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Is There Anything Candace Parker Can’t Do?

The Chicago Sky are two wins from a title entering Wednesday night’s WNBA Finals game against the Phoenix Mercury. And while Candace Parker is a huge reason for that, it’s notable that her contributions have shifted some over the course of the season.

This is by design. It’s also the way Parker’s career as a whole has gone, even when she was younger: Her across-the-board talent hasn’t translated into a consistent shape of her production. 

“I think it’s the biggest thing for me that I don’t think I understood when I was younger is that you have to be the calm for the storm and you have to be the storm when everyone’s calm,” Parker said of her own work after Game 1 of the finals. 

She’s 6-foot-4, an inside-out player in fundamental ways, yet she also has shone in other facets of the game. Parker led the WNBA in assist percentage in 2015 with the Los Angeles Sparks. That same season, she finished third in the league in total rebound percentage (she also finished second in that category in 2020). She’s led the league in block percentage twice, in 2009 and 2012.

In different seasons, Parker became whatever the Sparks needed her to be.

Los Angeles fell short of its championship aspirations before finally breaking through in 2016, with Parker surrounded by rosters that frequently asked her to do most of the heavy lifting. Even after winning a title, Parker shouldered the blame for her team’s problems, getting benched during a 2019 playoff loss to the Connecticut Sun.

The expectations, however, were set early once Parker returned to her hometown team in free agency this winter. An early conversation between Parker and James Wade, her new coach, altered the dynamic for the two-time league MVP.

“A big thing coming from me was we needed her to lead,” Wade said. “It was a player that we were missing. We weren’t just missing her talent, but we were missing everything that comes with it, the experience, the big-time plays in big moments, the having that cool shoulder and just being someone to lean on in difficult times.”

Put another way, it wasn’t as much about the Chicago Sky taking from the buffet of Parker’s talents as it was Parker playing her game and her teammates fitting around her.

Let’s take one example: the defensive schemes that allowed the Sky to get the best of the Sun, a tremendously talented interior team led by the 2021 MVP, Jonquel Jones. The Sky built from the inside out, allowing movement to confuse the Sun in the semifinal series.

Sky center Stefanie Dolson explained the strategy. “Making catches difficult for the post, but then having the guards come in and double. … And just make it really difficult for the post players to get going. You noticed that we know that they can’t do the moves that they want to do and just making them uncomfortable.”

Parker anchored that defense, sometimes bodying Jonquel Jones or Brionna Jones, making the necessary block to finish a defensive possession.

But what’s notable in these playoffs is how much Parker has turned herself into a chaos-creator. She collected two steals in just five of her 23 regular-season games, but she’s got two steals apiece in her past five postseason games and at least one in all seven. Her steal percentage of 3.2 in these playoffs is higher than any she’s recorded in any regular season.

The result of her defensive leadership is clear. Ten three-person combos for the Sky have logged more than 100 minutes in these playoffs, and Parker is part of six of them (with plenty of overlap, of course). Not one has a defensive net rating higher than 93.6.

And because these lineups are dominant offensively as well, the overall net ratings of those groups are all 18.4 or better. Parker’s usage rate is low, especially for a star — just 19.5 in these playoffs. But it’s not for a lack of productivity, with Parker shooting 50 percent from the field. Nor is Parker shying away from the difficult bucket when her team needs it most.

Even so, her assist percentage is right in line with her career regular-season mark — 23.6 this postseason, 23.4 for her career — and her turnover percentage is slightly lower, 14.5 this playoffs, 15.0 in her regular-season career. I point this out because, by definition, playoff competition is more difficult, and the right choices are more important. So making this play — no-look, with streaking teammate Azurá Stevens coming up on her left — is no easy task.

This is a manifestation of both her skills and her leadership in one moment, a season culminating in a perfect pass to a young player she’s mentored, one who had 13 postseason minutes to her name when the 2021 season began.

This is the Candace Parker plan in action.

“She’s accepted that role, and now everybody has a sense of comfort when it comes to those moments,” Wade said of Parker. “So we just have to continue to lean on her, continue to lean on her and understand that — like me as a coach, I don’t have the answers, so I lean on her a lot for a lot of things, and she comes through more often than not. So we just have to keep on riding it until we get to our ultimate destination.”

Two more wins, and they’ll reach it.

Check out our latest WNBA predictions.

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