What’s next for the Chicago Sky after James Wade’s exit for the NBA?

Alexa Philippou


Alexa Philippou

ESPNCovers women’s college basketball and the WNBA
Previously covered UConn and the WNBA Connecticut Sun for the Hartford Courant
Stanford graduate and Baltimore native with further experience at the Dallas Morning News, Seattle Times and Cincinnati Enquirer

M.A. Voepel


M.A. Voepel

ESPN.comM.A. Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.Jul 1, 2023, 07:05 PM ET

The WNBA saw its second head coaching change in a week when the Chicago Sky announced Saturday that James Wade is leaving his roles as head coach and general manager to become an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors.

Unlike Vanessa Nygaard’s firing, which wasn’t a shock after the Phoenix Mercury’s 2-10 start, Wade’s departure for the NBA came as a stunner to the public. Though the Sky have had an up-and-down 2023, they are coming off the best two seasons in franchise history, including the franchise’s first WNBA title in 2021. Following an exodus of talent this offseason, Wade wanted to avoid a true rebuild and instead brought in talent to surround 2021 Finals MVP Kahleah Copper. It has been a mixed bag so far, and injuries haven’t helped. Now, the Sky are 7-9 with interim head coach/GM Emre Vatansever taking the reins and the franchise’s future trajectory unclear.

With Wade leaving for the NBA, every franchise aside from the Minnesota Lynx has had to make a new head coaching hire since 2021. There were five new head coaches hired this past offseason.

We analyze what this coaching change means for the Sky this season and moving forward.

What does Wade’s departure mean for the Sky in the short term?

Philippou: It had already been a chaotic 2023 for the Chicago Sky.After the departures of Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, Candace Parker, Emma Meesseman and Azura Stevens in the offseason, Wade opted to build around Copper with the offseason acquisitions of Marina Mabrey, Courtney Williams, Elizabeth Williams and Isabelle Harrison.

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The new-look Sky started 3-1, but have struggled as of late, losing six consecutive games prior to their current two-game winning streak. Injuries haven’t helped, but their offense in particular has struggled, as Chicago’s 97.0 offensive rating and 19.0% turnover rate both rank as the second-worst marks in the league. Still, sitting sixth in the standings, Chicago would make the playoffs if the season ended today.

Wade’s departure doesn’t impact what the Sky have been looking to do in the short term: Find consistency and build off their current win streak, something that should only get easier as more players return to the court. The end goal: Ensure Chicago plays in the postseason for the fifth consecutive season.

After winning a championship less than two years ago, how do the Sky franchise’s prospects look for the long term?

Philippou: Wade proved himself one of the league’s best coaches in a short span, winning WNBA coach of the year in 2019 and leading the Sky to a championship in 2021. They were a top-two team in 2022 as well, the same summer he won executive of the year. Under Wade, Chicago made the playoffs each year.

Looking back, the end of the Sky as we knew them arguably came in their winner-take-all Game 5 loss in the 2022 semifinals versus the Connecticut Sun. Connecticut erased a late, comfortable Sky lead at Wintrust Arena, ending the game on an 18-0 run and holding Chicago scoreless for the final four-plus minutes. Within a few months of that stunning collapse came the departures of hometown star Parker (Las Vegas Aces), franchise stalwart Courtney Vandersloot (New York Liberty) and burgeoning star Stevens (Los Angeles Sparks), while Quigley and Meesseman also didn’t return after deciding not to play in the WNBA this summer. Now Wade’s gone, too.

For the Sky, the biggest issue with Wade’s departure is what he leaves his successor(s) — or rather, what he doesn’t. Wade touted building around Copper, who is signed through the 2023 season, but what’s the likelihood of her returning to Chicago especially now that he’s gone? Most critically, Wade’s decision to evade a full “rebuild” led him to trade away several first-round draft picks — not just 2023’s but 2024’s, a highly criticized move given how stacked next year’s draft class is expected to be. In the same deal where Wade traded the Sky’s 2023 and 2024 first rounders to acquire Mabrey, Dallas also received the rights to swap 2025 first-round draft picks with Chicago.

Emre Vatansever first worked in the WNBA in 2015, as part of Jenny Boucek’s staff with the Seattle Storm. He has been with the Chicago Sky the past six years. Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The franchise has begun scouting locations for their own team facility, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, and NBA legend Dwyane Wade recently spoke about his interest in becoming an investor. Still, with Copper a free agent after this season, a lack of franchise-player-caliber talent likely to come in through the draft and an ownership group that already has a reputation for a lack of investment, the Sky could face an uphill battle in attracting a head coach and/or general manager capable of putting the franchise back on track.

It’s a swift fall for a franchise that won a WNBA championship just two years ago.

What do we know about Emre Vatansever?

Voepel: A native of Turkey, Vatansever was briefly head coach of Cukurova Basketbol last year, based in Mersin, Turkey, and for whom Chelsea Gray, Briann January, Tiffany Hayes, DeWanna Bonner and Jonquel Jones, among other well-known WNBA names, have played. He previously was an assistant for other Turkish teams.

Starting in 2015, he worked for former Seattle Storm coach Jenny Boucek as part of his first WNBA experience. Then in 2017, he went to the Sky to work for Amber Stocks, but stayed on staff when Wade took over in 2019. Vatansever and Wade knew each other from their time coaching overseas.

This is Vatansever’s seventh year with the Sky organization, and he’s a known personality for Sky ownership and with the players. Now he has to pick up not just coaching, but general manager duties. That’s a lot to take on, especially with what the Sky are facing in terms of personnel they hope to maintain and bring aboard.

Vatansever has the rest of this season, we can assume, to prove himself in both jobs. But it has become rare in the WNBA to have one person as coach and GM; Chicago is the only WNBA team this season to have that, although Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve is both head coach and president of basketball operations.



Marina Mabrey hits the 3 vs. Los Angeles Sparks

Marina Mabrey hits the 3 vs. Los Angeles Sparks

What do the priorities need to be for Chicago, this season and beyond?

Voepel: It is interesting, in retrospect, just how positive and upbeat Wade was in Friday’s postgame news conference after the Sky beat the Los Angeles Sparks. Because that is not always the case, even after victories. He talked about how strong a connection he has with Courtney Williams, who had her first career triple-double.

He mentioned that he thought the team “relaxed” for a stretch of the game, but added, “But they’re all right. They’re good. I’m proud of them. It’s a special group. I’ve seen they’ve stuck together after losses. I just love the vibe, the energy of those players … I love their buy-in to the entire coaching staff. I don’t want them to be judged on the record. I love this group of women, so it’s really cool.”

About 14 hours later, the announcement came that Wade was leaving. So we can now assume he had to know the news conference was basically a farewell.

With the 2021 championship, Wade helped bring the Sky its greatest accomplishment as a franchise. We’ll see if some of the moves he made as an executive pay off or hurt in the next couple of years.

For the rest of this season, Chicago needs to focus on how well they have played at their best and try to get back to the playoffs. And then the organization has to make some big decisions on who will lead them into the future — realistically they need to separate the coach/GM jobs like every other team — and focus on how they move forward in a WNBA in which you have to constantly be looking to improve just in order to keep up.

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