After one of the worst defensive seasons in history, the Chicago Sky are exceeding expectations in 2019 thanks to rapid improvement at that end.
Before the start of this WNBA season, I speculated that a best-case scenario for the Chicago Sky in 2019 looked like: having a defense that gave up points per possession at a league-average rate. From the outside, this best-case scenario sounds as imaginative and as thrilling as putting socks on your Christmas wish list. But if you don’t have any socks, you do need socks. And the Sky, who did not have any defense in 2018, did need a defense.
Last year’s Indiana Fever were one of the worst defensive teams in WNBA history. Their defensive rating of 109.7 was only fractionally behind the all-time most-porous 2016 Dallas Wings, at 109.9. The 2018 Sky, though, lapped them both, dropping a defensive rating of 112.0. Now, since WNBA offenses have grown drastically more efficient over time — thanks to both a deeper talent pool and more 3-pointers — you could make a real case that the 2018 Sky aren’t actually the league’s worst-ever defense. Past bottom-dwellers like the 1998 Washington Mystics or the 1999 Utah Starzz had a pretty similar gap between themselves and the league-average defenses of their day, even if 90s offenses weren’t powerful enough to drive their defensive rating all the way up to 112. Fine. The point is: despite finishing with a bad-but-not-terrible 13-21 record in 2018, that version of the Sky is at least in the conversation for the worst defense ever.
Last November, the Sky hired James Wade away from his assistant coach role on the Minnesota Lynx bench, to fill a dual coach/GM role. At the time, I suspected that Wade might spend the winter tearing the roster down and enter 2019 with a roster that was an open audition for minutes. After all, how many times, across all sports, do we see executives — successful executives — want to start a new chapter with “their” people? Instead — and in part, because Wade was still an assistant coach for EuroLeague winners UMMC Ekaterinburg — the Sky had one of the quietest offseasons in the league. In what would count as remarkable continuity even for a championship-winner: out of their top 10 players in minutes last season, the Sky returned nine of them. The only exception, 23-year-old center Alaina Coates, was dealt to Wade’s former colleagues in Minnesota for a late draft pick. Wade upgraded on the inexperienced Coates by sending a late pick of his own to the Los Angeles Sparks, receiving eight-year veteran Jantel Lavender in return.
While the Sky’s 6-5 start to the year won’t catch your eye in the standings, it’s fair to say that Wade has quickly begun proving his coaching chops. In defensive points per possession, the Sky are sitting at seventh in the league: this is, yes, right at league average. The transformation is even more profound considering that the Sky’s defensive rating has dropped from 112.0 down to 99.7. The 2019 Sky are playing at almost the identical pace they played at last year — just under 80 possessions per game — and have eliminated five made baskets from the opponent, going from allowing 90.1 points per game, down to 79.5 points per game.
A chunk of the Sky’s progression on defense simply comes from a commitment to shutting down the fast break, eliminating a handful of chances per game for the opponent to drop in a high-percentage bucket. Per 100 possessions in 2018, the Sky gave up 23.1 points off of turnovers, and 12.5 fast break points. (Some opponent points may be counted in both stats.) So far in 2019, the Sky have cut those rates down to 20.7 points off of turnovers and 9.8 fast break points.
These stats really demonstrate the new mental toughness that Chicago is playing with this year. The moment after a turnover is one of the most demoralizing over the course of a game, and in a fastbreak, it’s much easier to focus on the ball on one end of the court instead of the players who have yet to get over the halfcourt line. Still, Chicago is getting back on defense in numbers after offensive mistakes, and are actually an above-average team at limiting fast break opportunities. The Sky’s recent road game against the Seattle Storm is a great example of Chicago keeping themselves in a game with defensive effort, an opportunity that might have gotten well away from them in 2018. Here are the Sky putting the clamps down on three Seattle fastbreak opportunities — in a game that came down to one final possession:
Unlike many teams who are in a rebuilding phase, the Sky are able to lean on their depth. With rookie Katie Lou Samuelson sidelined due to a broken hand during only her third appearance, and with Astou Ndour absent for virtually the whole season so far thanks to FIBA EuroBasket, Wade has mostly kept a tight eight-player rotation. But Chicago’s 26-and-under bench unit of Gabby Williams, Cheyenne Parker, and Kahleah Copper is truly defensively elite, thanks in part to Wade’s habit of pitting them against the starters in practice. Each player individually has positive on/off numbers, but as a trio they grind the opponent to a halt. They are on the floor together for nearly a quarter of Chicago’s total minutes, and during that time the Sky have the elite defensive rating of 85.8.
These are all reasons to be optimistic about the Sky’s long-term future — but, for 2019, it looks unlikely that the team will vault into the championship picture from their .500-ish range now. Their game against the Storm — an eventual 79-76 loss — displayed Chicago’s progress, and also the team’s current shortcomings. The Sky limited the Storm to only 46 points over the final three quarters, forcing the increasingly sluggish Seattle offense to rely on the bank being open for Alysha Clark to ice the game. But this means that Chicago allowed 33 points in the first quarter, allowing Seattle to establish confidence early, and putting the Sky in a hole they couldn’t climb out of.
Perhaps the reason for the slow start is the perennial young team’s challenge of playing well on the road: Chicago has opened up 4-2 on their home floor and 2-3 in other gyms. There are still lingering issues with the roster that were not resolved over the quiet offseason: the Sky have not yet made progress defending in the interior, as they are still the last-place team in the league at giving up points in the paint. Wade, who does not have previous front office experience, faces a far more pivotal offseason this winter, when four of his eight rotation players enter free agency.
All of this is to say: no, the Sky were not completely rebuilt in just one offseason. There is still work to be done but, unlike so many rebuilds, Wade’s first step in Chicago has not been backward, but confidently forward.
Stats accurate as of games played on June 29.