Entering the 2021 WNBA season, two teams that intrigued as championship contenders were the Chicago Sky and Phoenix Mercury.
On paper, a Candace Parker-powered Sky and a Mercury team built to maximize their Big 3 were two of the most talented teams.
In reality, things did not unfold as imagined. For both teams, instances of excellence were balanced by disappointing defeats, with injuries contributing to, but not solely responsible for, their inconsistencies
So, entering the 2021 WNBA playoffs — with Phoenix the No. 5 seed and Chicago the No. 6 seed — the two squads still intrigue, begging the questions: Are the Sky and Mercury still championship contenders? Can Chicago or Phoenix actually win the WNBA title?
Let’s try to figure out the answers, beginning with the Sky.
What’s the deal with the Sky?
Chicago, arguably, won the off season, enticing Candace Parker to depart the franchise she was synonymous with for her hometown team. Parker was to provide the Sky with a defensive fulcrum and more dynamic playmaking, in addition to championship experience, thus allowing the Sky, mired in the middle of the standings over the past several seasons, to ascend to the top of the league.
Instead, Chicago, once again, finished in the middle of the pack, as the 16-16 No. 6 seed. To have a chance to win the title, they must survive a pair of single-elimination playoff games to advance to the semifinals.
While a troublesome ankle injury to Parker certainly contributed to the Sky’s inability to meet expectations, as Parker missed nine games, Chicago still underachieved.
This was especially true over the second half of the season. Unlike other expected title contenders, Chicago did not have a significant number of Olympians, with only Stefanie Dolson making the tiresome trip to Tokyo. Yet, the Sky did not take advantage of this edge, finishing 6-6 in August and September. Even more maddeningly, the flashes of the Sky’s championship potential, epitomized by their two-game sweep of the Storm in Seattle, were offset by too many uninspiring performances.
If one wants to be optimistic, they could think the “real” Sky is the team that showed off their upside. They have the talent and depth necessary to escape a pair of elimination games and then test either the Sun or the Aces. More pessimistically, maybe the Sky showed us exactly who they are — a talented team that cannot put everything together consistently enough to become more than the sum of their parts.
That no team outside of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds has advanced to the WNBA Finals under the current playoff format suggests the odds are stacked against Chicago, no matter how well it plays when the postseason lights come on.
Other factors also do not inspire optimism. Chicago’s first-round opponent, the Dallas Wings, won the season series between the two teams, with the Wings taking two of the three games from the Sky. Facing a confident young team with nothing to lose in a pressured-packed win-or-go home game? That is not a comfortable position to be in.
Yet, because of their accumulation of talent, it is hard to discount Chicago. More than any other team, they have a number of players who can pop off for a big game. This season, Kahleah Copper established herself as a certified offensive threat. Allie Quigley, of course, can bury opponents in 3-pointers. Despite an up-and-down season, Diamond DeShields has the tools needed to turn in a superstar performance. Courtney Vandersloot can orchestrate an offense better than anyone in the W. And then there’s Parker!
If they can defeat Dallas and sneak past Minnesota, their likely second round opponent, the Sky would be rewarded with a meeting with the Sun or Aces. Although the Sky did win the season series 2-1 against Connecticut, none of the three games are relevant to a potential playoff matchup, as presumptive MVP Jonquel Jones missed all three contests. Chicago lost its season series against Vegas, 2-1, with the final game being a 103-70 loss.
A series win over the Sun or Aces certainly would confirm that the Sky are, in fact, a team that can play up to and beyond their talent. If not, questions will persist about Chicago’s unrealized potential.
What’s the deal with the Mercury?
Like Chicago, Phoenix sought to level up this past offseason, exchanging draft picks for win-now players in Kia Nurse and Megan Walker who, presumably, would vault the team into firmer championship contention over the final few seasons of Diana Taurasi’s career.
Overall, this move was not the value add envisioned.
While Nurse is a plus defender and transition threat, her offensive game remains too inconsistent, largely because of her streaky, below-average shooting. The organization’s bet on Walker did not pay off, as she struggled to earn a regular place in the rotation.
During the first half of the season, when Taurasi also missed nine games, the Mercury floundered around .500, resembling the underachieving squads of the past few seasons.
However, despite Taurasi missing seven more games, the Mercury found their groove over the second half of the season. Much credit goes to Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith, who both played some of the best ball of their WNBA careers. Griner was an active and engaged presence, exemplified by her multiple slam dunks, while Diggins-Smith ramped up her signature determination, relentlessly pressuring opposing defenses with her foul-seeking savvy.
Sky to BG you love to see! pic.twitter.com/fB3hkeazY0— Phoenix Mercury - X (@PhoenixMercury) September 19, 2021
The pair propelled Phoenix’s 10-game winnings streak.
If Taurasi is healthy and can tap into her White Mamba mode (and can play more than no defense), Phoenix’s Big 3 could carry them on a deep playoff run, especially if they get just enough from the energetic Brianna Turner, spunky Sophie Cunningham and steady Kia Vaughn.
Compared to Chicago, Phoenix also has a more favorable playoff path. The Mercury will meet the New York Liberty and then would meet the Seattle Storm, two teams that do not have the interior personnel needed to handle the best version of Griner.
Yet, Phoenix’s performance against teams above .500 versus those below .500 remains a cause for pause. The Mercury went 3-9 against the league’s top four teams, suggesting that they do not have the extra gear needed to advance to the semifinals, much less the Finals.