Re-signed, Vandersloot and Quigley are motivated to prove Sky’s first title was no fluke
“We knew especially this year that it was going to be the year for sacrifice.”
‘‘Weird’’ is one of the words Courtney Vandersloot used to describe the WNBA free-agency period this year.
She also said it was fun (at times) and challenging and is thankful it’s over.
As a person who prefers to keep important life details quiet, it’s easy to see why Vandersloot was feeling some discomfort. As one of the top free agents available — along with wife and teammate Allie Quigley — in a league of 144 players, all eyes, tweets and attention were on the ‘‘Vanderquigs.’’ Rumors were inevitable, and predictions abounded.
From the beginning, both were upfront about what the free-agency period meant for them individually. Vandersloot was staying open to all possibilities, and Quigley was considering retirement.
So how did Sky coach/general manager James Wade bring the championship squad back together and, more specifically, secure two of the most significant players in franchise history?
It starts with sacrifice, as most things do for WNBA players.
‘‘You kind of underestimate the importance of understanding your value going into [free agency],’’ Vandersloot said. ‘‘Being paid what you know you deserve but also what your teammates deserve. Trying to build a team where you’re playing with players that will make you better and help you win a championship is the biggest challenge.’’
Coming off a championship season, Sky players knew it would be almost impossible to keep the entire roster together with the WNBA salary cap at just under $1.4 million. Still, the losses of Diamond DeShields and Stefanie Dolson were challenging, particularly for Vandersloot and Quigley.
They had experienced previous significant departures during their combined 20 seasons with the Sky, including Sylvia Fowles in 2015 and Elena Delle Donne in 2017 but this was different.
Dolson and DeShields were key players in making the Sky a destination worthy of attracting the WNBA’s top free agents, such as Candace Parker. Beyond that, they were part of a new Sky culture built on family. The only solace in their exits was that both are in environments that will help them evolve as players.
Vandersloot took meetings from overseas with the Storm, Lynx and Sky. Quigley took one, and it was with the Sky.
‘‘I was always confident and hopeful they’d return,’’ Parker said.
Every option was on the table for Vandersloot, including being paid by UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia to sit out the 2022 WNBA season and even playing on a different team than Quigley. She wanted to consider all her options even if the choice was unlikely.
Finding unbiased opinions was almost impossible, considering how rooted Vandersloot’s personal and professional life is in Chicago. Quigley wasn’t necessarily an unbiased voice, but she was able to help Vandersloot see outside her perspective, which was critical. They spent a lot of time in each other’s shoes, considering where they wanted their careers to go individually.
Vandersloot, the top point guard in the league, and Wade had multiple conversations before she agreed to return to the Sky. Despite reports that circulated, she said she never felt disrespected by Wade or the organization.
‘‘[Following ESPN’s free-agency reports] was not exactly a fun time for me,’’ Vandersloot said. ‘‘The word ‘disrespectful’ was not from my mouth.’’
Accepting a team-friendly deal isn’t unique to Sky players. Sue Bird signed a one-year contract worth the veteran minimum of $72,141 to return to the Storm for what is expected to be her final season. After leading the league in scoring last season, Tina Charles signed a one-year deal with the Mercury for $67,000 less than she made in 2021.
Players all across the league are taking less in the hopes of winning more. The WNBA’s collective-bargaining agreement, which was signed in 2020, saw players’ maximum base salaries nearly double, while the cap increased by only 30% from 2019 to 2020. The cap has increased and will continue to increase by 3% each subsequent year.
During free agency, Wade secured the Sky’s core and signed 2019 WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman. That means the Sky signed or re-signed three Finals MVPs in the last two offseasons (Parker in 2021 and Kahleah Copper and Meesseman in 2022).
Sky teammates were having conversations in the fall about keeping the championship roster together. Once free agency arrived, they talked every day about what it would take to make that happen. They agreed that another championship was the priority, but they had to do it together.
Vandersloot re-signed on a one-year deal worth $195,000, $5,000 less than she made in 2021. Quigley re-signed for $59,000 less than she made in 2021, and Meesseman signed for $30,000 less than what she made in 2020, her last season in the WNBA. Copper signed a two-year deal worth $200,000 in 2022 and $205,000 in 2023, despite Wade designating her as a ‘‘core’’ player, which came with a one-year supermax offer.
‘‘We knew, especially this year, that it was going to be the year for sacrifice,’’ Quigley said.
It’s no secret Vandersloot doesn’t enjoy taking time off.
Her teammates and coaches often talk about how uncomfortable it makes her to rest. When Ann Wauters joined Wade’s coaching staff, that was one of the characteristics she recalled about Vandersloot while they played together overseas.
During the WNBA Finals, Vandersloot was able to keep the fact that she was playing with a partial tear in her plantar fascia under wraps. Wade likened it to what Willis Reed played through in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. Aside from sitting out practices, there was no noticeable change in Vandersloot’s performance. She started all four games against the Mercury and averaged 11.5 points and 12.5 assists.
After the Sky’s championship celebration, she was sidelined for a substantial amount of time. She took nearly three months off before returning to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg in January. When the option to sit out the 2022 WNBA season presented itself, Vandersloot considered it, thinking about how it might extend her career.
Ultimately, however, she opted to re-sign with the Sky, with a new factor motivating her decision. Vandersloot often had spoken about what it would mean to win a championship with the team that drafted her. Having accomplished that, now she’s motivated to prove it wasn’t a fluke.
Quigley’s return was similarly inspired. Retiring after a championship sounded perfect. But after chasing a title for 13 seasons, finally winning one reignited her hunger.
‘‘We really showed ourselves what we’re best at [during the championship run],’’ Vandersloot said. ‘‘Knowing what we know now, going into this next season, let’s see what we can do.’’
“Everybody knows their role and what works,” Quigley said. “There’s no figuring that out in the beginning of the year. We’ve all had conversations and we’re ready to do that.”
Now that they’re signed, neither is looking beyond going for back-to-back titles.
Quigley’s one-year deal has many wondering whether this will be her final season, but she said she’s not one to broadcast when that will be, chalking it up to her indecisiveness.
Vandersloot said she would have loved to sign a multiyear deal, but the prioritization policy of the WNBA’s collective-bargaining agreement was her top priority. Vandersloot wants to continue playing overseas, so she said it’s likely she’ll continue signing one-year contracts until her overseas career ends.
The last team to win consecutive WNBA titles was the 2001-02 Sparks. Coaches and GMs have varying takes about what makes repeating so difficult, but three factors come up frequently when discussing the challenge: health, talent and luck.
‘‘I know that it’s very hard,’’ Vandersloot said. ‘‘Statistically, it’s almost impossible to win back-to-back in the WNBA. But James [Wade] put together a roster to really win it again. That’s motivating.’’