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Can The Chicago Sky Keep Their Championship Core Intact?

The Chicago Sky won the WNBA championship. But that’s yesterday’s news.

Welcome to the WNBA offseason, friends.

The pursuit of the 2022 season title has begun in earnest, and it’s worth considering what we’ve learned about our champs, how they can construct a run at a repeat and whether the Sky can — gasp — get even better.

Let’s start with what the 2021 regular season is worth now, after Chicago posted a 16-16 record and needed to win multiple play-in games while starting both the semifinals and finals on the road: It’s worth nothing.

Chicago proved in the playoffs — where it matters — that they’re no .500 team. Their struggles in the early season came without Candace Parker on the floor, and when she came back from injury, they got right. The Sky spent the rest of the regular season learning to play together, to tremendous effect. All of which argues for running it back, right?

Well, it’s complicated.

Let’s start with who is locked in to return among the 2021 playoff contributors. Parker, who is central to everything the Sky did in 2021, is under contract for 2022. So is Azurá Stevens, who will be just 26 next season and is a perfect fit alongside Parker — capable of spelling Parker as well.

And among players who averaged double-figure minutes in James Wade’s playoff rotation … that’s it. Kahleah Copper, Allie Quigley, Courtney Vandersloot, Stefanie Dolson and Diamond DeShields are all free agents, though DeShields is a restricted free agent, meaning Chicago will have the right to match any offer to her.

There’s one more wrinkle to consider before we begin spending owner Michael Alter’s money: the coring rule. The Sky can designate one of their players as core, meaning that even if she is a free agent, she must re-sign with the Sky. 

The obvious one to do this with is Copper if an informal agreement can’t be reached on a supermax deal. Even before she won the WNBA Finals MVP, it was clear the future core of this team begins with Copper, the kind of multi-positional star that powers every champion in recent vintage. 

For precisely that reason, though, Chicago may elect to avoid the danger of losing her and core her. At that point, they would be left with approximately $700,000 and three protected (guaranteed) contracts for Quigley, Vandersloot, Dolson and DeShields. Here is where it’s probably worth pointing out the obvious: Quigley is a Chicago native, and she and Vandersloot are married, living in their Chicago home. Negotiating a package deal for them to stay in Chicago should be streamlined in a way it won’t be with Dolson and DeShields.

Each of those latter two will draw ample free agent interest, but for different reasons. In Dolson, teams can acquire a known quantity, a former All-Star who posted an excellent season as a role player on a championship team. She’s a two-way contributor who hit not one but two late dagger shots to help Chicago secure Game 4.

She can also stretch the floor, a requirement for almost every WNBA lineup’s five at this point.

So without a doubt, she’ll have suitors. But she averaged only 16.8 minutes per game in these playoffs, and if another team wants to pay her starter money — say, the New York Liberty — will Chicago be able to offer enough to keep her?

Then there’s DeShields, whose playoff numbers were subpar — just 34 percent shooting from the field and a turnover percentage north of 20 — but whose tantalizing promise and youth (still just 26) could lead to a team like the Atlanta Dream deciding to bet on her reaching stardom during her next contract. If that happens, there will be other free agents who, while perhaps not capable of reaching DeShields’s ceiling, can replicate her 2021 production, if not beat it. I’m looking at you, Northwestern’s own Nia Coffey.

There are contingency plans, really, for virtually everyone other than Vandersloot and Copper. If, say, Quigley decides to ride off into the sunset — presumably, she’ll never have to buy a drink in Chicago again — and the Seattle Storm need to core Breanna Stewart, the Sky can make a big run at Jewell Loyd, getting younger and replacing one local product with another, though depriving us all of the #relationshipgoals that come with watching a VanderQuigs backcourt.

A photo illustration of Las Vegas Aces teammates Dearica Hamby and Kelsey Plum.

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Even Dolson’s minutes can be absorbed in-house by Ruthy Hebard — who’s still on her rookie contract — though Wade would be sacrificing the versatility on offense Dolson provided, or replicated by a free agent like Theresa Plaisance, who can stretch the floor as well.

Among the other players who logged minutes on this title-winning team, Astou Ndour-Fall is an unrestricted free agent, a versatile big in the Parker/Stevens model, and thus one another team might throw some extra money at. Lexie Brown is both a restricted free agent and a combo guard who makes sense for the Sky to retain. And Dana Evans is a dynamic point guard who showed some encouraging signs of being the heir apparent to Vandersloot after Plan A for that role, Shyla Heal, was jettisoned after just four games.

But that happened a long time ago, back when the Sky were in the midst of a seven-game losing streak near the beginning of the season.

That’s not the Chicago Sky we’ve witnessed this fall. And their 2022 approach is likely to reflect that change in status.

Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of The Next, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.

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