7 key storylines for Sky's 7th season
Fear not, Chicago basketball fans. The Bulls' early exit from the NBA playoffs doesn't have to be all bad.
Now we have the time to focus on the Chicago Sky and the start of the WNBA season.
And there's a lot going on with the Sky: from exciting acquisitions, to the return of the best center in the world to a reason to watch the Summer Olympics with a sense of local pride.
As the Sky prepares for its home opener against Indiana (7:30 p.m. Friday, CN100), here are seven storylines that will weave their way throughout the 2012 season.
While many teams made significant changes to their rosters, the Sky's acquisitions are widely regarded as the most likely to bring about immediate improvement.
In January, head coach and general manager Pokey Chatman traded the Sky's second overall pick in April's WNBA draft to Seattle for veteran forwards Swin Cash and Le'coe Willingham. Cash is one of the best players in league history, a two-time Olympian and a three-time WNBA champion. She will play in the Olympics this summer. Willingham has also won multiple WNBA titles.
The Sky also signed veteran free agents Ticha Penicheiro and Ruth Riley, two WNBA champions. Riley, a 6-foot-5 center, will complement Sylvia Fowles inside, and Penicheiro, the league's career assists leader, is considered its best point guard ever.
Finally, Sonja Petrovic, a rookie forward, was acquired in a trade with San Antonio. The 23-year-old Serbian is considered one of the best young players in Europe.
The Sky needed an off-season like this. This team has never had so many accomplished players, and that experience, leadership and winning attitude represents a breath of fresh air on the court and in the locker room.
While all of the additions besides Petrovic may have passed the peaks of their careers, they still have some gas left in the tank and will be most valued for their wisdom.
Playing for Pokey
When the WNBA season ends, Chatman leaves and heads straight to Russia, where she has coached every winter for five years. The nonstop pace is grueling, but Chatman's motivation goes beyond another paycheck.
Chatman spends her WNBA off-season in the same place as nearly every player: the Euroleague. Seeing WNBA players every day, getting to know them on the court and off has become an advantage for Chatman in the free-agency game.
Penicheiro, who had five teams courting her, said Chatman was a big draw for her.
"I was in the same time zone as a lot of players over the winter. I could talk to them, I could see them and they could experience my style of play," Chatman said. "Players talk. Playing on a team is about more than the basketball. Sometimes that's the easy part. It's also about day-to-day life with teammates and coaches. Coaching abroad benefits me from that personal side in terms of players feeling comfortable with me. I think it really made a difference in free agency this year."
It's easy to get sidetracked with the Sky's new additions, but let's not forget that last year's core remains intact.
The Sky had three all-stars last season in Fowles and guards Epiphanny Prince and Courtney Vandersloot. The only team with as many all-star selections was Minnesota, which won the WNBA title.
Fowles returns for her fifth season after averaging 20 points and 10.2 rebounds in 2011. She's only the second player in WNBA history (after Chamique Holdsclaw) to have a 20/10 season.
"She's going to do even more because she's learned more and she's gotten better and she'll have more around her," Chatman said. "Syl played in the Turkish league during the off-season and she played great. She was an animal over there."
Meanwhile, Prince worked on her fitness and getting her shot over taller, longer players. She looked polished in the preseason and had 16 points in the season opener.
Vandersloot seeks to gain the consistency that was missing during a rookie campaign filled with ups and downs. The ups were high, considering she was an all-star and one of the league leaders in assists. But she also had a rough time with turnovers, which also was a bigger problem with the entire team.
Turning over a new leaf
Two numbers from last season bother the Sky: its 14-20 record and its league-leading 16 turnovers per game.
Those turnovers had a lot to do with the record, and with missing the playoffs.
"I don't want to lead the league in turnovers again," Chatman said. "Part of it was experience. We had a lot of young people handling the ball. And Syl was getting double- and triple-teamed in the post all the time and sometimes it was hard to pass out.
"We'll continue to work on this every day and we'll reward them when they don't turn the ball over and punish them when they do. They'll get the value of that. It won't be easy, but we have more experience now and I think it will be fun to watch us improve in that area."
One of the best things about the Sky's revamped roster is its depth. The Sky won't lose much when Chatman starts substituting.
If anything, the Sky gains in the hustle department.
Tamera Young and Shay Murphy, two of the top reserves, don't always put up big numbers, but they do play with the heart, passion and energy that every coach loves.
Both Young and Murphy bring defensive intensity, and they would be wise to invest in knee pads considering how much time they spend diving for loose balls.
"I love players like Shay Murphy and Tamera," Chatman said. "One of our biggest things in the last two years has been to get quality players and depth at every position and players like Shay and TY give us that."
Willingham, who begins the season as a reserve, provides strong interior defense and hustle on the boards. And second-year 6-foot-6 center Carolyn Swords has gained strength and confidence in the off-season, which will allow her to push Fowles in practice and give her breaks during games.
It's an Olympic year, which means the WNBA schedule is a bit goofy. The league started early, will end late and will take a monthlong hiatus from July 14 to Aug. 14 to accommodate the 17 WNBA players competing in London for their national teams.
The U.S. national team consists of 12 players, all from the WNBA. Included are two Sky players: Fowles and Cash. The Sky is one of five WNBA teams with two Olympians on the roster. Minnesota has the most Olympians with three.
While the Olympians are traveling and competing, the rest of the WNBA players will get some vacation time. Most teams will conduct minicamps and scrimmages.
"You wonder if (the Olympians will be tired when they return)," Chatman said. "But honestly, having two Olympians, having two players of that caliber on our team, is a nice problem for me."
It's the broken record that the 2012 Sky desperately wants to repair: "When will this team make the playoffs? Will this be the year?"
The Sky, now in its seventh year, has never qualified for the postseason. Every other franchise has had at least one postseason appearance.
Part of the idea in adding savvy, seasoned veterans is they know what it takes to get to the playoffs, and they can handle that pressure.
"That pressure is definitely there," Chatman said. "I told our players that the media has to keep asking about (the playoffs), because it's never happened here before. But here's how we answer that, we come to practice every day and work and it will take care of itself. We brought in vets who have the playoffs ingrained in their membranes. That's their mentality and that's what they've been brought here to do.
"If we continue to buy into our system and continue to work hard, I think we will experience something that's never been experienced here before."
Patricia Babcock McGraw has covered the Sky for the Daily Herald since its inaugural season. She is also the color analyst for all Sky television games broadcast on Comcast CN100.
Sky scouting reportIndiana Fever (1-0) at Chicago Sky (1-0), 7:30 p.m. Friday, Allstate Arena
TV: Comcast CN100
Last time: On Saturday, the host Fever defeated Atlanta, 92-84, and the Sky won at Washington, 69-57
Skinny: The new-look Sky would love to turn over a new leaf against Indiana. The Fever has owned this series, winning 19 of the 24 games, including going 3-1 last season. Former Stevenson star Tamika Catchings has had a lot to do with Indiana's dominance of the Sky. The veteran forward, now in her 11th season, was named the league's MVP last summer. She scored 16 points in the Fever's season-opening win over Atlanta. Teammate Katie Douglas had 21 points to lead five players in double-figures as Indiana hit 12-of-21 three-pointers (57 percent).
The Sky, led by defensive player of the year Sylvia Fowles, also opened with a win. Fowles dominated the Mystics with 23 points, 12 rebounds. Epiphanny Prince (16 points) and forward Swin Cash (14 points), acquired in trade with Seattle, added scoring to offset the Sky's 21 turnovers. The Sky led the WNBA in turnovers last season (16 per game).
Next: Sky at San Antonio Silver Stars, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Comcast CN100
-- Patricia Babcock McGraw