After the Sky won the WNBA Championship against the Phoenix Mercury, coach/general manager James Wade addressed a crowd of nearly 4,000 at Pritzker Pavilion.
He told everyone in attendance to remember where they were sitting, because in 2022, the Sky would be back on stage and fans would be in those same seats celebrating another title. It’s a lofty goal, for sure, especially given the league’s history of few repeat champions, but what was he going to say?
‘‘Let’s see how free agency goes, how we’re impacted by injuries, and maybe if we’re a little bit lucky, we’ll see you back here.’’
It doesn’t spark the same kind of jubilation.
The only repeat champs in WNBA history are the Houston Comets, who won the first four WNBA championships from 1997-2000, and the Los Angeles Sparks, who went back-to-back in 2001 and ’02. Four teams won titles in non-consecutive years: the Detroit Shock(2006, ’08); the Mercury (2007, ’09); the Minnesota Lynx (2011, ’13,’15, ’17); and the Seattle Storm (2018, ’20).
So, in a 12-team league, what makes repeating so hard? First, there’s parity. This past season was a perfect example because it ended with the No. 5 seed playing the No. 6 seed in the Finals for the first time.
“If you are a champion, you will get every team’s best shot,” Wade said. “To play against motivated teams, every game makes it that much tougher. But the advantages are that you’ve been in tough moments and have tasted success. That counts for a lot.”
After the 2021 postseason, the WNBA announced a new playoff format that removed single-elimination games and byes for the top-seeded teams. Coaches and players are pleased with the changes because series play not only helps grow fan bases but also creates a better level of competition. These changes are the league’s first since 2016 when the top two seeded teams received double byes sending them directly to the semifinals, and the third and fourth seeds were awarded byes to the second round.
The 2016 Lynx were poised to repeat, and under the new format that gave them a bye to the semifinals, the odds were in their favor. But Candace Parker and the Sparks won that Finals series in five on a putback bucket from Nneka Ogwumike with three seconds left.
This historic finals moment presents the next factor in a championship run: luck.
Ogwumike’s shot wasn’t lucky, but there are countless moments in every series, or season for that matter, that have to go just right in order for a team to win it all. It’s the smallest of the three factors that coaches and players have reiterated as playing a part in championship runs, but not one to be overlooked.
“The three factors are talent, luck and health,” said two-time WNBA Coach of the Year Dan Hughes. “Fortune has to kind of be with you but the biggest thing that gets in the way of repeats in this league is health.”
Most WNBA players are competing year-round, therefore injury is common. The 2019 Storm are a perfect example of a championship season derailed by injury. Breanna Stewart tore her Achilles playing for Dynamo Kursk in Russia and missed the entire season. Sue Bird also missed the season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on her knee that May.
Hughes’ squad made it to the second round that year before being eliminated by the Sparks in a single-elimination game. In 2020, during the bubble season, they won the franchise’s fourth WNBA title. With a healthy Bird and Stewart, it would have been hard to bet against the Storm winning three consecutive titles.
When the Sky embark on the 36-game 2022 season, which they’ll kick off May 6 against the visiting Sparks, talent, luck and health will be the biggest factors in Wade making good on his promise of a repeat.
The Sky will likely have the talent. Parker returns for the second season of her two-year contract and Azurá Stevens is also under contract through 2022. Kahleah Copper has indicated that she wants to return, and Wade has said he’s going to do everything he can to make that happen.
Bringing back the Sky’s entire championship roster is a tall task, and re-signing Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley will be critical. There’s no guarantee until free agency is over, but that leaves injury and luck for the Sky to worry about in their pursuit of back-to-back titles.
The Sky have proven they can rebound from injury, and Copper is known to attract luck.