- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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Chicago Sky coach Pokey Chatman ran into Mike Thibault, the Connecticut Sun coach, in Istanbul, Turkey, a few months ago.
"He told me he was telling people we are the favorites [in the Eastern Conference]," Chatman said. "[Seattle Storm coach] Brian Agler said the same thing."
But when Chatman is asked whether she thinks her team, which has never made the WNBA playoffs in the six-year history of the franchise, is the team to beat in the East, she laughs.
"We haven't been there, done that yet," Chatman says. "But I get it. The pieces are there."
Don't be fooled by the laugh. Chatman takes the idea very, very seriously.
In fact, it's probably safe to say that reaching the WNBA postseason is a singular focus in Chicago. Chatman said after the end of the 2011 season that missing the playoffs in 2012 "was not an option."
That quest is the inspiration for a team makeover that has brought the Sky a new trove of experience and veteran leadership. But not only that, because the players Chicago has brought in also have something else in common: championship rings.
Swin Cash, Le'coe Willingham, Ticha Penicheiro and Ruth Riley all have won WNBA titles during their career.
"We needed to add some experience, some strong championship-winning personalities," said Chatman, who made perhaps the biggest move of the WNBA offseason when she traded the No. 2 pick in the draft to Seattle for Cash and Willingham. "It was needed, no disrespect to any of the players we had on the roster last year."
In addition to experience and the scoring small forward she was looking for in All-Star Cash, Chatman got depth.
Riley will be able to spell star center Sylvia Fowles in the paint, or provide another option. Penicheiro, playing in her 15th WNBA season after spending the last two in Los Angeles, can be a mentor to second-year point guard Courtney Vandersloot in the waning years of her career.
"She just helps you feel a little more comfortable," Vandersloot said. "She is always looking to help out. Pokey has a lot to handle, so when you have a quick question, you can go to [Penicheiro] and she always has the answer."
Vandersloot was thrown into the fire as a highly touted rookie, playing in a backcourt alongside Epiphanny Prince, one of the league's most promising young scorers who averaged 13.6 points a game last season. But the Sky led the league in turnovers per game and both players' production dropped off in the second half of 2011.
Fowles, in her fifth season in Chicago after signing a long-term deal last month, said Chatman reached out to her in the offseason as the team was making its moves.
"I was really happy with the decisions," said Fowles, last season's defensive player of the year who also made a run at the league MVP award with averages of 20.0 points and 10.2 rebounds. "These players have been on that platform, winning a championship and hopefully, they know how to push us in that direction."
Fowles is also happy to see the help out on the wing with Cash and Willingham, who combined to average nearly 20 points a game in Seattle last season.
"We have a threat outside the paint now and that's something I've always wanted," Fowles said.
Riley said the situation in Chicago reminds her of her first year in Detroit, when the Shock were coming off the league's worst record but went on to win the franchise's first WNBA title, in 2003.
"There's an energy about this team, a focus and it goes without being said," Riley said. "That year in Detroit, we brought in a lot of new pieces and just went to work. It feels kind of similar here."
To say that Chicago, a team that would certainly benefit from the (attendance/marketing/visibility) boost of a playoff season, is hungry to get over the postseason hump is an understatement.
"God, they are famished," Chatman said. "We don't even have to talk about it. It is just there all the time."