 1 – basic shot-making. Some of them were tough, some were contested, but they dropped and we had a tight contest on our hands.

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The Daily W, 09/08/2014: Mercury dominate Sky for blowout win to open WNBA Finals

 

Chicago Sky 62 @ Phoenix Mercury 83

 

Lineups: The starters were as expected. Phoenix inevitably went with the five that have been dominating for them for much of the season, while Chicago resisted any temptation to make immediate changes to try to match up with Phoenix’s size.

 

Story of the Game: It was ugly for Chicago right from the start. They were trying to feed Sylvia Fowles in the paint, and she actually managed to back her way into deep position on Brittney Griner a couple of times, but they either couldn’t make the entry pass or Fowles couldn’t finish under pressure from Griner. When the Sky brought Fowles out high to try to run pick-and-rolls, they quickly found that it was a much more difficult proposition than it had been against Indiana. Griner would show briefly on the ballhandler, then drop quickly back into the lane to cover the rolling Fowles, and Chicago couldn’t connect on the feed back to their center. Either Griner would snake a long arm into the way, or help defenders would come across in time. It took a long and painful 5 minutes and 10 seconds for the Sky to score their first points of the afternoon.

 

Meanwhile, Phoenix’s offense wasn’t actually running that smoothly, which prevented their immediate lead from growing too big. Diana Taurasi and Candice Dupree gave the Sky a couple of lessons in how to run the pick-and-roll to perfection, and Taurasi hit a couple of quick pullup jumpers, but most of their dominance was coming on the defensive end. They were so dominant defensively that they could hardly help but start to pull away.

 

Both teams began with fairly straightforward defensive matchups. Dupree took Elena Delle Donne, rather than trying to twist the Mercury defense to slide someone like DeWanna Bonner onto her. That left Bonner to cover Epiphanny Prince, Taurasi on Courtney Vandersloot, and Penny Taylor on Tamera Young. Chicago opened with the same matchups in reverse, which continues to make little sense to me. As I mentioned in the preview for this series, they had some success using a small point guard on Taurasi in their second regular season encounter with the Mercury, but it makes Young’s presence on the floor virtually redundant. She’s not a great offensive player at all – she’ll hustle, she’ll hit an occasional jump shot, but opponents will essentially let her shoot all she wants. She’s out there for her defense. For all her qualities, Penny Taylor will only occasionally make a significant impact on games these days – and while Taylor was relatively quiet, Young didn’t even do that great a defensive job on her. It was almost like Young subconsciously felt she was being wasted out there as well. Taurasi’s the one that makes Phoenix tick. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Chicago start Game 2 with Young on Taurasi, while trying to hide their guards on Bonner and Taylor.

 

Because in the second quarter Phoenix’s dominance on the floor finally started to show on the scoreboard. Delle Donne had been fairly quiet, and after being nudged in her already-injured back midway through the second quarter she went to the sidelines for rest and more treatment. She’d had far more trouble containing Dupree than the reverse matchup had caused problems for Phoenix. Everything started flowing for the Mercury. Dupree was hitting her mid-range jumper repeatedly off the pick-and-roll. Griner was converting inside when Phoenix went to her in the paint. Taurasi was knocking down jumpers whenever she was given an inch of space, and spraying passes around the floor. It was far too easy for them. Meanwhile Prince tried to step up and carry the offense for the Sky, but that didn’t last for long, and Fowles still rarely managed to finish inside. A gorgeous no-look 30-foot bullet pass from Taurasi to Dupree under the basket closed the scoring for the half, and Phoenix were up by 22 points at the break. It was a blowout, and there wasn’t even a hint of a comeback in sight for Chicago.

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2014 WNBA Finals Preview: Phoenix Mercury vs Chicago Sky – Part Three: Areas to Watch, Overview and Prediction

 

Storylines and Key Areas

 

It was covered in the previous section, but health is obviously vital. Delle Donne’s back problem is the major concern, but Chicago also have Breland likely rushing back from her shoulder injury faster than normal because they needed her, and Vandersloot has struggled to stay in front of anyone defensively since returning from her knee problem. Phoenix’s core group have been remarkably healthy all season long, which has played an important role in their dominance. Look back through the WNBA champions, and you tend to find teams whose key players were fit and available all season long. That said, while the Mercury have a few decent contributors off their bench, an injury to Griner or Taurasi would change everything in an instant for them. Chicago can at least claim to be prepared for how they’d play with virtually any injury or absence – because they’ve been through them all at some point this season.

 

Rebounding. Oddly enough, over the entire regular season, these were two of the three-worst rebounding teams in the WNBA (Seattle were rock bottom, Phoenix 11th and Chicago 10th). Most of the Mercury’s negative numbers came on the offensive glass – they eschewed chasing offensive boards in favour of making sure they got back in transition and set their defense. Chicago were pretty bad on both ends, for a variety of reasons. Fowles missed time hurt, Delle Donne got sick and then played nominal power forward while mostly out on the perimeter, their defensive help schemes often rotate people out of rebounding position, and their perimeter players offer very little rebounding help to their posts. So where’s the edge going to be? When two teams are playing, the rebounding percentages have to add up to 100% one way or another. Chicago won’t want to give up any cheap points, so they’ll be looking to get back quickly in transition as well, but they need to attack the glass. They lost the hustle and energy battle to Indiana at several points in the Eastern Finals, and it almost cost them the series. They’re already likely to lose out in too many areas to Phoenix, so they need to outwork the Mercury for things like offensive boards, loose balls and deflections.

 

That links into the topic of fast breaks and transition points. Despite both of these teams having some outstanding athletes, neither of them actually runs all that much. And both defenses are based more around containment and contesting shots than forcing steals and getting out on the break. So it’s another area where you could look to surprise. Phoenix will use their length to press ballhandlers like Vandersloot and Quigley at times, while players like Prince and Young will look to poke their hands into passing lanes for steals on occasion. Again, Chicago need cheap points. They have to look for every little edge they can get.

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2014 WNBA Finals Preview: Phoenix Mercury vs Chicago Sky – Part Two: Offense vs Defense

 

Mercury Offense vs Sky Defense

 

Phoenix played some really pretty offensive basketball this season, on their way to producing the best offense in the WNBA. While Taurasi outside and Griner inside are their most obvious threats, they move the ball unselfishly around the floor to the best option, and the fact that everyone on the floor is a scoring threat at any given moment makes them especially hard to defend. Taurasi’s one of the greatest scorers the women’s game has ever seen, capable of firing from anywhere, drawing lots of fouls, and finding her way to the rim when necessary – as she finally illustrated in the deciding game against Minnesota, after shooting poorly from the perimeter in previous games against the Lynx. Griner has developed as an interior threat, finishing at an efficient rate inside on post moves and short turnarounds, and moving better without the ball to find space for herself on the way to the rim. Fowles’s size will make it more difficult to just toss lobs up high to Griner, but she’s still got a couple of inches on the Sky center. The option will still be there. She’s also a much, much better passer than Fowles, so her teammates can score off her by waiting in space or cutting through it.

 

Dupree’s been the next option for Phoenix, almost automatic from mid-range when she pops into the space created by defenses leaning towards Taurasi and Griner. If Delle Donne’s hurting, covering Dupree’s movement is going to be tough, because she can slide to the rim and finish smoothly as well. Having something approaching the old Penny Taylor back has also been important for Phoenix this year. She’s a little slower than before, but she’s still got the all-court game that allows her to score inside and out, constantly makes the right pass to the right teammate, and generally makes plays all over the floor. Bonner has helped herself and her team simply by taking fewer shots this year, recognising that there’s often a better option than just firing away. But it helps Phoenix when she’s aggressive. Attacking the basket off the dribble when it’s on, driving into the space afforded her by teams who help away from her, and occasionally hitting a wide open jumper so opponents don’t just ignore her entirely.

 

The fact that the Mercury can space the floor now also makes them much more dangerous offensively this year than they were last. Taurasi was the primary ballhandler last year as well, but also the only player opponents really had to worry about from deep. Now they’ve got Taylor, Phillips off the bench (plus Shay Murphy and Anete Jekabsone-Zogota if Brondello goes that deep into her rotation), and Bonner if you leave her completely alone. With Griner, Dupree and Mistie Bass all comfortable to at least 15 feet as well, that’s a big problem for Chicago and one of the key differences between what the Sky faced in their series against Indiana and what they’ll be up against in the Finals.

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