Sky preparing to move on without Fowles

ByMechelle Voepel via ESPN logo
Saturday, May 2, 2015

"Prepare for the worst and hope for the best" is an age-old management strategy, but not exactly the mindset a team wants to have going into a season. The Chicago Sky, though, have had to operate in this mode since last fall in regard to center Sylvia Fowles.

And now it's getting closer to the time to drop the "hoping for the best" part. Fowles doesn't appear to have a future with the Sky, who drafted her No. 2 overall in 2008 out of LSU, unless there is a big turn of events.

The Sky have been readying for some time to move on without Fowles, even though that's not what they would prefer. Fowles declined a contract offer last September, and negotiations -- if you want to call them that -- continued sporadically.

Neither Fowles nor her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, have commented on her situation. Chicago coach and general manager Pokey Chatman confirmed this week that Fowles wants a trade and has a specific team in mind, but said that so far no trade offers for Fowles have been sufficient.

Chatman did not say which team Fowles prefers, but several sources throughout the WNBA indicated to espnW that it is two-time league champion Minnesota.

So might the Lynx, who won the WNBA title in 2011 and '13, add yet another Olympian to their starting lineup? Maya Moore, last season's MVP, is a restricted free agent and has yet to re-sign with Minnesota. But one could speculate that has something to do with waiting as the Lynx continue to work on obtaining Fowles, if, in fact, that's going to happen.

So what will be the next move by Chicago? And what does it mean, on a larger scale, for the WNBA?

"It's the nature of the business," said Chatman, whose team made the WNBA finals last season, losing 3-0 to Phoenix. "You don't always like it. With women's professional basketball, we are still relatively young. We want to attach the college 'feel' to it, but players are well within their rights to explore different things. It's a process on both sides. And it's such an individual thing with each player. We finally have had some success here [in Chicago], but everyone has to make their own decisions.

"I can't say definitively what's going to happen. I just know it's a fluid situation, and things may change. That's where we are."

Chatman, who also coached Fowles collegiately and overseas, didn't sound very optimistic about Fowles changing her mind and staying. But she indicated that the discussions were still ongoing.

Early on, Fowles did communicate with Chicago about some things she'd like to see happen with personnel if there was a chance she might remain with the Sky. But she then said she wanted a trade, and months have passed without that happening.

The 6-foot-6 Fowles is a "core player" for Chicago, a designation that ties both her hands and the Sky's. They have control over her options to a large degree, but she can decline any trade. Or she can sit out the season.

All of which is why the Sky and Fowles have been in a stalemate for a while. Fowles' fellow U.S. national team members Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker won't be in uniform when this WNBA season starts, and Fowles might not be, either.

Phoenix's Taurasi announced in February she would take this season off to rest; she will be well-compensated for that by the Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, she plays for in winter/spring. Los Angeles' Parker, who also plays for UMMC, is not planning to sit this entire WNBA season, but will take some time off to recover.

Taurasi signed a multiyear contract extension with the Mercury last August; Parker was cored by Los Angeles and hasn't signed a contract yet.

There will be a lot of questions asked -- but probably not all answered -- next week during a USA Basketball team training camp in Las Vegas. In the meantime, though, let's look a little more closely at Chicago's situation.

The Sky started in 2006, and Fowles became the face of the franchise when she was drafted two years later. That altered somewhat when Elena Delle Donne was drafted in 2013; she was rookie of the year and a big part of the Sky's first playoff team that season.

Last year, the Sky dealt with a multitude of injuries and illness, and didn't have Fowles, Delle Donne and point guard Courtney Vandersloot for stretches of the season. Chicago got into the playoffs as the fourth-place team in the East with a 15-19 record. But then the Sky got hot just at the right time, beating both Atlanta and Indiana 2-1 to take the East crown before running into the dominant Mercury in the WNBA finals.

Would the Sky, with Fowles, have a chance to make the WNBA finals again this season? Provided everyone stayed healthy -- of course, that's always a caveat with any team -- then, yes, it stands to reason Chicago could make a similar run.

Without Fowles? Then the Sky might have to depend on a younger and less-accomplished post game. To that end, drafting Cheyenne Parker, the 6-foot-4 center who had disciplinary issues in her one season at Middle Tennessee State after three years at High Point, was a calculated risk for Chicago.

Chatman did a lot of research on Parker and decided there was enough evidence in favor of selecting Parker with the No. 5 pick earlier this month. But it's a gamble the Sky wouldn't have made if they had Fowles securely in the fold.

The Sky does have veteran forward Tamera Young, known more as a defensive-minded "glue" player. Forward Jessica Breland had the best regular-season stats of her career, but then was hurt in the opening game of the playoffs and wasn't herself the rest of the way. She dealt with offseason injuries and is still trying to get closer to 100 percent.

Chicago has two 6-foot-5 players in Sasha Goodlett and Markeisha Gatling, both of whom so far have been role players. There's Clarissa dos Santos of Brazil, who at 27 is a WNBA rookie. And the Sky drafted 6-foot forward Aleighsa Welch of South Carolina.

Obviously, there is a big hole left by Fowles' absence. Chatman dealt Epiphanny Prince to New York for fellow guard Cappie Pondexter, in part to give the Sky someone who had experience with winning WNBA titles. But Pondexter can do only so much on the perimeter to offset what the Sky lose in the paint without Fowles.

Add in Delle Donne's ongoing issue in coping with the effects of Lyme disease -- as of now, Chatman said EDD is feeling good -- and you see a Sky team that is just going to have to deal with a level of uncertainty.

Chatman sounded very pragmatic about that, though. She understands that Fowles, after seven seasons with the Sky, wants to experience something different. She's far from the first player to insist on a trade and prepare not to play if it doesn't happen.

At the same time, Chicago -- despite seeming somewhat over a barrel -- has to protect its own interests. It's not just that the Sky don't want to be taken to the cleaners on a deal for Fowles. They also have to think about their own championship aspirations, and how that would be affected by having Fowles on another team, even if it's in the Western Conference. Especially a team like Minnesota, which is already so powerful.

"In the coaching world, you have to get used to making adjustments," Chatman said. "And this is a major adjustment; I'm not trying to downplay it. But when Sylvia didn't accept the extension in September, I had to start looking at this year.

"What's easy to do is bring her into the fold, if she were to come back. What's hard to do is pretend like it's not going to happen and then try to deal with it on the fly. So the preparation started with free agency, who we drafted, how we plan to play this year. We sometimes want to attach emotions to it, but we can't. It's tough, but I'm sure it's a tough decision for Sylvia as well."