Babcock-McGraw: Despite positivity, Chatman firing doesn't add up
Progress. That's one way to look at the curious firing of longtime Sky head coach Pokey Chatman last week.
Not long ago, the Sky wouldn't dare fire a coach that took it to the playoffs and WNBA Finals.
Chatman did both for a franchise that was a perennial cellar dweller, a struggling, frustrating expansion team that for years could only dream of the playoffs from afar. Like super, super far. Like different area code far.
Perhaps it's progress that in Year No. 11 the expectations are so high that a coach who changed the franchise's course over the past six years, and shaped her team into the best in the East (without the services of its best player down the stretch) gets the ax.
Making the playoffs isn't good enough. Winning it all is now the measuring stick.
Of course, Chatman never won it all over her six-year career here. But she directed the Sky to its first playoff appearance in 2013, and a WNBA Finals appearance in 2014. The Sky went to the playoffs again in 2015 and 2016, but the run this summer was short-lived without all-star Elena Delle Donne, who was out for the final 11 games with an injured thumb.
"I'm good. I can hold my head high. I am proud of our players and what we were able to accomplish," said an always classy Chatman in a phone interview. "But at the end of the day, we weren't able to get a championship.
"Obviously, in the world of sports, these are decisions that are made sometimes and this is the route that ownership wanted to take. In 25 years of being in this (coaching), I guess I would say that nothing surprises me."
Chatman was intent on being positive, taking the high road and focusing on the accomplishments of her teams, but it was clear that, on a personal level, she was disappointed and surprised.
I was surprised, too.
Chatman wasn't perfect, and the team was far from perfect over the past six years. But weaknesses were eventually turned into strengths, which is a testament to Chatman's effectiveness as a coach and general manager.
For instance, the Sky used to be the most careless team in the WNBA, averaging more turnovers than any team in the league. This season, the Sky was one of the best in that aspect.
Point production used to be a weakness as well, but now the Sky has become one of the highest-scoring teams.
Interior defense has been a weakness since all-star center Sylvia Fowles was traded last season at her request. Chatman drafted Imani Boyette, a 6-foot-7 center who showed the potential this summer to be a great shot-blocker and defensive stopper.
Interestingly, owner Michael Alter had nothing but good things to say about Chatman.
"Pokey has done a great job and we're very grateful to her for taking us to the playoffs and the Finals," Alter said. "We're in a very good place. We have a great core of players, and some great up-and-comers.
"The question is, what is best for us at this given time and sometimes change is beneficial. Sometimes you just need a change."
Hmmm. Chatman is positive. Alter is positive. Warm fuzzies are being exchanged publicly. And yet Chatman was fired with a year left on her contract.
Good coaches don't get fired simply in the name of change. Something doesn't add up here. I'm not saying it's anything controversial or scandalous, but it's something. Something strange.
I've always considered Chatman to be a popular coach with her players, a cool customer who doesn't over-manage or run a "my way-or-the-highway" operation. The respect she gave players was reciprocated.
But behind closed doors … who knows? Were the players unhappy? Was management?
More important, was Delle Donne unhappy? From the outside, it didn't seem like it. But anything is possible. And as the face of the franchise, Delle Donne certainly would have Alter's ear and devotion.
I'm interested to see where Alter and the Sky go from here. Attracting top coaching talent to the WNBA isn't easy. The best coaches stay in college, where the money and security is much better.
Alter says that he wants to find a new coach/GM within the next 30 days.
"I'll be open," Alter said. "I'll be looking very broadly."
• Follow Patricia on Twitter@babcockmcgraw, and contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.