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The Chicago Sky: A WNBA model of Ted Leonsis' Ten Point Rebuilding Plan

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The Chicago Sky's team building process from expansion franchise to Eastern Conference Champions is an example that Washington Mystics owner Ted Leonsis' Ten Point Rebuilding Plan can work in the WNBA.

Elena Delle Donne and the Chicago Sky are showing that Washington Mystics owner Ted Leonsis' Ten Point Rebuilding Plan can work in the WNBA.
Elena Delle Donne and the Chicago Sky are showing that Washington Mystics owner Ted Leonsis' Ten Point Rebuilding Plan can work in the WNBA.
L - Brian Spurlock, USA Today Sports; R - Brad Mills, USA Today Sports

Earlier this week, I noted that the Washington Mystics have been following team owner Ted Leonsis' Ten Point Rebuilding Plan to help turn around their team. This plan was used to rebuild the other two team Leonsis owns, namely the Washington Capitals NHL team and the Washington Wizards NBA team. I also noted that this plan could be used by other teams in the league.

At the same time, Nate and I were talking earlier this week about the Chicago Sky, who will be in their first-ever WNBA Finals. As we were talking, we ended up wondering how well this team fits in with the points outlined in Leonsis' plan. On the surface, here are some reasons why the Sky piqued my interest:

  • Every Sky player is 28 years old or younger. The oldest player is Sylvia Fowles, who will turn 29 on October 6. In fact, this team was the youngest in the WNBA back on May 30.
  • Four of the Sky's starters (Fowles, Elena Delle Donne, Epiphanny Prince, Courtney Vandersloot) were WNBA Draft Lottery Picks (Top-4).
  • Though some older veterans have played on this team in the past, they were brought aboard to complement the Sky, as opposed to being the foundation of the team.

That got me to start thinking more about the Sky, and how they got to this point. After looking at each of the points in the plan, the Sky ultimately followed it really well. Therefore, the Chicago Sky's rebuild is a case study that the points in Leonsis' plan can turn WNBA teams around for the better.

So without further ado, let's go through each of the Ten Points in the Plan, and see just how closely they adhered to it, given the context of the WNBA.

1. Ask yourself the big question: "Can this team--as constructed--ever win a championship?" If the answer is yes -- stay the course and try to find the right formula -- if the answer is no, then plan to rebuild.

Did the Sky follow this point? The Sky franchise was founded in 2005 and played its first season in 2006. Since existing teams generally protect multiple players from being sent to the new team in an expansion draft, it's rare to see a team acquire a superstar through this method. For the record, here are the players selected in the Expansion Draft:

Player Team
Jia Perkins Charlotte Sting
Brooke Wyckoff Connecticut Sun
Elaine Powell Detroit Shock
Keisha Brown Houston Comets
Deanna Jackson Indiana Fever
Laura Macchi Los Angeles Sparks
Stacey Lovelace Minnesota Lynx
DeTrina White New York Liberty
Ashley Robinson Phoenix Mercury
Chelsea Newton Sacramento Monarchs
Bernadette Ngoyisa San Antonio Silver Stars
Francesca Zara Seattle Storm
Stacey Dales Washington Mystics

As you can see, there weren't any such stars on this list.

Furthermore, while expansion franchises do get higher draft picks than playoff teams, they generally don't get a pick as high as most lottery teams. In the 2006 WNBA Draft, Chicago acquired Candice Dupree, a forward from Temple. Fortunately, she played at a high level for Chicago and was an All-Star in three of her four seasons there (2006, 2007, and 2009).

TL;dr version: The answer to the big question is "No." The Sky had to build their team with no real superstar talent. But for an expansion team, that is to be expected.

2. Once you make the decision to rebuild--be transparent ... Agree to what makes for a successful rebuild--in our case it is "a great young team with upside that can make the playoffs for a decade and win a [championship] or two."

Did the Sky follow this point? Expansion teams, including the Sky sold this. And the current team certainly is a "great young team with upside" that has a championship window when healthy.

3. Once you decide to rebuild--bring the house down to the foundation.

Did the Sky follow this point? Technically, no because the Sky was an expansion team, not an existing team that ran its course. But that being said, the team built from the ground up, which is what this point emphasizes. So, you can say that the Sky did.

4. Commit to building around the draft.

Did the Sky follow this point? Yes. Here are the players on the 2014 Sky team, who were drafted by the organization:

Player Year Pick
Sylvia Fowles 2008 2
Epiphanny Prince 2010 4
Courtney Vandersloot 2011 3
Elena Delle Donne 2013 2
Markeisha Gatling 2014 10
Gennifer Brandon 2014 22
Jamierra Faulkner 2014 34

Considering that seven players, or over half of the team was a homegrown draft pick, that certainly shows that Chicago was committed to building around the draft. That's even considering that some other picks, like the aforementioned Dupree and 2009 first round pick Kristi Toliver were traded to other teams. We'll talk more about them later.

5. Be patient with young players-- throw them in the pool to see if they can swim. Believe in them. Show them loyalty.

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Marc L. Baer, U.S. Presswire

Did the Sky follow this point? Overall, yes. This is definitely the case when you look at the list of Sky draft picks in point four.

The only Sky first round pick who didn't get much playing time was Kristi Toliver, the third pick in the 2009 Draft. She was behind Dominique Canty and Jia Perkins, who formed Chicago's starting backcourt during the franchise's early years.

But generally, the first round picks the Sky drafted received ample playing time to show what they could do.

6. Make sure the GM, coach, owner and business folks are on the EXACT same page ... Manage to let the GM and coach NOT be afraid of taking risks, and make sure there are no surprises ... Let the right people do their jobs.

Did the Sky follow this point? All-in-all I'd say that Sky owner Michael Alter has been on the same page with his GM and Head Coach, at least from the standpoint that he gave them latitude to make risky moves most teams would probably not make.

For example, then-Sky HC/GM Steven Key traded Kristi Toliver for a 2011 second round pick right before the 2010 season started. That pretty much implied that Toliver would be a bust at the time. But from hindsight, Toliver developed into an All-Star.

Then, before the Sky's 2012 season, Pokey Chatman traded the second overall pick in that draft for veteran forwards Swin Cash and Le'Coe Willingham from the Seattle Storm. From hindsight, the jury's still out on Shekinna Stricklen, the player Seattle selected -- but Cash did not lead the Sky to the 2012 WNBA Playoffs either because she was starting to decline, along with injuries to Prince and Fowles.

I may quibble with how well the Sky fits in with "no surprises" though. This is because I wonder if the Sky organization wished if they could revisit the decision to trade Toliver and/or the second pick in the 2012 Draft. Of course, with hindsight, they did get Elena Delle Donne -- but I still wonder if they could have had Toliver, the second pick in the 2012 Draft, AND Delle Donne. If they did, just how good could that team be?

7. No jerks allowed. Implement a no jerk policy. Draft and develop and keep high character people. Team chemistry is vital to success. ... Dump [distractions as quickly as possible].

Did the Sky follow this point? Yes. No team wants to deal with headcases. And fortunately, I don't think the Sky had locker room cancers. But at the same time, teams do not want to deal with distractions.

Let's revisit Candice Dupree's situation in Chicago when she left. She requested a trade to a team where she would have a better chance to win. Dupree's request was fulfilled, where she was dealt to the Phoenix Mercury in a multi-team deal before the 2010 season.

But let's say Dupree did not get that trade request fulfilled. There could be hard feelings and that becomes a distraction, not only to Dupree and team management, but also other Sky teammates, especially if Chicago didn't make the 2010 playoffs with her.

Ultimately, it was a good move for the Chicago Sky to do this from this vantage point, because the trade helped eliminate a possible distraction for both sides. This is even if the players they acquired for her: Shameka Christon and Cathrine Kraayveld weren't as good as Dupree was.

8. Add veterans to the team via shorter term deals as free agents. ... They are very important for leadership, but they must complement the young core, [NOT try to overtake them] ... Identify and protect the core.

Ticha_medium

Michael Hickey, U.S. Presswire

Did the Sky follow this point? Let me start off this point by saying this. In any rebuild, you must have veteran leadership to guide the youngsters. It's a point that even I sometimes don't emphasize enough. However, as Leonsis noted here, the veterans cannot be put in roles that hinder the development of younger players. That's where I stand on veterans who play on teams going through youth movements.

With the first statement, the Sky broke this rule with Swin Cash deal in 2012. However, that first statement is kind of idealistic to me. And Cash was a complementary player during her two-year stint in Chicago, so her acquisition still fits in with the principle of this point.

A veteran signing like that of Ticha Penicheiro before 2012 does fit in to a T, though she retired after that season. Same can also be said for current Sixth Woman of the Year Allie Quigley, who signed with Chicago in 2013, even though she was never expected to be a threat to Vandersloot or Prince in the starting lineup when she did.

The young core of the Sky consists of Delle Donne, Fowles, Vandersloot, and Prince. No veteran acquisition the team made was done for the purposes of overtaking any of these players. And existing veterans who played the young core's positions were generally dealt to other teams or relegated to the bench most of the time so the younger players can flourish.

Ultimately, the Sky followed this rule for the most part.

9. Measure and improve. Have shared metrics ... don't be afraid to trade young assets for other draft picks to build back end backlog ... protect "optionality" to make trades at deadlines or in off season.

Did the Sky follow this point? I will say the answer here is no for the latter parts. But that's primarily because of the nature of the WNBA as opposed to the NHL or NBA. Trades are harder to make in a 12 team league as opposed to a 30 team league.

However, the Sky certainly weren't afraid of trading young assets for draft picks, like the Kristi Tolver trade. With shared metrics, I hope the answer is yes there.

10. Never settle--never rest--keep on improving ... Refresh the plan when needed but for the right reasons.

Did the Sky follow this point? Yes.

From hindsight, I think Chicago should have made the playoffs in 2011 and even 2012, but injuries ultimately hampered them. Let's take the 2012 Sky team as an example. When it was apparent that Chicago may miss the playoffs at least partly because of injury, I'm not going to blame the Sky organization for deciding to position itself better for a higher 2013 Draft Pick, instead of trying to make a postseason run.

After all, Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins, and Delle Donne were available in the next draft. That is more important than any short term gratification from a playoff berth, considering how their WNBA careers were projected to be.

Concluding thoughts

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L – Geoff Burke, USA Today Sports; C- Brad Mills, USA Today Sports; R - Scott Cunningham, NBA

I think some people try to discredit Leonsis' plan as a way to rebuild because the Washington Capitals and Wizards have not won a championship. This is even though both teams successfully rebuilt themselves from bottom-feeding to up-and-coming playoff caliber teams around young cores. I'm not counting the Mystics here because they are in an earlier stage of this process.

My reconciliation with that point is this: The Ten Point Rebuilding Plan gets a team from being irrelevant to being relevant over several seasons. By that time, the "young core" would enter its prime, when they would be the veteran leaders who are part of deep playoff runs. If a team uses this or any plan to get itself from being irrelevant into a team with a window to contend, then I'm calling that plan a success, as Leonsis noted in point two. The Capitals did that, even though they failed to win a Stanley Cup. And the Wizards are now in that picture as well.

Winning a championship requires a good team building plan. But it also requires good coaching and luck, which weren't noted in that plan. Those latter points may partly explain why the Capitals weren't able to take advantage of their hottest seasons in 2008-09 and 2009-10, the latter when they won the President's Trophy, the league's award for the team with the best regular season. Then, the 2013-14 Capitals team missed the playoffs altogether. However, that doesn't take away the fact that they were able to turn the team around from being irrelevant into a contender.

Also unlike the Capitals and Wizards, who blew up their teams in 2004 and 2010 respectively, the Sky were an expansion team. However, all three teams decided to build through the draft and around young cores, as opposed to creating false hopes for the playoffs.

I will acknowledge that the Sky's 15-19 record in the 2014 regular season certainly left room to be desired. However, that record came from injuries to multiple core players, such as Fowles, Delle Donne, and Vandersloot who led Chicago to a franchise-best 24-10 record the season before. In addition, all three were healthy enough to play by the time the Playoffs came around, and Chicago's now the last team standing in the East.

Although the ride was bumpier than it should have been, the Sky managed to add multiple lottery picks over several years who have become the young core you see today. This core group now has made two straight playoff appearances, was the #1 seed in the East when healthy, and now made the Finals after the core group was healthy enough to play together in the postseason.

In summary, the Chicago Sky followed the principles within Leonsis' Ten Point Rebuilding Plan and have built themselves successfully from it. Even though it is a stretch for them to win the Finals this year, Chicago still looks like the team to beat in the East, and possibly the entire WNBA for years to come.