Chicago Sky offseason primer: Short on cap space, bench slots available
James Wade has plenty of choices this offseason
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Chicago Sky head coach and general manager James Wade didn’t shy away from setting expectations after the Connecticut Sun eliminated the Sky in the first round of this year’s playoffs.
“Our goal is to bring a championship to this franchise and that’s it,” Wade said after the loss.
Wade, who usually leaves public declarations to his players, knows his team has the top-end talent to win a championship.
But the Sky are still lacking in places. Some offensive inefficiencies plagued Chicago during the season, but that can be chalked up to injury trouble as much as anything. The Sky’s defense, however, is still insufficient.
Wade won’t have a ton of room to try and bridge that gap this off season in free agency. Chicago currently only has $141,434 free on the books next year — with most of their money wrapped up in their core — but there are some caveats to that number and how it might change this off season.
Here’s what the Sky have to work with and where they might have some wiggle room.
First off: the untouchables
Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley may as well be Chicago royalty at this point. The married couple own real estate in the area and have made it clear they want to stay with the Sky. And unless Wade is in deep with a WNBA-adjacent mafia, there probably isn’t a trade package a GM could throw at him that he wouldn’t laugh out of the room.
Diamond DeShields also fits neatly into this category. Injuries derailed what was supposed to be a next-level season for DeShields, but optimism remains high surrounding her career. The third-year guard was hampered by leg injuries all year and only had a few brief flashes that felt in line with her superstar trajectory. An off season to get healthy and return to form will be big in getting back on track to All-WNBA form.
Just because players like Kahleah Copper, Azurá Stevens and Gabby Williams aren’t in the untouchable category doesn’t mean you should expect to see them on the trade block anytime soon.
Copper just had the best year of her five-year career, averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, field-goals and three-pointers. Her jump wasn’t just the result of her minutes doubling, however. Copper also took an efficiency leap this year and posted her best true shooting percentage yet, proving herself to be a more consistent offensive player in 2020.
The single year left on her contract makes Copper a valuable trade target, but unless she doesn’t like her role in 2021 and wants out, or Wade doesn’t see a path to re-signing her in 2022, expect Copper back in blue this season.
As for Stevens and Williams, all signs point to both players being a part of Chicago’s long-term plans.
Stevens, who was acquired in a trade with the Dallas Wings this past off season, made an immediate impact with the Sky as a starter. It’s clear Wade and his staff are enamored with Stevens’ potential on both ends of the floor. The only thing standing in her way are injuries — Stevens has missed 34 of 56 possible games the last two seasons due to surgery on her right foot in 2019 and a left knee injury this year.
There’s also increased optimism surrounding Williams, who posted similar numbers to her rookie campaign this season. The third-year wing’s final stats don’t jump off the page, but her confidence on offense improved this year. She’s still searching for a consistent jump shot, but she’s finally shooting them — Williams attempted two or more 3-pointers in 16 games this year after only doing so in 16 career games prior.
With Stevens and Williams entering free agency after next season, 2021 will be instrumental in determining the kind of market and deals they will command, but don’t expect much movement before then.
Outside of players on the untouchable and core lists, Chicago has four other players on rookie contracts. María Conde, Kiah Gillespie, Ruthy Hebard and Stephanie Mavunga are all on their original contracts, with varying lengths remaining.
While the writing was on the wall by the end of the season for Katie Lou Samuelson, who was traded this off season following her rookie year, Hebard’s situation couldn’t be more different. Samuelson struggled to contribute throughout her only season with the Sky, and a hand injury that sidelined her for a month didn’t help. Hebard joined the team as a later draft pick and stepped into a front court that didn’t need her right away. The Oregon product gradually improved from game to game and an increase in minutes followed.
The addition of Hebard in a larger trade wouldn’t be a total dealbreaker for Chicago if the return is good, but don’t expect her to get shipped out anytime soon. Her cheap contract and reliable play make her a player the Sky will prioritize for the future.
The other rookie contract player who played last season is Mavunga, who was acquired from Indiana in response to a slew of injuries. The 6’3 forward only appeared in ten games total last season due to a broken nose that required her to leave the #wubble. She’ll be a player that comes into training camp and tries to compete for a spot in Chicago’s crowded front court.
Neither María Conde nor Kiah Gillespie suited up for Chicago this year, but both are in similar positions to Mavunga, albeit on longer contracts.
The Sky have been patient with Conde, who was drafted in 2019, opting to hold onto her rights while she continues to develop overseas. Gillespie, who fell to Chicago in the third round of this year’s draft, decided to sit out this season rather than get cut at the roster deadline, also allowing Chicago to retain her rights.
If Wade thinks they can contribute, even at the end of the bench, their cheap contracts ($58,710 for Conde and $58,141 for Gillespie) make them valuable players to hold onto both in the short term and the long term. Like Mavunga, they’re competing for front court spots that are in short supply in Chicago. If Sky forward Cheyenne Parker doesn’t return for next season, retaining two of the three is a much more viable option.
Chicago’s big free agent
No doubt Wade’s biggest concern this off season is retaining the much-improved Cheyenne Parker.
It seems that neither Parker or Wade have any desire to part ways, and the third-year head coach has gone as far as to say that Parker can be the team’s center going forward. Parker had a huge year and improved in just about every counting stat. Notably, Parker tripled her three-point attempts per game and showed off a nascent passing ability that hasn’t been a factor in her career yet.
Parker is going to command a big salary this off season, but the Sky don’t currently have max money in their books. $140,000 certainly wouldn’t be a slap in the face offer, especially if Chicago is Parker’s preferred destination, as it seems to be.
But if Parker is looking for something closer to the max or other teams are offering her that kind of money, the Sky will struggle to find it.
The role players that Chicago could more easily stomach parting with — Gillespie, Mavunga and Conde — are all on some of the cheapest contracts in the league. Mavunga’s contract is the most expensive at $70,040, but even the cheapest replacement player’s contract would be within $12,000 of that. At best, Wade would be moving players to shave off just thousands of dollars.
In a scenario where Parker is asking for a big contract, Stefanie Dolson is the obvious player to move. Dolson will be on the final year of a $175,000 contract and plays the same position as Parker.
The veteran big is a key presence in Chicago’s locker room, but she averaged a career low in minutes last year. A foot injury that kept Dolson out for much of the first half of the season contributed to that, but the 6’5 center is now three seasons removed from her All-Star year in 2017. With Parker proving herself as a starting-caliber player, and Stevens showing herself to be a suitable front court partner, Wade is best off prioritizing Parker, if necessary.
Again, Parker has been vocal in wanting to re-sign with the Sky and this all assumes Parker is looking for big money. Returning to the Sky provides Parker a system she’s already comfortable with and a job that’s hers to lose. She could choose to accept a one year deal with Chicago for 2021 and then get her payday in 2022 when Chicago’s books open up again, especially if she continues her upward trajectory.
If Chicago doesn’t have to open up money to re-sign Parker, expect Dolson to return as well. Unless Wade can snare a mid-level, defensive-minded free agent in a trade or with the extra cap space, Dolson’s value as a reliable backup is worth hanging onto.
Quick note: rookie Stella Johnson, who Chicago signed while Sydney Colson was recovering from COVID-19, did not finish the year with the Sky. She was waived by Chicago once Colson joined the team and then immediately signed with the Mystics, where she became a viable role player.
Alisia Jenkins also did not end the season in a Sky uniform, signing with Phoenix in early September after her seven-day contract with Chicago ended.
Chicago signed Alexis Prince to help fill in their roster gap caused by injury. Prince was on the Sky’s training camp roster, but didn’t get a chance to fight for a spot due to the pandemic-shortened off season. She could return in 2021, but like Chicago’s other forwards, breaking the Sky’s front court rotation could be a long shot.
Wade and his staff certainly like Sydney Colson and what she brings to the table: a pass-first guard who is more defensive minded than her back court counterparts. She also happens to be a strong locker room presence and an experienced vet.
Colson averaged less than seven minutes per game last season after missing the first five games of the season and all preseason prep with the team. A full off season with the Sky and more time to integrate with the team could make Colson more of a factor, especially considering Chicago’s struggles when Vandersloot sits.
But with Copper’s emergence and the presumed return of a healthy DeShields, what minutes are there for Colson? Even if the Sky don’t have a true backup point guard, they have enough talented ball handlers to fill in the 10 minute gap when Sloot sits.
Looking ahead to the draft
The upcoming WNBA draft could be the wildest yet.
With the NCAA granting winter athletes an extra year of eligibility, and the college basketball season’s viability under constant threat by the pandemic, the 2021 class will be anything but predictable. That could be mean any number of things.
Players that would have flourished and caught the eyes of teams last postseason may now rise up draft boards this regular season. Maybe a number of highly-coveted prospects opt out of this year or take their extra year of collegiate eligibility. And surely the sample size for WNBA scouts will be reduced by inevitable cancellations and postponements.
All this is to say that basketball shouldn’t and hopefully won’t trump player and staff health, but the WNBA draft waters are going to be murky regardless.
That puts Chicago in wait-and-see mode as far as the draft is concerned. The Sky have lots of talent and little roster room, not to mention cap space. Wade and his staff will be searching for players they can either draft and stash or bring into training camp with a legit shot to compete for a spot.
Hebard was the perfect rookie for Chicago because she was able to contribute while developing. It won’t be the end of the world if Wade has to cut their 2021 pick, but developing rookies into role players is more of a necessity under the new cap.
If Wade likes the end-of-the-bench players he has on contract, he may also punt on this draft and trade Chicago’s pick for a 2022 first rounder. The Sky will have nearly all their books clear and Wade will have a clearer picture of where he needs to prioritize in the draft.