On paper, it seems clear that anything short of earning a franchise-first playoff berth should be considered a disappointment for the Chicago Sky.
They have one of the most dominant low-post players in the world in 6'6" center Sylvia Fowles, a promising young scorer in second-year guard Epiphanny Prince, All-Star Michelle Snow coming to the team in a trade, and one of the best point guard prospects ever to enter the WNBA in Courtney Vandersloot.
Their talented roster is led by first-year coach Pokey Chatman, whose resume includes Euroleague championships and NCAA Final Four appearances.
Yet for all that might immediately stand out about this team, Chatman called attention to a player that might not immediately stand out as worthy of mention as one of the team's most significant players.
"I want to say this: probably the most helpful person on my staff is Dominique Canty," Chatman volunteered when asked about Vandersloot's development in an interview with Swish Appeal last week. "Dominique's the most helpful - she's more experienced than me in this league. She knows the players, she knows the coaches, she knows all of the ins and outs."
And given the collection of talent the Sky have, it actually makes sense to begin with Canty's significance.
How balanced are the Chicago Sky?
What immediately stands out about the Sky's roster - in addition to the fact that Canty was the only player to have the tendencies of a distributor in terms of her assist ratio (23.21%) and an about average turnover ratio for a distributor (15.34%). All of their other guards had less willing passers (lower assist ratios). Jia Perkins was the only guard who was more efficient and she was traded to the San Antonio Silver Stars.
"I used to call her 'Big Shot Bob' because she made a lot of crunch time shots for us," Canty noted in a weekend interview with Swish Appeal. "She's been big for us. But, you know, that's the business of basketball - people come and people go. I hate to see her leave but I guess it's a business decision. So I wish her the best
Among holdovers, that leaves a bit of a void because Perkins was able to share ball handling, leadership, and scoring responsibilities when on the court. But it also makes Canty's evolution from more of a scoring guard to someone who could efficiently decide whether to score or pass efficiently more of a necessity than a fortuitous circumstance for the Sky.
"When I coached against her down in the SEC she was a scorer and we had to form game plan against her - she was putting up 21 points a game," Chatman added about Canty. "She's had a nice career in this league because she's transferred into a point guard, a combo guard."
On the other end of the ball, in losing a strong defender like Jia Perkins, Chatman also sees defending the wing as something that might pose a problem for the Sky.
"Someone is going have to emerge in terms of defensive stopper," Chatman said when asked about what kinds of things she's concerned about when thinking about making cuts. "There's some great small forwards and shooting guards in this league that we have to stop, from Taurasi to Cappie to Catchings and on and on."
But in the post, trading Perkins to San Antonio for 6'5" center Michelle Snow as well as drafting 6'6" center Carolyn Swords and (recently waived) Amy Jaeschke, Chicago has helped fill a rather glaring lack of depth on the interior on both ends of the floor.
How will the Sky's new additions help them?
On the surface, it would appear that in adding Snow and (potentially) Swords that the Sky still have a positional imbalance, leaving a void at power forward. But Chatman isn't looking at her new post additions in terms of positional designations but in terms of how they fit what she envisions doing on the court.
Snow has been the player that has impressed her most in camp.
"I think the player who has stood out the most has been Snow," Chatman said. "Just in terms of the stats we keep in practice and she's assumed a leadership role."
Offensively, Snow's scoring efficiency should help the Sky improve upon their conference-low points per possession from last season. But Chatman's comments on Snow are also a pretty good hint that the Sky are looking to play more of a high-low game this season.
"I've been in Europe for four years and I played against her for two," Chatman said when asked about what factored into acquiring Snow. "So to my advantage, I've gotten a sneak peak at her and her ability to play the high post and spread the defense. Now if I didn't have that, maybe I don't make the trade. But just because over the years I've watched her extend her game, I've watched her play in other leagues and it was something that worked out for us."
Both Jaeschke and Swords - skilled centers with shooting touch - seemed to fit that mold as draft prospects as well. When we spoke last week, Chatman didn't exclude the possibility of keeping both rookie centers but did have more to say about Swords.
"Caroyln Swords had a really, really, really good training camp," Chatman said, also noting that Swords is a little better down low than Jaeschke. "She's well-coached, she's fundamental. She's really skilled."
Having post players that can stretch the defense to give Fowles more room to operate is definitely something the Sky lost when they traded Candice Dupree to the Phoenix Mercury last year.
Defensively, Chatman currently plans to start Snow at the power forward next to Fowles, which could require a bit of an adjustment period but nothing that she considers uncommon for a player coming to a new team.
"It's an issue with a lot of people defending the elite players in the league," Chatman said when asked about Snow's ability to defend the power forward spot. "I think it's something we're gonna have to look at it...I think just in terms of Snow being able to take care of the boards and alter some shots that allows us to gamble on defense. It will be an adjustment."
Another former Tennessee Lady Vols player is also part of that plan to spread defenses in 2011 second-round draft pick Angie Bjorklund. Chatman acknowledged that she's seen some good things from Bjorklund saying that she, "didn't necessarily have a good game against the Chinese National Team, but in practices she's played well."
However the prize draft pick that should help balance the roster a little more is Courtney Vandersloot, who has already shown flashes of the potential that made her the third pick in the WNBA draft. Poise is what both Chatman and Canty highlighted about as impressive about Vandersloot at this point.
"She has poise as a young player - that was very surprising," Canty said when asked about what has struck her about Vandersloot so far. "She's very smart. She knows the game of basketball. She runs, she gets it up and down the court, she can shoot the ball. She does pretty much everything coming in as a rookie. And I just love how cool and calm she is - I've never seen her get rattled yet. And that's different because being in the league now coming in as a rookie point guard, she's very [poise].
"She's my successor and I think she'll pass the test."
Chatman has cautioned that people shouldn't be so quick to anoint Vandersloot as a starting point guard in the league, noting that the entire team will provide a support system to help bring her along.
"I think it's up to the rest of the team so it's not all on Courtney," Chatman said when asked about how far away Vandersloot might be from being a starter-caliber point guard. "But we'll see."
Part of that support system is Canty, but another part is the ongoing development of Epiphanny Prince.
Which Sky player can be expected to improve?
As described in last night's post (How Epiphanny Prince's Russian National Team Commitment Could Affect The Chicago Sky), Prince is by far the player who stands to improve most and with Shameka Christon out for "at least eight weeks", there's a good chance that she will be their primary perimeter scorer.
Yet even with the addition of Vandersloot and the development of Prince, Canty will continue to be a starter at the point. And not only will she be a starter, but a mentor for both young guards.
How well do the Sky players complement one another?
The combination of internal development and strategic additions, make the Sky look like one of the strongest units in the league on paper. And last season might give us a glimpse of how it all fits together.
When the Sky were at their best last season, it began with synergy - their leading ball handlers were more efficient distributing the ball, their shooters shot the ball nearly 20% better from the three point line, and Fowles got to the free throw line more often. For a time, the Sky were the embodiment of this nebulous notion of basketball chemistry, capitalizing on possessions by keeping turnovers down, getting to the free throw line, getting high percentage shots and maximizing the threat of their MVP candidate in the paint.
With so many pieces needing to work well together to create the harmony they rode to an early-season four game winning streak, there are a multitude of explanations for why the Sky weren't able to maintain that last season. But their inability to remain consistent does point to a lack of balance on the roster last season. What they've done during the off-season is add some pieces that can fill in the blanks on the interior and help them adjust to different types of defenses. They should not only have a more versatile mix of interior and perimeter players, but also a strong mix of efficient high usage scorers and role players that can take advantage of scoring opportunities as they come.
Why Canty is so important
At the center of whatever hopes the Sky have for the playoffs is Canty, who Chatman will rely upon for insight and leadership on the floor, who teammates will rely upon to get the ball moving around the perimeter to find Fowles inside and knock down open shots, and from whom the team's promising young guards will gain guidance from a veteran whose game has grown over the years.
"I have to be her voice to the players when she's not around," Canty said when asked how she sees herself helping Chatman. "I have to be the one to step up - make sure everyone's head is on straight. Make sure everyone's focused. Make sure everyone is working hard because I am the veteran of the team. And she just wants me to take that leadership (role) and I'm trying to do so."
Of course, all of that sounds like it's just part of being a point guard leader. But as the Sky's longest tenured veteran, Canty's ability to do a little bit of everything - except conduct the business of making trades - is critical for the Sky's playoff hopes.
For background on the statistics and thinking informing these questions and their answers, click here.