3 storylines as WNBA champs defend their title

The Chicago Sky embark on a new era when they open the 2022 season Friday.

It took the franchise 14 years to claim its first WNBA title and with that came a few upgrades. The practice facility in Deerfield was stripped of its Bulls-themed colors, replaced by Sky blue and gold. Merchandise options have expanded for fans who were deprived for years. And the Sky will host their first All-Star Game on July 10 at Wintrust Arena.

It only takes one championship to change a team’s standards on and off the court. After the Sky overcame a .500 regular-season record last year to win the WNBA Finals, six-time All-Star Candace Parker believes they have more to prove.

“I don’t think we were good last year,” Parker said. “We played well in the playoffs, but I don’t think as a whole we can say we had a good season. That is what is motivating me right now.

“In offseason workouts, we had conversations about how we were better than (the sixth seed). Now we just have to go out and show it.”

Armed with five former All-Stars and young but experienced talent, the Sky are vying to become the third team in WNBA history to win back-to-back championships and the first since the 2002 Los Angeles Sparks.

First, though, they have to go through a 36-game regular season before they can think about repeating. Here are three storylines to follow as the Sky season starts.

While no decisions have been made about this group’s future together, the writing is on the wall. Allie Quigley pondered retirement in the offseason, Parker recently turned 36 and Courtney Vandersloot’s overseas commitments might keep her from playing in 2023 because of the league’s new prioritization rules. Azurá Stevens and Emma Meesseman are also unrestricted free agents after this season.

However, looking around the landscape of the league, the Sky have the best shot at reaching the high bar they have set for themselves. Outside of the Connecticut Sun, few teams got better in the offseason.

The Seattle Storm are returning a worse version of last season’s team and are betting on their post-Olympic break downturn being stemming from fatigue. The Las Vegas Aces lost Liz Cambage in free agency, the Minnesota Lynx will be without Napheesa Collier, the Phoenix Mercury are waiting on Brittney Griner’s detainment in Russia to be settled and the Los Angeles Sparks have a lot of big names with questionable talent.

This Sky group hasn’t been together as long as the 1997-98 “Last Dance” Bulls, but the championship expectations are the same. The upper echelon of the league arguably got worse while the Sky got better. However it is framed, the Sky are primed to capitalize on what could be their final shot to win another championship with this roster.

“I have stated it before: Our team is like a cheat code because we have a lot of players who can do different things,” Stevens said. “Not every team has that and it makes it hard for other teams.”

There are seemingly 100 directions the Sky could go with their starting and closing lineups. Coach/general manager James Wade could roll with the lineup that won a championship last season: Vandersloot, Quigley, Kahleah Copper, Parker and Stevens.

That group outscored opponents by 89 points in 161 minutes together during the 2021 playoffs. No one would bat an eye to see that lineup together again for most of the season.

The wrinkle to this equation is Emma Meesseman’s domination in training camp. She has drawn rave reviews from teammates and put up an effortless 24 points in 26 minutes versus the Dallas Wings in the first preseason game.

If she comes off the bench, Meesseman no doubt would be a front-runner to win the Sixth Woman of the Year Award. She thrived in that role with the Washington Mystics and has the talent to lead the second unit.

However, there is a scenario in which Meesseman starts and ends games for the Sky. Stevens has dealt with injuries throughout her career but said during training camp she feels better mentally and physically. While the Sky don’t plan to restrict her minutes, if they want to ease her along so she is ready come playoff time, Stevens could end up vying for Sixth Woman of the Year honors.

It’s a mystery heading into the season how Wade will alter his lineups once Copper returns from her season in Spain. No matter what, expect both Meesseman and Stevens to receive heavy minutes.

The Sky put a lot of miles on their starters during their 2021 playoff run. Every starter except Stevens played more than 32 minutes per game in the postseason.

Vandersloot, who partially tore the plantar fascia in her left foot during Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, averaged a team-high 34.4 minutes. Going with a smaller rotation in the playoffs is normal, but injuries derailed this team at the start of 2021.

Heading into 2022, the Sky are rich in backcourt depth, which they hope will give their All-Star guards room to breathe. Evans has taken a major step forward in her development. Throughout camp, the former second-round pick appeared to have mastered Wade’s system. She said her 2021 self compared with now feels like “night and day.”

“I just want to be great,” Evans said. “I will never settle for just being in the league. No, I want to be one of the best players in the league. That is my goal. Sloot doesn’t need a ton of reps, so I’m just trying to get better day by day.”

Evans grabbed the backup point guard spot last year after being traded to the Sky midseason, but they have other options. In a trade that sent former All-Star Diamond DeShields to Phoenix, the Sky acquired former Indiana Fever guard Julie Allemand. She still is playing in France but is eager to return to the WNBA after two years off.

New assistant coach Ann Wauters believes the Sky can utilize Allemand outside of being a traditional facilitator.

“She’s going to have a different role playing behind Sloot but at the same time being that impact player we know she can be,” Wauters said. “She’s more of a combo guard. We see her being able to play behind Allie. She’s ready to get here.”

  • Sparks at Sky, Friday: The buzz around the league is that the Sparks are a championship-caliber team after adding Chennedy Carter, Liz Cambage and Jordin Canada. That theory will be tested in the season opener by a loaded Sky frontcourt.
  • Aces at Sky, May 28: These teams have become rivals since 2019, and this is the first season in which the Sky enter as the heavy favorite in each matchup, barring injuries.
  • Mercury at Sky, May 31: This will be the Mercury’s first visit to Chicago since the Sky beat them in four games in the finals. The infamous hole in the visitors’ locker-room door has been repaired, but what about the Mercury’s feelings?

James Kay is a freelance reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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