As we kick off the 2016 WNBA season, question marks from seasons past hover over the Chicago Sky. Despite an MVP season from Elena Delle Donne in 2015, the team never recovered from losing center Sylvia Fowles.
The team was next to last in the league in defense, giving up nearly 80 points a game, and was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Indiana Fever.
The roster constructed by Sky head coach and general manager, Pokey Chatman, is solid on paper, but has a lot to prove. Guard Cappie Pondexter and center Erika de Souza, have championship experience, but both are entering their 11th seasons in the W -- not counting their stints overseas.
Chicago's young post players Cheyenne Parker, Clarissa Dos Santos, and 2016 first round draft pick Imani Boyette, all have tremendous potential but are relatively new to the pro game. For the Chicago Sky to make it back to the WNBA Finals, they're going to need to stay healthy and gel together rather quickly.
Adversity is nothing new to Chatman. She's dealt with holdouts from star players, injuries to core talent, an illness to Chicago's franchise, and still managed to take her team to the playoffs in three consecutive seasons. Pokey unequivocally plays the hand that she's dealt all while juggling egos, personal issues, and business decisions -- it ain't easy.
What Chicago faces now is an updated playoff system that may make winning a championship much harder than it was before, a break in the season that could disrupt the team's momentum, and the aforementioned uncertainties of their roster. Regardless of what else might come her way, Chatman is up for the challenge.
Swish Appeal: Last year the defense took a step back. What changes, if any, have been made to shore up the defense?
Pokey Chatman: I think it starts with me in terms of my emphasis from day one, also accountability with individual players and myself. If you went back and listened to our last press conference, Cappie Pondexter said something and I'm not quoting her, but it was regarding getting stops at the end of the day.
We tell our players all the time that we're all guarding the same actions -" pin downs, side pick, and roll. It's going to come down to a close out, keeping your man in front of you, contesting and blocking out after you guard those actions. It's pride, so it starts with me in terms of training camp. Obviously, we're going to mix some things up, but it's been the focal point. It's been better, but we still have a long way to go.
SA: You selected Imani Boyette in the first round of the draft. What's impressed you the most about her so far in camp and what does she need to improve on?
PC: She's 6'7" and she runs like a guard so you can get rim protection down the court relatively quick. That's something that's nice, so you don't have a Courtney Vandersloot trying to stop a speedy post player. You can get matched up really early.
I also think that her 6'7" length really helps us because if you're in a side pick and roll, and you're icing it she can really get some distance and still contest a shot, and also her ability to rebound the basketball, and if she can't rebound it, her ability to tip it and keep it alive.
Those three things on the defensive end of the floor helps her to find some comfort in that part of the game that she's found success. Offensively we like to play at a nice pace, so I think she can run with us as well.
Obviously, you can say this about a lot of players, but she's adjusting to the speed of the game and the physical nature of the game -- that will come. She works really hard. She asks questions like she's a point guard. I love that. She's an extremely intelligent young lady, so I'm pleased with everything she's taken in so far.
SA: At this point is Erika the starting center?
SA: What does Boyette need to do offensively to be in the rotation?
PC: She's so used to getting triple teamed in college, so we have to make sure she slows down in the post. She's getting position, but she's so used to having three people standing next to her and crowding her space that she catches and fans opposite a lot.
We're trying to explain to her, that she's going to have spacing, because of the players around her. We work on her staying low, chinning and checking and having some poise in the post. She has a really nice touch around the basket. I would say this about a lot of collegiate players, but she needs to work on her conditioning and building up some upper body strength.
SA: It seems like you have a lot more post players to choose from this year. Does that mean Elena is strictly at the small forward?
PC: No, it doesn't mean that. It would be a disservice to handicap my team. Part of Elena's uniqueness is her versatility. Especially with a more balanced schedule this year and different match ups it's nice to move some people around from a 3 to a 4 to a 2, and from a big lineup to a small lineup. So no, we'll move her around like we have in the past three years.
SA: I read a quote where Elena said you gave her about 15 things to work on this year, what are some of those things?
PC: [Laughs] Oh man! Fifteen? Was she serious? I think part of that comes from if you're playing 4, 3, and 2 people only think about it from the offensive end of the floor. In Elena's mind, she's thinking, "If I'm playing these positions, people don't think about how it affects me defensively."
"If I'm on a forward what's my position in a pick and roll scheme, if I'm on a guard what's my position." It's two totally different things. It's just the basic mechanics of things. She can go from guarding a 5'8" two player to a 6'5" four player or a 6'7" post. I think it's more about her ability to play multiple positions. I'm not killing her too bad yet.
SA: Talk about the development of Laney and can she play some two-guard this year?
PC: Yes she can. She's had a really nice off-season and an impressive training camp. Her basketball IQ is there, her work ethic is there, and she wants to please. She's one of those players where she has that disciplined energy. We had practice at 10 o'clock, and we told them no groups because we wanted them to sleep in a little bit.
Of course, she calls Christie [Sides] and says, "Can we meet at 8 o'clock I don't want to be rushed." Two hours before! Don't misunderstand me, a lot of players are like that, but that's just Betnijah. You can see the fruits of her labor when we put it out there on the court.
SA: How does the Olympic break help or hurt the team?
PC: Help is the only way I'm gonna look at it unless we're on a crazy winning streak, then I won't like it at all. I think it's one of those things where you're just prepared for it. It's rest, reset, and regroup.
It's a really good time to have individual workouts within a season. The one thing that's difficult in the WNBA is the actual player development time.We're going to try to utilize that time for some development with small groups, big groups, team bonding, but also getting out into the community.
So many things that we like to do we don't have time for because we're on a flight the next day. It'll be nice during an Olympic year to watch one of our Olympians perform, watch America try to bring home another gold, but also get out into our community and not have to rush to go and get on an airplane the next day.
SA: How does the change in the playoff structure impact the Chicago Sky?
PC: [Laughs] It impacts everyone. You have the conferences, but also, you're competing against everyone else. If there is a misstep during the season and you're not one of those teams that gets a bye early on you could face a single elimination game, which is tough. It is who we are now.
There is an immediate extra sense of urgency now. We can't wait. Obviously every game counts, but I think it just keeps everything top of mind, but it also gives hope to a team that didn't have such a great run and happens to have a play-in game -" there is momentum and excitement there.
SA: Last year the season ended with Sylvia Fowles helping Minnesota win the championship, and she was named Finals MVP. Was it bittersweet to watch Syl win the title after holding out last year and so many years of you two being together?
PC: Absolutely not. I think sometimes with women's professional sports we always want to have this extra personal touch to it. What Sylvia did was exercise what she could rightfully do within the confines of the CBA.
I think it's because I coached her at LSU and I knew her that there is this personal thing to it. Not bittersweet at all. Sylvia is a third time Olympian for a reason. It was no surprise that she had a really good Finals series because she's a quality player.
SA: What has to happen for the Sky to be the last team standing and holding up that trophy this year?
PC: We can't be eleventh defensively. That's not saying offense is gonna come easy, but we all know from last year, and we all know from watching the Spurs in 2015. Everyone talks about their offensive production, but they don't talk about them being second or first defensively.
When you look at the Spurs now they're one of the best defensive teams but it doesn't make SportsCenter, nobody is writing articles about defensive efficiency, but inside this world we know that. In order to have that shot, we can't be in the bottom portion of the league in the defensive standings.