Chicago Sky defense needs help in free agency

Can Chicago's defense finally catch up to its offense?

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Cheyenne Parker #32 of the Chicago Sky plays defense against the Minnesota Lynx on July 30, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images.

The Chicago Sky’s offseason has been quiet so far.

Chicago waived the 2020 third-round pick, Kiah Gillespie, last week — Gillespie didn’t suit up for the Sky in 2020 after opting out of the season. The Sky also suspended Maria Conde, their 2019 draft-and-stash, for another season.

But the Sky haven’t been buyers on the market just yet.

Sky head coach and general manager James Wade has shown he believes in his core. Wade mostly ran things back in 2020, adding Azurá Stevens and Ruthy Hebard in the process. Both players were impressive last season, with Stevens showing potential on both ends of the floor and Hebard delivering with solid play as a rookie. 

Injuries, however, masked the final product—Stevens and Sky guard Diamond DeShields only played 13 games before exiting the bubble. Veteran Stefanie Dolson also missed seven games and new guard Sydney Colson couldn’t join the team until midway through the season.

But the Sky can’t just bet on roster continuity and internal improvement to fix their defensive woes. Chicago finished ninth and eighth in defensive rating in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Players Kahleah Copper, DeShields, Stevens, and Gabby Williams should all be positive contributors on paper, but the team defense hasn’t materialized. Of those four, Stevens has the best combination of size and mobility to become a legit defensive anchor, but injuries have stalled her progress.

With the glut of scorers and ball handlers on the roster, Chicago should go all-in on defense in free agency. Players who take pride in good rotations and can be vocal leaders on defense should be on the top of Wade’s list this offseason.

Whether the Sky can afford to make that happen is a different story, especially with Cheyenne Parker entering free agency. Wade has spoken about Parker’s place on the team as more of an inevitability than a possibility, so any offseason planning will be carried out with her return in mind. Even if the seventh-year forward takes a pay cut—which would be a big ask after Parker’s career year—the Sky are looking at taking in players on minimum contracts at best.

That can all change if Wade makes some moves on the roster.

The obvious play is finding a new home for Dolson, who is in the final year of her contract and is due to be paid $175,000. Even if Dolson experiences a return to form next season, she doesn’t move the needle much defensively and plays in the same spot as Parker and Stevens. She’s a great floor spacer for Chicago, but the emergence of Parker and Stevens, as well as the solid play of Hebard, has mitigated the potential loss of Dolson’s offense.

There are other, albeit splashier, trades available to Wade. Copper just had the best season of her career and cemented herself as a starting-caliber guard. If DeShields can return in full health, maybe Wade finds an opportunity to sacrifice scoring on the wing in return for defense. 

Or maybe he anticipates having to re-sign DeShields and Williams next offseason, as well as nearly all of Chicago’s roster, and gets ahead of the upcoming free agency scramble. In either case, Copper should net a strong return in defensive talent for Wade to consider pulling the trigger.

No matter what the Sky do, the defense needs to be at the center of the conversation. Even if you believe in this roster’s ability to improve when at full health, it’s hard to imagine Chicago defending better than the middle of the pack with its current roster construction.

If the Sky want to be championship contenders and not just a dark horse, the defense needs to take a step forward. That step begins in free agency.