The Chicago Sky are the 2021 WNBA Champions after defeating the Phoenix Mercury, 3-1 in the Finals. It also caps off a strong postseason run where they began the playoffs in the first round as the No. 6 seed, defeated the No. 3 seed Minnesota Lynx in the second round AND the No. 1 seed Connecticut Sun to face Phoenix, the No. 5 seed in the Finals.
While much of the narrative of Chicago’s run will be headlined by Candace Parker signing with the team as a free agent last season, as well as veteran backcourt Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley staying with the franchise for many years, there is also a significant Mystics influence on this year’s champions, thanks to a major trade in 2017 that reshaped both franchises.
Kahleah Copper, this year’s Finals MVP, was the Mystics’ first round pick in 2016 and played just one season in D.C. before she and Stefanie Dolson, one of Washington’s 2014 first round picks, were traded as part of a package for Elena Delle Donne. Washington also included the rights to the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 Draft to make the deal.
At the time, the trade was considered to be a lopsided one in favor of Washington, especially after a multi-year rebuild. And it was.
From 2017-19, the Mystics were “shadow Eastern Conference Champions,” advancing further than any other team in the conference. In 2018, they made the WNBA Finals. And in 2019, they won the WNBA Finals with arguably one of the best offenses in league history, with Delle Donne winning the regular season MVP award along the way.
The Sky, on the other hand, had some leaner years while the Mystics took advantage of their championship window, at least early on. They failed to make the playoffs in 2017 and 2018. While that was bad enough, their record after the Delle Donne trade made it convenient to feed into a narrative, not only that Washington won the trade, but that the franchise was “cursed” because franchise players have requested to leave in the past. Delle Donne isn’t the only superstar to request a trade from Chicago. Sylvia Fowles did the same in 2015.
But in 2019, the Sky hired James Wade as their head coach and general manager and improved to a 20-14 record and a second round playoff appearance. Then in a pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Chicago finished with a 12-10 record and the playoffs but their run ended in the first round. Ultimately, that laid the foundation for Parker to make her move to the Windy City.
So how do Copper and Dolson fit into the Sky’s journey from lottery team in 2017 to this year’s champions?
In Copper’s case, she was a rotation-level reserve player during her rookie and only season in Washington, averaging 6.2 points per game. While she remained a reserve player for the Sky from 2017-19, Copper started all of their games since the 2020 season, averaging a career-high 14.8 points per game in 2020 and nearly as much this season.
In addition to being the Finals MVP, Copper was also named a 2021 WNBA All-Star where she was part of the team that defeated Team USA in an exhibition. Copper will be an unrestricted free agent next season and will be a coveted target for many teams, barring the Sky using the core player designation on her.
Dolson was the higher profile player of the two when she was traded to Chicago, since she was already a one-time WNBA All-Star back in 2015. After the trade, she became an All-Star again in 2017, when she averaged a career-high 14.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.
While Dolson hasn’t averaged double-figure scoring since then, she has remained a reliable three-point shooter and passer from the center position, mostly as a starter. She has maintained a consistent per-36 scoring and assisting average in the 13 points and 3 assist range, respectively, since the 2018 season. In addition to her consistency, Dolson was part of the 2020 USA Basketball women’s national 3X3 team that won the Gold Medal in Tokyo.
Looking back on the Delle Donne trade four years ago, I think the trade was a fair deal for both the Mystics and Sky. Washington was able to get into championship contention right away and made the most of their run by winning it all in 2019. As for the Sky, they benefited in the long run. They received two starters from the deal, both of them became All-Stars while in a Chicago uniform and were major contributors on a championship team of their own this year.
A belated congratulations to Kahleha, Stef and the Chicago Sky for being the 2021 WNBA champions!