October 20, 2021
The Chicago Sky knocked off the Phoenix Mercury at home in Wintrust Arena to claim Game 4 of the 2021 WNBA Finals and secure the franchise’s first championship. Seeded sixth entering the postseason and enduring a pair of single-elimination games just to reach to semifinals, the Sky took the long route to the pinnacle of the sport, but never deviated from the ball movement that made them special on the offensive end. After becoming the fifth team in WNBA history and the first team since 2004 to create over 70% of their made shots from assists, the Sky matched their 71% mark exactly over their four-game series with the Mercury.
The series of graphs below explain what makes that consistency unique. Over the last decade, WNBA offenses have had a noticeably harder time moving the ball and executing offensively the further they have progressed into the postseason. Leaning more heavily on isolation and pick and roll play as the pressure mounts and the quality of the defense rises, contenders often trade efficient looks for far tougher shots off the dribble.
The Sky’s ball movement was their defining characteristic during the 2020-21 campaign, but their ability to maintain their edge offensively throughout the postseason is truly unique. As the table below suggests, the scrutiny of the playoffs did not move the dial much for Chicago as they continued to spread the ball around unselfishly, let Courtney Vandersloot set the tempo and seldom took the easy way out on the offensive end.
Almost a decade ago now, Henry Abbott, then with ESPN The Magazine, reached out to us for help putting together the data for the piece that pushed “Hero Ball” to the forefront of basketball discourse. The concept tracked how the tendency of teams to lean on their best players to make something out of nothing instead of moving the ball in clutch situations was—for a litany of reasons—less than ideal. The forces behind the WNBA’s tendency to turn to shots off the dribble in the postseason are not exactly the same as the motivations behind “Hero Ball”, but the results are similar and tend to take a toll on the efficiency of most teams.
Defying those odds, the Sky ultimately finished the postseason averaging 0.96 points per possession during the playoffs—a significant improvement from the 0.91 points per possession they scored during the regular season. Creating a huge volume of assisted attempts around the rim and ultimately outscoring the Mercury by 14.5 points per game in the paint, the Sky were actually more efficient on the biggest stage than they were early in the year.
Perhaps the best example of the Sky’s ability to play through pressure is their assist rate in the clutch. While the average WNBA team assisted on 58% of their shot-attempts in the clutch—a high mark for a major professional basketball league—the Sky generated assists on 80% of the shots they made in the clutch this season. That unbreakable ability to execute translated to their 2021 WNBA Championship victory.