One weird trick to win WNBA games: Make sure everyone on the team is healthy and physically in the United States. (Doctors HATE this!) For a testimonial, ask the Chicago Sky, whose fortunes changed dramatically last week when they began sending out pre-game injury reports that read either “probable” or “no injuries to report.” The Sky’s 81–75 win over the Connecticut Sun Thursday night puts their winning streak at four games, a promising turnaround for a team that only two weeks ago might have ranked among the lowest in the league in “good vibes.”
The 1-13 Indiana Fever would like to have a word, maybe, but they’re constitutionally a Bad Team; their vibes are about what they should be. The Sky, meanwhile, started the season looking ready to contend for a WNBA title—finally rid, by free-agent signing Candace Parker, of the defensive issues that have kept them from deep runs in the playoffs for several years—until bad luck struck and the team lapsed into a seven-game losing streak. Is there anything sadder than a team in win-now mode that isn’t winning?
The string of hardships had a familiar, inevitable ring to it. First, the injury-haunted Parker played one spectacular game on the road to start the season before revealing in an Instagram post that she’d miss the Sky’s home opener against the Liberty with an injury. She shared a photo of her ankle looking swollen and roughly the color of a ripe plum, and diagnosed it for the press last Tuesday as “jacked up.” Around the same time, center Stefanie Dolson left to represent the U.S. (quite well, you’ll be pleased to know!) at a women’s 3×3 basketball Olympic qualifying event in Spain, a commitment that (Sky fans were less pleased to know) kept her away for five games. Veteran guard Allie Quigley, leading the bench unit this year, missed the same number of games with a hamstring injury.
A Parker-less Sky should not be that much worse than they were last year, when she wasn’t on the roster to begin with, but they regressed in ways bizarre enough to make you wonder whether Quigley isn’t the team’s most important player. Defensively, they were more or less fine, and an offense that last year finished with the best field goal percentage in the WNBA and fourth-highest offensive rating now shot about as well as the 1–13 Indiana Fever and also turned the ball over every goddamn second. I exaggerate only slightly: In a game against the Sparks in late May, Chicago’s turnover count reached an incredible 28! Twenty-eight! You almost have to work for that; these games are only 40 minutes long.
All the while, a strange off-court drama played out in the front office. In one of the more grim transactions in WNBA history, the Sky traded struggling Australian rookie Shyla Heal, whom they drafted this year with the eighth-overall selection, for Dana Evans, drafted by Dallas this year at 13th-overall, and once available for Chicago to simply draft in the first place. Heal had played a total of 31 minutes in four games.
Perhaps the karmic scales were bound to balance themselves out. Quigley and Dolson both returned to play against the Mercury on June 4, and Parker rejoined the team two games later, just in time for back-to-back confidence-boosting games against the 1–13 Indiana Fever (only the 1–9 Indiana Fever at the time). Parker wasn’t particularly electric in her return, but she was in her second game back, finishing with 20 points and 14 rebounds. What’s most reassuring about the four-game streak isn’t only that Parker looks good individually, but also that this looks much more like the Sky team that was promised: an already-strong core to which Parker only figures as the crowning jewel. Chicago is moving the ball around, putting up high assist percentages, staying vigilant on defense and getting double-figure contributions from as many as six players. Forward Kahleah Copper, in particular, has stood out for her speed and dazzling finishes.
So it’s not too late for the Sky to save their summer, though they haven’t made it easy on themselves. Absence and injury have marred the playoffs on the men’s side this year; it strikes me that the compressed schedule thought responsible for that is a defining feature of the WNBA. A three-month regular season leaves little margin for extended slumps, especially this year, with its momentum-thwarting one-month hiatus for the Olympics in mid-July. It doesn’t help that the team has already played its easiest opponents. Still to come for the Sky are three games apiece against the Aces and Storm. “We acknowledge losing seven straight was not ideal,” Parker said after her first game back. I’ve always admired her gift for tact. “But it’s how you get back up.”