In the midst of tight playoff race, Kahleah Copper reflects on early-season expectations

“I feel like we could have finished at least five,” Copper said. “If you look at some of the losses we’ve taken, I know there’s stuff we could have done better.”

SHARE In the midst of tight playoff race, Kahleah Copper reflects on early-season expectations
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AP

LOS ANGELES — Coming into this season, Sky forward Kahleah Copper was no fool, her expectations lowered from previous years to align with the reality of this one. With a new roster in place, success meant simply making the playoffs.

With four games left in the regular season after Tuesday’s meeting with the Sparks, the Sky are still fighting to make that happen.

“Giving grace, I have to say I’m proud of this group,” Copper told the Sun-Times. “Because honestly, everything that could have possibly gone wrong went wrong.”

The Sky’s difficult year started with injuries to two main contributors, wing Rebekah Gardner and forward Isabelle Harrison, and intensified with the midseason resignation of coach and general manager James Wade, who had led the team to its first WNBA championship in 2021.

“This group needs everybody to win,” Copper said.

Instead, they’ve had to learn how to win while simultaneously picking up the pieces. Coming up on the final week of the regular season, they still haven’t figured out how to win consistently. After a six-game losing streak three weeks in, they went on a four-game losing streak heading into and coming out of the All-Star break and snapped a five-game losing streak last week. Their record — 14-21 entering Tuesday — tracks closely with those of 2017 and 2018, when they missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons with 12-22 and 13-21 finishes.

Despite it all, Copper has pride in the team and the season and doesn’t believe the Sky should be on the outside looking in.

“I want us to be perfect,” she said. “I feel like we could have finished at least [fifth in the standings]. If you look at some of the losses we’ve taken, I know there’s stuff we could have done better. I know everybody says it throughout their season, but I genuinely feel like we could have been away from eighth — not fighting for our life [to be] eighth.”

In her seventh season with the Sky, Copper is averaging a career-high 18.2 points and earned a third All-Star nod in July. The Sky have until the end of the regular season to sign her to an extension, or she’ll become an unrestricted free agent in the new year. But at this point, without a coach or GM in place or even a clear vision forward, they’ve given her no real reason to commit.

The one thing working in the Sky’s favor is Copper’s strong sense of loyalty to Chicago. But as they found out during last year’s free-agency period, they can’t afford to gamble on loyalty being enough to keep a player of her caliber.

Whether 2023 continues with a team-record fifth straight postseason berth or the Sky play their last game on Sept. 10, the pressure is on management to create a situation to which Copper can’t say no.

“Chicago reminds me of home,” she said. “I’ve literally grown and experienced every single thing here and grown into myself. When people talk about being in one organization, I mean, yes, I started in Washington. But this is where I’ve been. It’s where you build your legacy.”

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