After suffering a disappointing 3-0 sweep in last year's WNBA Finals against the Phoenix Mercury, the Chicago Sky seem just as ready to make another run into August this season. Despite the poor showing in last year's Finals, the team has improved year after year in recent seasons, maintaining the best record in the East two seasons ago and reaching the championship series last year.
Their continued improvement is undoubtedly a product of the roster's perfect blend of youth and experience. Eleven of Chicago's players have been in the league for 3 years or fewer, including the four rookies currently on the training camp roster, leaving even more room for growth over the course of the season.
But veteran leadership is often cited as one of the things that transforms great teams to championship teams, unfortunately for the Sky, their longest-tenured veteran will soon be on her way out. Sylvia Fowles' refusal to negotiate a new contract with the Sky, and her following trade request changed the dynamic in Chicago, seemingly leaving a void in her wake.
Some analysts have even posited that her imminent departure casts a shadow over the Sky's chances to return to the WNBA Finals.
Luckily, Chicago has been preparing for this moment since draft day in 2013. Forward Elena Delle Donne, while not boasting the traditional post presence Fowles, is one of the WNBA's most dangerous scoring threats.
The former Rookie of the Year showed that she was ready to carry the team in last year's playoffs, leading the team in scoring through their run. Her versatility on offense is unparalleled, and Delle Donne will inevitably be counted on to make up some of the production lost by Fowles' eventual departure.
Delle Donne's playoff scoring is even more impressive in hindsight when you consider that she was fighting a back injury throughout the Sky's Finals run. After taking a hit in game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last year, she struggled with back spasms and inflammation all through the rest of the playoffs (for the record, she still managed to score a career-high 34 points in that game).
The injury's effect on her play was obvious after that, with coach Pokey Chatman even occasionally using Delle Donne as a decoy in the following games. Coupled with Delle Donne missing 17 games due to a continuous battle with Lyme disease, it's a wonder that the Sky made it to the Finals at all.
But they did. This season, a rested Elena Delle Donne will be the key to returning to September basketball, even without Sylvia Fowles. The team's offseason moves seem even more appropriate now with Fowles' absence; WNBA legend, USA gold medalist, and six-time All-Star Cappie Pondexter will play an instrumental role in filling the leadership gap that Fowles left vacant.
Her Finals experience is in fact one of the reasons Chatman decided to trade for her, hoping that the extra playoff experience would help lead the team away from a Finals sweep and towards a Finals victory.
Veteran Tamera Young will have to shoulder some of the load left behind by Fowles, and point guard Courtney Vandersloot will be expected to run the offense after Epiphany Prince's trade to the Liberty.
But between a revitalized Cappie Pondexter's leadership and a healthy season of Elena Delle Donne, the Sky are poised to not only return to the WNBA Finals this year, but to take home the championship trophy for the first time in Chicago Sky history.