To find a WNBA champion that successfully defended its title, you have to go back two decades to the 2001-02 Los Angeles Sparks. But the Chicago Sky are aiming to change league history this season — and they’ve found a new level as they follow up on the franchise’s first-ever championship. The Sky’s current winning percentage of .750 is on pace for the team’s highest regular-season mark ever.
That’s well ahead of Chicago’s .500 record during the regular season last year, before it flipped the switch with an 8-2 record in the playoffs. And a big reason for the improvement centers around the team’s ability to win at the margins in clutch situations.
Enter veteran point guard Courtney Vandersloot, late-game closer extraordinaire. While Vandersloot missed the past four games with a concussion,1 the Sky are eager to have her back — and not just for her usual passing prowess. Curiously enough for the franchise’s all-time assist leader, it has been Vandersloot’s scoring touch in crunch-time situations that has helped raise Chicago’s ceiling in 2022.
Last year, Chicago became the first WNBA champion to finish the regular season with a winning percentage of .500 or worse. In large part, that correlated with the Sky’s trailing only the lottery-bound Atlanta Dream and Indiana Fever in clutch-time point differential (-18, per WNBA Advanced Stats). They had trouble closing the deal, at least during the regular season.
This season, though? Chicago’s 12 victories in clutch-time situations are nearly double its entire 2021 total (seven). And Vandersloot, the Sky’s four-time All-Star, deserves her share of the credit. She has tripled her clutch-time scoring output this season compared with a year ago while also improving her shooting by 30 percentage points. And she’s played in 61 of Chicago’s league-high 81 clutch-time minutes so far, leaving the Sky in position to trust their most reliable playmaker when the moment matters most. While that security blanket was stashed away when Vandersloot’s concussion halted her personal streak of 88 consecutive appearances, she should be back to being Chicago’s crunch-time anchor shortly.
“I think a lot of her time in the WNBA has been overshadowed by other great players, but it just goes to show you the talent level that we have,” fourth-year Chicago Sky head coach James Wade said of Vandersloot in June.
“She’ll probably go down as one of the players that we hardly talked about.”
Though Vandersloot is known to be one of the best passers in league history, her late-career development as a scorer has been fascinating to watch this season. Her current assists-per-game average (6.2) has her on pace for her lowest single-season mark since 2016 (4.7), though that reflects Chicago’s wealth of other passers as much as anything else. She is still currently tied with Sabrina Ionescu for second in the league in assist average after finishing first each of the previous five seasons — one shy of the longest such streak in WNBA history.
Despite Vandersloot’s dip in dimes, her usage rate (20.4 percent, per WNBA Advanced Stats) is near a career high (20.7 percent in 2012). And that uptick in scoring volume hasn’t come at the cost of efficiency: Vandersloot’s effective field-goal percentage (51.9 percent) is on pace to surpass her mark from last season.
Such offensive growth by Chicago’s floor general is an extension of the collective strides the team has made on that side of the ball. The Sky lead all teams this season with six players averaging double digits in points, a key component behind Chicago leaping to a second-place tie in offensive efficiency after ranking seventh in 2021.
Chicago has trusted Vandersloot’s playmaking ability to push the tempo ever since drafting her third overall in 2011, but personnel choices under the leadership of Wade, who is also the Sky’s general manager, have further solidified the championship core around her. Three of Chicago’s aforementioned double-digit scorers this season have previously won Finals MVP honors (Kahleah Copper, Candace Parker, Emma Meesseman), giving Vandersloot a lot of options when balancing when to score or create for others.
Last month against the Minnesota Lynx, Vandersloot had to hold her dribble after seeking an open teammate in the final seconds of a tie game. She eventually handed off the ball to Meesseman, who returned the favor immediately upon drawing a double-team, leaving Vandersloot open for the game-winner.
Her buzzer-beater capped a six-game stretch during which Vandersloot averaged 17.0 points while sporting an effective field-goal percentage of 67.6. As a result, Vandersloot earned Player of the Week honors for the seventh time in her career.
Less than two weeks after Vandersloot’s timely heroics, Chicago was on the other end of a close finish when Minnesota countered with a three-point victory after Allie Quigley missed a potential game-tying shot as time expired.
So, no, the Sky are not completely bulletproof in crunch time. Nor are they without flaws overall. As illustrated by a 40-28 points-in-the-paint deficit during that loss to Minnesota, teams are comfortable attacking the defending champions for easy looks. On the season, the Sky lead all WNBA teams in interior scoring, but Chicago’s defense ranks only 10th in such points allowed, offering a glimpse into one of the few weaknesses for an otherwise potent defending champion.
But championship pedigree certainly helps with taking hard lessons from losses in stride, especially when the bigger picture of repeating is involved. While only the Sparks (2001-2002) and the now-defunct Houston Comets (1997-2000) have won consecutive rings in the W, Vandersloot is confident there remains plenty of room for Chicago to further etch its name in league lore.
“I want to win more championships in Chicago,” Vandersloot said last month.
“I think everyone would say after their first one, they’re on the hunt for more. You’re never satisfied and that’s why we do this, is to continue to get championships. I’m lucky that we have one, but we’re always looking to get more.”
Armed with their newfound crunch-time closer once again and a league-best 33 percent title odds according to the FiveThirtyEight model, there’s a good chance Vandersloot and the Sky will get their wish this season.
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