Sky’s James Wade named 2022 WNBA Basketball Executive of the Year

After re-signing his core players, James Wade added 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman and Rebekah Gardner, an overlooked star overseas.

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Sky coach and general manager James Wade has been named WNBA Executive of the Year.

Sky coach and general manager James Wade has been named WNBA Executive of the Year.

Steph Chambers/Getty Images

NEW YORK — In the WNBA, a league with 12 teams, one would think a franchise in the third-largest city in the country would be an instant destination. 

With one of the richest basketball cultures in the world, Chicago, you’d think, would be at the top of the list for free agents considering a change of scenery. You’d think that, and you’d be wrong. 

For 13 seasons, the Sky failed to create an environment that the league’s top talent wanted to be a part of. Until the hiring of coach/general manager James Wade. 

“You can be the best coach, but you have to have players,” Courtney Vandersloot said. 

Wade brought those players to the Sky through a series of moves that earned him the 2022 WNBA Basketball Executive of the Year Award, becoming the first Black executive to win the honor. 

The panel of voters was made up of one basketball executive from each team. Each executive submitted a ballot with a first-, second- and third-place vote. Wade won the award after being named on 11 ballots. He was followed by Atlanta Dream general manager and executive vice president of basketball operations Dan Padover (seven) and Washington Mystics coach/GM Mike Thibault (six).

Four executives have won the award since its inception in 2017. Wade is the fifth.

Connecticut Sun coach/GM Curt Miller was the inaugural winner followed by former Dream president/GM Chris Sienko in 2018, Miller in 2019 and Padover in 2020 and 2021. 

Wade’s decadelong experience coaching in the WNBA began after playing 13 years professionally overseas. In 2012, Dan Hughes, then the coach of the San Antonio Stars, hired Wade to join his staff as an intern.

He immediately proved himself to be invaluable and the next year was hired by Hughes as an assistant. 

By the time Wade signed with the Sky at the end of 2018, he had built a reputation as one of the best player-development coaches in the league. Vandersloot, the Sky’s longest-tenured player, believed Wade could make the franchise a destination worthy of the league’s best. 

In his first year, Wade became the first Sky coach to be named coach of the year after leading the team to a 20-14 regular-season record and their first playoff berth in three years.

After losing in the first round of the playoffs the next year, Wade signed Candace Parker, arguably the biggest free agent in WNBA history. 

Wade went into the last free-agency period with one starter under contract — Parker. It would be the ultimate test of the new culture he was hired to establish. 

Kahleah Copper’s core designation came first. The 2021 WNBA Finals MVP signed for nearly $30,000 less than the designation’s max offer. After securing Copper’s return, Wade signed Emma Meesseman, the 2019 Finals MVP. 

Vandersloot and Allie Quigley were the last of Wade’s starting five to officially re-sign, but it was their sacrifice that allowed him to get Meesseman. Vandersloot signed for $5,000 less than she made in 2021, and Quigley took the biggest pay cut by signing for nearly $60,000 less than she made the previous season. 

The sacrifices made by his core free agents were a sign of Wade’s ability to establish a championship culture they wanted to return to. 

“Their ultimate motivation is to win,” Wade said. “The selling point was that we were reigning champions. I had to give them the plan and say this is how we’re going to do it again.” 

After securing his core, Wade traded for backup point guard Julie Allemand and signed overlooked overseas star Rebekah Gardner. With his final move, he traded restricted free agent Lexie Brown to the Los Angeles Sparks for Li Yueru, giving his team unprecedented depth in a league with a strict salary cap. 

Wade is one of four coach/GMs in the WNBA. Thibault, Miller and Cheryl Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx also wear both hats. 

To some, it might seem like a burden to pull double duty. Wade relishes it. 

“If there’s anybody who is going to have my best interest in mind, it’s probably me,” Wade said. “I know exactly what I need to win.” 

This year, Wade added to his winning résumé, leading the Sky to the best finish in franchise history. They tied the Las Vegas Aces for the best record (26-10) in the WNBA. 

Wade said he has taken a moment to recognize the significance of the award and some of his other accomplishments as the Sky’s most successful leader, but his focus remains on another accomplishment. 

The team he constructed has a do-or-die Game 3 Tuesday night against the New York Liberty. If all goes according to the plan he pitched to his free agents last winter, Wade will have more to celebrate in September. 

“We have another goal we’re trying to accomplish,” Wade said.

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