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After Mediocre Season, Chicago Sky Need the Old Candace Parker in Playoffs

Jackie Powell@@classicjpowContributor ISeptember 23, 2021

Connecticut Sun's Kaila Charles (3) tries to stop Chicago Sky's Candace Parker (3) from scoring during a WNBA basketball game Saturday, June 19, 2021, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Eileen T. Meslar)
Eileen T. Meslar/Associated Press

To borrow a phrase, this is why they brought her here.

In this case, we're talking about 35-year-old Candace Parker, a Chicago Sky team all too familiar with heartbreak and a win-or-go-home playoff game Thursday against the Dallas Wings, a young, electric and offensively minded team.

Last season in the "Wubble," Chicago fell to the Connecticut Sun in the first single-elimination round 94-81. The Sky allowed point forward Alyssa Thomas, who finished with 28 points on 10-of-19 shooting while dishing out eight assists, to basically do whatever she wanted.

The Sky had one of the poorer defenses in the league, finishing the season with a 102.7 defensive rating, the worst of any playoff team.

"We didn't play well enough," Courtney Vandersloot said about that showing. Of course, the Sky were without Diamond DeShields and Azura Stevens because of injury, but the players on that roster lacked a defensive identity and consistency. One of the Sky's losses a season ago came against the offensively inept New York Liberty, who finished 2-20 and had a league-worst offensive rating of 87.3.

The year prior, in 2019, the Sky advanced to the second and final round of single elimination. Boasting the second-best offense in the league, they had a chance to put the rest of the league on notice and make a run to the semifinals. But they were bounced from the second round after an errant pass from Vandersloot led to the infamous "Hamby Heave" from the Las Vegas Aces' Dearica Hamby.

A couple of days before the Sky began their third straight postseason, Vandersloot reflected on what her previous two trips looked like. "We know what it feels like to be eliminated in a heartbreaker," she said. "We know what it feels like to be, you know, just not come out and play."

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Something had to change. In late January, Sky head coach James Wade convinced Parker, a two-time WNBA MVP, to leave the LA Sparks. She'd be leaving the team that drafted her to return to Chicago, 40 minutes from where she grew up in Naperville, Illinois.

"You have a bigger voice with Candace, which is something that we've been lacking in the past, because that's not me," Vandersloot said. "I'm more of a lead by example. I'm going to play hard. I'm going to, you know, I'm going to be emotional, that type of thing. So I think that's what helped us; it's just her voice."

In the time since, Parker has shown the Sky how to win by respecting the game with defensive intensity, steering a WNBA franchise without a championship in the direction of one. Her effect on the Sky hasn't been linear, or what general managers around the league predicted. With someone as impactful as Parker, the Sky have underperformed with a 16-16 regular-season record, showing energy lapses, issues fouling and inconsistent on-court communication.

Parker's MO is to impact every facet of the stat sheet. When Vandersloot and her wife and teammate Allie Quigley look at the Sky's box score at the end of a game, their reaction often is, "Oh my goodness, Candace was everywhere."


      

This is also how Parker approaches her life and how she interacts with others. She's everywhere. She can't leave something without making her mark, and this extends to her latest challenge: bringing a championship to her hometown.

Parker's skill set has helped lead to a more positionless style of basketball that's characterized the W. Her game has opened the door for some of the greatest women's basketball talent in the world, such as A'ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart, just to name a couple.

Sky center Stefanie Dolson cites Parker's attention to detail and intelligence as keys to her transcendence. When Parker makes a decision or a read on the floor, good things happen.

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 12: Candace Parker #3 of the Chicago Sky reacts to a play during the game against the Washington Mystics on September 12, 2021 at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, b
Kena Krutsinger/Getty Images

"That's something I've never played with—when you have a player that's so into analyzing certain things and every little play and different movements," Dolson said.

Vandersloot points toward the way Parker has been able to communicate her knowledge and all of the minute details of a game plan to her teammates.

"The way she thinks the game and talks about the game, I've never been around a player like that," Vandersloot said. "And so you know it's really awesome to have her voice, being able to reach everyone on our team—the young ones, the vets, everyone—and she never stops thinking the game."

Former teammate and WNBA legend Ticha Penicheiro has one word for Parker's game: "flawless." At 6'4", she can play defense in the paint like a center, she can shoot like a forward and she can pass and handle like a guard.

Parker's influence has also stretched beyond the U.S. Penicheiro insists Parker has impacted the entire world of women's basketball. She couldn't imagine the WNBA and women's basketball without Parker.

"I don't know," Penicheiro told B/R when asked what the sport would be like without her. "You just know that Candace is not just an American icon. I think her presence, her name, her game is beyond the United States. She has played overseas as well. A lot of the best Americans sometimes don't go overseas. And she has played in Russia, she has played in Turkey, she has played in China. So I think her name is huge. And Candace has had a huge impact on making sure that the WNBA is not just an American brand but that it is a global brand."

While she couldn't imagine women's basketball without Parker, she couldn't imagine where the popularity of the W would be, either. And in addition to the places where she's played internationally, people in Japan and Italy know who Parker is, Penicheiro said.

She built her career giving to those who cross her path. Penicheiro has seen it time and time again—the look that young people give Parker when they see her.

"She does really a good job at touching people's lives, whether it's through the autograph, or picture, or just some words of wisdom," she said.

That carried over to this summer in Chicago. Vandersloot experiences it every time she walks down the street with Parker. Every time they hang out, someone young or old notices Parker.

Amid her tightly booked schedule which includes playing basketball, parenting her daughter Lailaa, television appearances as an analyst on TNT and helping roll out a new signature collection with Adidas, Parker doesn't shy away from making time for the community that raised her. And the community didn't shy away from making time for Parker, as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot signed a proclamation a week ago making Sept. 16 Candace Parker Day.

Coach Wade has felt a shift, and he's noticed the attention she draws, giving more media coverage to the Sky than the team has had in his entire tenure. "So I think the fact that we have Candace here, it puts a light on the franchise that we haven't had before," he said. "And now we just have to, we have to follow that light up and make it more solidified."


     

So how do the Sky "make it more solidified"? A deep playoff run would go a long way toward that, and their success in the postseason begins with Parker.

She has had multiple ankle injuries and has experienced some inconsistent play this season, but in only 23 games, she led the Sky to 15 of their 16 wins, and her season net rating was plus-3.7.

Parker herself is also looking to bounce back in the playoffs, another reason why she fits the Sky like a glove. With the Sparks in 2020, she also experienced being bumped in single elimination by the Sun. The year prior, also against the Sun, head coach Derek Fisher played her only 11 minutes in the Sparks' elimination game in the semifinals.

"She's somebody that from the locker room to the timeout to being on a court, she's going to give 110 percent, and that's how she plays," Penicheiro said. "Especially when there's so much at stake. This is when the most important part of the season starts; like the real season starts now."

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