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James Wade to be honored with Coach of the Year award before Sky playoff game

In one year, James Wade took an underperforming Sky team destined for the lottery and transformed them into a playoff contender.

James Wade will be presented with the Coach of the Year award Wednesday before the Sky play a winner-take-all game against the Phoenix Mercury at Wintrust Arena.
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A lot has changed since the last time the Sky were in the playoffs. Star player Elena Delle Donne was traded to the Mystics and Cappie Pondexter retired. They’ve also gone through two general manager/coaching changes.

The only remains of that 2016 team are Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, Jamierra Faulkner and Cheyenne Parker.

But after two subpar seasons, coach James Wade promised this season was the start of a new era — one where the team wouldn’t be living in the 6-5 shadow of Delle Donne.

And he was right.

In one year, Wade took an underperforming Sky team destined for the lottery and transformed them into a playoff contender.

Wade’s success has been recognized around the league, as he’ll be presented with the Coach of the Year award Wednesday before the Sky play a winner-take-all game against the Phoenix Mercury at Wintrust Arena.

When Wade assumed his role as the team’s general manager/coach in November, the Sky — led by Vandersloot, Quigley and Stefanie Dolson — still had talent, and with 2018 first-round picks Diamond DeShields and Gabby Williams, the potential.

Wade picked Vandersloot’s brain while he was coaching her at Russian powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg this offseason. She said the Sky “lacked a winning culture.” So Wade traded for Jantel Lavender, who won a title with the Sparks. As soon as training camp opened, he quickly earned the trust of his players and held them to a higher standard.

Wade’s tough love has paid off.

DeShields, who made the leap from the all-rookie team to All-Star this season, leads the team in scoring with 16.2 points. Williams has become a solid backup point guard.

Meanwhile, Quigley and Vandersloot, both All-Stars, have continued to be a dominant veteran presence both on the court and in the locker room.

Wade has changed the trajectory of the program. Now it’s up to the team to see how far it can go.

“They’re locked in,” Wade said Tuesday. “I just need them to know the importance of how intense it’s going to be tomorrow. I think they understand that, and I think we’ll be ready.”

The Mercury — whom the Sky swept in the season series 3-0 — lack momentum as they’re riding a four-game losing streak into the postseason.

However, the Mercury shouldn’t be overlooked.

This is their seventh consecutive playoff appearance. Since the WNBA changed its playoff format in 2016, the Mercury have made it through the two single-elimination rounds every season, including last year in which they ultimately lost to the eventual WNBA champion Storm in the semifinals.

“We know their reputation precedes them in the playoffs,” DeShields said after the Sky’s regular-season finale on Sunday. “This is not going to be the same team that we have faced the past three times. Everything gets elevated in the playoffs.”

Sky players collectively declined to speak with the Sun-Times after Tuesday’s practice because they were upset over a recent article about Katie Lou Samuelson’s mother, who called Wade out on Twitter for his lack of communication with her daughter.

Mercury center Brittney Griner — who finished as the league’s leading scorer with a 20.7 average — has been dominant against the Sky. Limiting her impact will be crucial if the Sky are to advance. If they don’t, that’ll be the end of an exciting season.

After practice Tuesday, Wade’s message to his players was simple.

‘‘[I] just let them know they have to enjoy the moment, but also they have to come with a mindset that’s really determined tomorrow,” he said.