2021 Chicago Sky Preview: Championship or bust?

Coming off a disappointing 2020 WNBA Bubble season, finishing 6th in the league with a 12-10 record, the Sky are looking to rebound.

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Diamond DeShields

Guard Diamond DeShields #1 of the Chicago Sky drives around guard Alexis Jones #1 of the Los Angeles Sparks during a game at Staples Center on August 11, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.

Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

The Sky open up the historic 25th WNBA season with heightened expectations after signing WNBA champion and two-time MVP Candace Parker.

The already talented squad became instant championship contenders when Parker inked her two-year deal, but no team is a lock for the title, not even when Parker is on the roster.

After coming off a disappointing 2020 WNBA season, the Sky, who finished sixth in the league with a 12-10 record, are looking to rebound.

Position battles to watch

Something to note about this team is that there are so many possibilities for the starting five. Of course, there are solidified roles like certified playmaker Courtney Vandersloot at point guard. Vandersloot became the first player in WNBA history to average double-digit assists last season. Parker is another lock in the starting lineup, as well as Diamond DeShields.

At shooting guard and center is where fans could see more of a rotation. Allie Quigley has started every game she’s played in since 2017. This season, coach James Wade could opt to go with a stronger option on defense in Kahleah Copper. In her fifth WNBA season, Copper averaged a career-high 14.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists as a starter. She’s a huge threat in transition because of her speed and has greatly improved as a spot-up shooter. At one point during camp, Wade joked that he was the only one who could get a stop on Copper.

The five will be in a state of flux during the first month and a half of the season as Stefanie Dolson leaves to compete with Team USA’s 3x3 Olympic qualifying team following the Sky’s opener against the Mystics. Astou Ndour-Fall likely will step into a starting role until she leaves to compete for Spain in EuroBasket, at which point Dolson is expected to be back. Another option at center is Azura Stevens.

Candace Parker

Alana Beard, a teammate of Parker’s on the 2016 WNBA champion Sparks, said that as Parker goes, the rest of the team goes. Ranked fourth on ESPN’s top 25 players for the 2021 season, Parker immediately raised the expectations for the Sky. Coming off a 2020 Defensive Player of the Year award, she continues to prove lofty goals are always within her reach.

Still, entering her 14th season in the WNBA and first with a team other than the Sparks, Parker has acknowledged she has more games behind her than ahead. In camp, Wade and the entire team have raved about Parker’s ability to raise the talent level every time she steps on the court. In her lone preseason game, Parker had 12 points, six rebounds and three assists in 21 minutes.

Playing with a veteran backcourt in Vandersloot and Quigley, combined with the versatile talent of DeShields and Copper, Parker will have no shortage of options on offense.

WNBA + the pandemic

Sky owner Michael Alter anticipates fans will be at Wintrust Arena for the home opener May 23 against New York.

“We’ll have similar restrictions [as the Bulls and Blackhawks] when we open up,” Alter said. “It will be a different environment. Seats will be aligned a little differently, social distancing. It’ll look funny and strange, but that’s the reality.”

The league changed the season format slightly to create a safer travel plan for players. Instead of the regular 36 game season, teams will be playing 32 — 16 at home and 16 away. The league also has taken steps to reduce the number of trips teams take, including a series model, which will have some teams playing twice in one market consecutively.

Injury notes

Stevens suffered a knee injury in the WNBA bubble last year that required surgery and will be playing on a minutes restriction through much of the beginning of the 2021 season. Wade said Stevens has been fully participating throughout camp, but he wants to ease her back into things. She did not play in either of the Sky’s preseason games against the Fever.

DeShields also left the bubble early because of personal reasons but said that she’s back to the player everybody expected her to be during camp.

Championship or bust?

In their 15-year history, the Sky have made just one WNBA Finals run, and it was seven years ago. This year it is safe to argue it’s a championship-or-bust season because there will be a lot of movement on this roster ahead of the 2022 season. The only players who will remain under contract following 2021 are Parker and Stevens.

Vandersloot, Quigley, Dolson, Ndour-Fall and Copper all will become unrestricted free agents. DeShields will be a restricted free agent.

The Sky are a favorite to make it to the championship. Many are predicting they’ll be playing the Aces in the finals.

The league finishes the regular season on Sept. 19, after which eight teams advance to the postseason. Earning a top seed will be critical to bypass the first two rounds of single-elimination games.

The Aces and the Storm are two of the biggest threats in the way of that happening. The Storm lost key players in 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark, but you can’t ever dismiss a team with Breanna Stewart.

The Aces made their first finals appearance last season and are poised to do it again with a fully loaded roster that includes Liz Cambage, 2020 regular-season MVP A’ja Wilson and offseason addition Chelsea Gray.

The Aces are thin at small forward, with Angel McCoughtry set to miss the 2021 season after tearing her ACL in a preseason game against the Sparks.

“I felt like we had the pieces before the [offseason] moves,” DeShields said. “Parker is making [us winning a championship] that much more of a possibility.”

Games you can’t miss

Saturday, noon: Sky at Washington Mystics

May 28, 7 p.m.: Sky vs. Los Angeles Sparks

June 5, 2 p.m.: Sky at Los Angeles Sparks

Aug. 15, noon: Sky vs. Seattle Storm

Sept. 2, 9 p.m.: Sky at Las Vegas Aces

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