The Chicago Sky Should Only Expect To Improve After Their Franchise Record Start

Sylvia Fowles' dominant performance to finish the 2011 season was a precursor of great things to come in 2012 if the Chicago Sky could fix a persistent problem. Photo by Kailas Images.

The final game of the Chicago Sky's 2011 season was either a beacon of hope for the future or a disappointing reminder to fans of what could've or, better yet, should've been for a franchise that had yet to make a playoff appearance in its six years of existence.

Down 10 points at KeyArena to the defending champion Seattle Storm, Sky center Sylvia Fowles had one of the most dominant single-quarter performances of any center in history to cap off among the most dominant seasons of any player in league history.

With the playoff-bound Storm resting star center Lauren Jackson, Fowles' 19 points (of the Sky's 23) in the quarter tied a league record for the third most of all-time. Her 11 free throws made in the quarter stand as the most of any center in league history and one off a WNBA record and the attempts alone were also the most of any center in history and third-most of all-time.

Entering the game 30 points and 6 rebounds short of becoming the second player in WNBA history to average 20 points and 10 rebounds for a season, that fourth quarter performance helped her finish the with exactly the number of points to go with 11 rebounds. Her career-high 7 offensive rebounds in the game was enough to capture that rebounding part of the milestone season.

Some might minimize the dominant effort as merely a case of teammates feeding their star in a meaningless game - the Sky had already been disqualified from the playoffs and had little to play for in this game, win or lose.

"We battled," said Sky coach Pokey Chatman. "We didn't shoot the basketball very well, but I thought we stayed aggressive and attacked. The bottom line is it's a loss. We're done and we have a lot of work to do in the offseason."

Nevertheless, the very fact of finishing the season by narrowly focusing on getting the ball to Fowles was significant, if only because it's something they had struggled to do in the 6'6" center's four years in the WNBA to that point.

2011 Season in Review

eFg%

Tov%

Oreb%

Fta/Fga

Chicago

47.58%

19.81%

28.55%

0.29

Opp

45.49%

16.48%

28.31%

0.30

Weighted

eFg%

Tov%

Oreb%

fta/fga

Chicago

0.21

-0.28

0.01

-0.04

2011 Four Factors numbers for the Chicago Sky relative to their opponents.

As much focus as there has been from fans on getting the ball to Fowles, the Sky's most significant problem last season was simply maintaining possession of the ball long enough to execute anything - you can't get the ball to anyone if the other team gets it first.

Despite the dominant performance about Fowles, the Sky turned the ball over four times in that final period of 2011 and that led to six points for the Storm. Unfortunately, that was typical of the Sky, who averaged a league-high 17.61 turnovers per game last season. As a result, they allowed the most points off turnovers in the Eastern Conference last season (18.5 per game), which undermined an otherwise solid defense.

Clearly their inability to own the rebounding margin was also something that needed to be addressed - they also allowed the second-most second chance points in the Eastern Conference (11.68 per game) - but their major task of the offseason was clear: they needed to find ways to build a system that could handle the ball more efficiently.

Key personnel departure

Wnba_2011_chicagopreviewstats_html_m2e5f9f9d_medium

The departure of center Michelle Snow from last year's team is sort of emblematic of what the Sky ultimately prioritized this offseason.

Clearly Michelle Snow was an asset in that she was the team's best defensive rebounder (24.8% defensive rebounding percentage), but she also had a turnover ratio of 20.83% which was higher than average for an interior player. In releasing Snow and Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton (the team's second-most turnover prone player and fourth-best defensive rebounder), the Sky at the very least cut out some turnovers from their rotation by players who - quite honestly - didn't fit quite as well with Fowles as they might have hoped.

But the most important statistical tidbit is that huge chunk of the Sky's production that belonged to Sylvia Fowles - it was the largest of anyone in the league and the strongest argument for selecting her as MVP, despite the team not making the playoffs again. So rather than looking solely at statistical value, the Sky went after championship experience to replace their outgoing players and help get the team over that playoff hump.

2012 Veteran Additions

SPI Style

Min/G

VCR

TS%

Tov%

Oreb%

FTR

Usg%

Value Added

4-year RAPM

Swin Cash

M

33.18

1.02 >

51.27 >

15.26 <

6.33 =

35.70 >

22.83

-1.95

1.20

Ticha Penicheiro

DU

23.74

1.04 >

59.83 >

17.56 <

1.09 <

35.81 >

14.05

2.95

1.90

Ruth Riley

IU

18.95

0.93 >

53.23 >

11.62 >

4.83 <

15.56 <

14.86

1.14

0.3

Le'coe Willingham

IP

19.08

1.03 >

52.82 >

15.55 >

11.21 >

28.80 <

18.73

0.52

1.80

2011 statistics for the Sky's new additions.

It was as though a trip to at least two WNBA Finals was a requirement for the Sky in making their offseason acquisitions.

Each of their four new vets had at least one ring and Swin Cash and Le'coe Willingham had multiple rings, including one earned together with the Seattle Storm from their historic 2010 title run. Trading their #2 pick for veterans like Cash and Willingham signaled that the Sky are in win now mode with Fowles growing as a franchise player and perennial MVP candidate.

Each of these signings is significant in their own way as evidenced by the numbers above: Riley and Willingham bring in better ball handling posts than they had previously - Riley was one of the best passing interior players in the league last season (her -0.15 pure point rating was actually above league average); Cash adds a versatile wing who does a little bit of everything; TIcha Penicheiro is easily one of the greatest point guards in league history and despite turning the ball over more often than average, she was also the second-most efficient distributor in the league (4.58 pure point rating).

However, Penicheiro is probably the most significant new addition for this turnover-prone team and her above average VCR at least suggests that she'll be able to contribute as many quality minutes as she did last season. They'll need her savvy as a distributor not only because she was arguably the best shot creator in the league last season - by the creation ratio standard - but also because point guard has been a position of weakness for the franchise for its entire existence, despite Courtney Vandersloot being an All-Star last season.

2012 Outlook

Returners

SPI Style

Min/G

VCR

TS%

Tov%

Oreb%

FTR

Usg

Value Added

4-Year RAPM

Sylvia Fowles

IS

34.56

1.81 >

63.74 >

14.74 >

10.74 >

45.17 >

24.27

1.94

2.90

Shay Murphy

M

20.51

1.25 >

50.87 >

15.04 <

15.99 >

33.33 >

25.48

-0.07

-0.6

Epiphanny Prince

SP

29.44

1.17 >

48.20 =

8.90 >

2.90 <

25.93 >

25.48

-2.06

-2.00

Carolyn Swords

IU

7.53

1.13 >

60.57 >

18.07 <

9.82 >

45.28 >

16.51

0.44

-0.60

Courtney Vandersloot

DU

22.87

0.62 <

46.67 <

20.23 <

0.81 <

21.86 <

19.10

-1.53

2.00

Tamera Young

M

23.99

0.77 <

47.54 <

16.38 <

6.53 =

31.67 >

19.20

-1.25

0.90

2011 statistics for returning Sky players in 2012.

Strengths

  • Shooting efficiency: Perhaps the underrated aspect of Penicherio's addition is that she was the most efficient scoring distributor in the league last season, not because she's got the best jump shot out there but because of her ability to get to the free throw line at such a high rate. Granted, Penicheiro also has a usage rate that reflects her pass-first mentality, but the bottom line is she is still an exceptional decision maker with the ball in her hands and can clearly help a team that has high-usage scoring threats like Fowles and Prince to complement.
  • Rebounding: The Sky should be able to continue outrebounding their opponents this season and a large part of that should be the additions of Riley and Willingham - Riley's defensive rebounding percentage of 19.3% last season was comparable to Snow's and Willingham has been a top ten offensive rebounder for two years straight (11.2% offensive rebounding percentage last season). Along with Cash who adds another solid offensive rebounder for her style of play, the Sky should match up well with most teams on the boards.
  • Versatility: While Cash, Murphy, and Young give the Sky three versatile forwards who can defend the perimeter, Willingham is also an interior player who can shoot the three - her 45.2% 3-point shooting for the Storm in 2010 is no small part of what made the team successful, in addition to her rebounding. The Sky have a number of combinations to play with this season and as they get comfortable with each other - and get Penicheiro healthy - they'll only become more dangerous.
  • Defense: Tamera Young has been among the league's better perimeter defenders over the last four years by Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus, but the addition of Cash gives them another option to help defend wings while Penicheiro is a bigger guard than Vandersloot who is capable of being disruptive on the perimeter. They can go small and quick to defend transition teams or go a bit bigger in the paint to defend stronger rebounding teams. Although Riley isn't always recognized as such, her defensive 4-year RAPM of 2.6 is among the best in the league and she has been among the top shot blockers by percentage in WNBA history 5.15%. Most of all, having a 6'6" athlete like Fowles sitting in the middle makes life easier for everyone.

Questions:

  • Can Courtney Vandersloot develop into an efficient starter? Despite the All-Star selection, Vandersloot was the most turnover prone starting point guard in the league last season - and among the most turnover-prone distributors period - with a turnover ratio of 20.23%. Yet that only begins to describe her below average VCR among distributors, which is also the result of well below average scoring efficiency for a distributor. A lot of her struggles last year could be attributed to lacking strength and simply a natural adjustment to the speed and physical play of the pro game. But no matter what it is, improved play from her at the point guard spot would aid the team immensely.
  • How much can they improve upon that turnover problem? Penicheiro will certainly help the turnover problem in addition to Vandersloot hopefully improving and it remains to be seen how the minutes will be divided as Penicheiro has yet to play a game this season due to injury. Another option is using Epiphanny Prince at point guard who is obviously more of a scorer, but also a far less turnover prone ball handler. That combination of ball handlers should be enough to help curb the problem, again assuming improvement from Vandersloot and Penicheiro producing similar to her 2011 numbers.
  • How much will Sonja Petrovic add? Petrovic is not listed among the players above because she's a rookie coming in from overseas whose numbers are hard to translate into WNBA production. But what we do know is that she played for Chatman in Moscow with Spartak and it's unlikely that Chatman would bring her to Chicago if she didn't think she could contribute.
  • How strong of a 3-point shooting team will they be? The Sky have been best in recent years when they surround Fowles with shooters to spread the court. They lost two of their top 3-point shooters from last season and Penicheiro is obviously not much of a shooter. The biggest question might be whether both Cash and Willingham can return to 2010 shooting form.

Breakout player

It's weird to call Prince a "breakout player", but this could be her year to transition from All-Star to All-WNBA (and the rest of the team is veterans or second year players, who can't really breakout because one would expect improvement from a rookie). Prince's VCR suggests that she can do even more than she did in 2011 with some consistency and improving her scoring efficiency would be the thing to watch as someone who's a high usage scorer. But another potential area of improvement for Prince is her ball handling efficiency - her pure point rating has improved in each of the two years in the WNBA and is already much improved this season.

Season PPR
2010 0.20
2011 1.09
2012 ???

Going back to the turnover problem, if Prince can continue her development as a playmaker the Sky will benefit greatly. That's not to put the problem on her, but every little bit helps and she's demonstrated that she has some room to grow into a very efficient playmaker.

2012 Outlook: Eastern Conference title contender

People who have been patient enough to follow my development as a WNBA fan even before the beginning of this blog might remember that the Sky were my favorite team after I decided to give the WNBA a second chance a few years back. A lot of that had to do with Fowles being the type of franchise player a team could build around and her seemingly starting to come into her own in the 2008 Olympics; I obviously wasn't alone in that, but it's worth noting - Fowles offers an asset that few teams in the league can match.

Yet Fowles is already being judged on her inability to carry a team to a playoff berth despite contributing more to her team statistically than any player in the league. And all of the Sky's offseason moves point to helping her get there.

With Fowles, Prince and a generally more versatile roster than perhaps they're given credit for, the Sky almost have to make the playoffs this season. The question is how far they can go. And when you look at their roster and their room for growth, there's little reason to believe they can't challenge for the Eastern Conference title and a trip to the WNBA Finals. The reason is simple, statistically speaking: whereas every other team in the East entered the season with a major flaw that they didn't really correct for, at full strength the Sky actually have considerably less weaknesses than the field and a roster versatile enough to compete with anyone.

Admittedly, that assumes a lot of growth and things breaking the right way for them. But they're already off to a franchise-record 4-1 start while still struggling with that major question mark about the turnovers; that's what makes the development of Vandersloot and the addition of Penicheiro so significant to this team's fortunes.

If they fix that problem - and they have the personnel to do so - there's no reason to believe that they couldn't make a long playoff run in their first time there because they have so many players who have done it before.

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